The UK government is putting its hopes on Pfizer’s efforts to attract contract research organisations to its abandoned R&D site at Sandwich as the solution to preserving jobs and activity there.

In a briefing in Westminster on Tuesday, the Sandwich Economic Task Force, set up following Pfizer’s February announcement it was exiting the UK, identified five phases of action – moving from an immediate focus to longer term opportunities – with the first and second phases focusing specifically on CROs.

The drug giant is currently in negotiations with a number of CROs that could take over the site, possibly breaking it into smaller units, which could provide a transfer of assets and staff to the site as well as seeing continuing economic activity and generation of job opportunities. Meanwhile, the Task Force has also identified a second phase of building on a CRO core to create further opportunities to attract venture capital investment in new business start-ups.

Paul Carter, Task Force chairman and leader of Kent County Council, said: “We don’t want to do anything that will destabilise the delicate negotiations” between Pfizer and the CROs. “We need to work very closely with Pfizer. Let’s hope some spin offs will be set up and be successful… This is a massive opportunity for the grasping and we should really promote the opportunities East Kent more broadly offers and the high quality site that Sandwich provides.”

Carter had his “fingers crossed” that the CRO negotiations would result in a successful outcome and hoped that Pfizer would announce that not just one but two or three deals would be struck. “It will be a blow if the CROs don’t take place,” he said.

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

The Task Force has made three recommendations in its first 30-day report that it released on Tuesday. Besides calling for speedy action to support the staff, contractors and communities directly affected by the move, the Task Force has also called on the Government to designate the site as a Research, Innovation and Technology Zone, which would bring together a range of potential incentives for inward investment in R&D to the area. These would include full exemption from business rates on empty properties, capital incentives for further business growth, National Insurance contributions holiday fro start-ups and support in securing R&D tax credits.

The final recommendation suggests the creation of an East Kent Recovery and Growth Package, including the development of a High Speed rail access and reduction in journey times to Thanet and Dover. A proposal to the Regional Growth Fund has already been prepared and discussions with Network Rail have been highly positive, the Task Force said. 

“We will leave no stone unturned in stimulating new business at the Pfizer site and growing wider employment opportunities to help Pfizer staff, local contractors and the local community,” Carter said.

The Task Force will now establish the costs, benefits and viability of its proposals and will look at the long-term options for the site, including co-ordinating a marketing and inward investment strategy for the area.