Discussions with contract research organisations (CROs) offer some hope of salvaging assets and staff at the UK research and development facility Pfizer is exiting in Sandwich, Kent.

Even so, any successful negotiations are likely to affect only a fraction of the jobs threatened at the site, acknowledges the task force charged with assessing potential options to limit the damage from Pfizer’s withdrawal.

The company is in “detailed commercially confidential negotiations” with a number of CROs about the Sandwich facility, which “may result in the transfer of assets, facilities, equipment and staff”, notes a 30-day progress report to the UK government by the Sandwich Economic Development Task Force.

However, it adds, these CROs could potentially employ only “a few hundred” of the site’s current staff, which amounts to around 2,400 people.

The Task Force envisages whatever outcomes these negotiations may have as the first step in a five-phase transition process for the Sandwich site, which Pfizer plans to exit by the end of 2012. Managing the impact of that withdrawal, and developing a new economic future for the affected East Kent region, “will be a five to ten year journey”, the progress report says.

Phase two would involve building on “employment and activity provided by a CRO core”, with efforts in the short- and medium-term to retain “as much as possible of the intellectual capacity embedded in the existing workforce by attracting additional investment onto the Sandwich site focused in pharmaceutical, bioscience and related research and development”.

Phases three to five of the transition process would widen this remit to other sectors, such as aviation, food sciences or environmental technologies, and consider longer-term ownership and management options that addressed both the Pfizer site and links with neighbouring locations “to provide a core of world-class high-value activity at the centre of the East Kent economy”, the task force report says.

At a briefing in Westminster on Tuesday, Paul Carter, Task Force chairman and leaderof Kent County Council, said: “We don’t want to do anything that willdestabilise the delicate negotiations” between Pfizer and the CROs.

“Weneed to work very closely with Pfizer. Let’s hope some spin-offs willbe set up and be successful … This is a massive opportunity for thegrasping and we should really promote the opportunities East Kent morebroadly offers and the high-quality site that Sandwich provides.”

Carterhad his “fingers crossed” that the CRO negotiations would result in asuccessful outcome and hoped that Pfizer would announce that not justone but two or three deals would be struck. “It will be a blow if theCROs don’t take place,” he said.

But “time was of the essence”, Carter added, as once the “brain drain” starts it would be hard to get that talent back.

More specific recommendations in the Task Force report include:

•    Swift action to support, through training and enterprise, the staff, contractors and communities directly affected by the Pfizer withdrawal. The company is already supporting its own staff with a “comprehensive” outplacement service that includes training events to help them develop business proposals, the Task Force notes.        
•    Designation of the Sandwich, Manston and key sites within the East Kent Assisted Area as a Research, Innovation and Technology Zone (RITZ). This would confer benefits such as full exemption from business rates on empty properties, capital incentives for further growth, and support in securing R&D tax credits.         
•    The creation of an East Kent Recovery and Growth Package to add value to the RITZ.

The Sandwich Economic Development Task Force was set up on 9 February  with backing from the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Pfizer announced its plans to withdraw from the Sandwich site on 1 February 2011.