From military hub to enterprise zone: Nurturing businesses of the future in rural north Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 06:15 02 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:06 22 August 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
After 70 years which saw action in the Battle of Britain and the Cold War, the closure of RAF Coltishall left a quiet hole in the north Norfolk countryside.
But the airbase is now teeming with life again following a transformation into a business park by Norfolk County Council and other partners – and it is pledging to bring more companies under its wing.
Scottow Enterprise Park is home to more than 110 businesses – an occupancy rate of 92% – from modular construction companies and an aircraft manufacturer to marketing agencies, which have made their home in workshops, laboratories and offices in its hangars.
For some ex-military business owners, it has been a chance to return to the airbase where they served in previous decades.
In January it was granted planning consent to become a secure business park – which will make development easier for existing and future tenants.
It is also getting closer to its goal of creating 650 jobs, to replace those which were lost when RAF Coltishall closed.
Another milestone has been achieved this year as it passed the £1m turnover mark.
But the park’s big focus is business cultivation and innovation. With help from Hethel Engineering Centre it is styling itself as a growth platform for start-ups, which constitute almost 25% of its tenants, and small businesses.
The site is planned to house several business incubators, while its ideas hub and growth hub, offering small office and workshop spaces, are attracting more tenants.
It also offers tailored business support, and its team has been running a series of business workshops aimed at start-ups in the district.
Simon Coward, director of Hethel Engineering Centre, said: “The business incubators will be a place where individuals can find a place to start, where there is a warm welcome and support, not just from the SEP team but also from the community of businesses based at the site.
“SEP wants to play its part in accelerating the growth of start-ups in north Norfolk and to be an economic engine of growth.”
Mr Coward said the park could even change the genetics of the tourism-led north Norfolk economy, as around 60% of the businesses it supports are in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sectors.
He added that the model of Scottow – offering young businesses space to learn and grow, without the price tag of a city office – could be replicated around the UK.
Aircraft maker is flying high
For Swift Aircraft, a facility on a former airbase is ideal. The company, which makes light training aircraft, is currently based in Yorkshire, but after moving into Scottow last year it plans to relocate all its production facilities to Norfolk and has taken on a second hangar to accommodate the move.
Its first training aircraft – certified for military use – are expected to roll off the production line by the end of 2018. From there it hopes to make eight aircraft a month.
The company currently employs eight people but hopes to increase this to more than 100 in the next two years.
Director Dave Stanbridge said he enquired about vacancies at the airbase after the military moved out. “We wanted a big building, but I also wanted a runway. So we checked out the site again and found it was an enterprise park. Within a few days we had a site here. We are spoilt for space now,” he said.
Swift is part of the Swift Technology Group, which includes a wind turbine maker and an oil and gas company. The firm plans to eventually relocate all the group’s companies to Scottow.
Drone company has space to spread its wings
When James Horne launched his aerial surveying and imagery firm Blue Sky two years ago, he needed space to test his drones.
Having formerly worked at RAF Coltishall, he knew where to find it.
“We have to test a lot of equipment and this is a good space for it. We spend a lot of time working on the machines so when we go out with them we know how they work,” he said.
The former surveyor said he saw the value of drones in construction before starting the business, and says the industry still makes up a large proportion of his work.
But the firm also holds an array of specialist licences for drone flying, including for night flights and flying in highly congested areas.
It also has an all-weather drone, which was able to get footage of the coastal erosion at Hemsby during last month’s inclement weather.
Its jobs have included mapping cable routes for an offshore wind farm for energy giant Statoil, and filming over the runways at Stansted and London City Airports.
Touch screen till maker eyes growth
Touch screen till supplier and programmer PanaEpos has been operating in Norfolk for 12 years.
The company supplies pubs, clubs and restaurants with local clients including Benedicts in Norwich and Morston Hall near Holt.
It also has a contract to supply services to MacDonalds via Panasonic, and sells tills to a hospitality group in Ireland with 130 sites.
Director John Mills has been in the trade for 35 years, working with Buchanans in Norwich before setting up his own company – then last year purchasing the firm he started with.
The company now turns over around £500,000 a year, with monthly revenue rising since the recruitment of a new sales manager from rival till programmer Epos Now.
Mr Mills said: “It has grown and grown from a one-man band to 11 employees. Some of that expansion was helped by coming to Scottow because we were able to go to bigger units for a lower cost.”
The making of Scottow
When RAF Coltishall closed in 2006 after 66 years of continuous operation, the dream of Scottow Enterprise Park was a long way off.
Norfolk County Council put in a bid to purchase the 600 acre site in 2012, but was accused of not having a solid enough business plan to justify the investment.
However, in 2013 it bought the redundant airbase for £4m and rebranded as Scottow Enterprise Park.
The vision was to develop it as a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) focused enterprise area and start-up incubator.
It gained official enterprise zone status in April 2016 as one of 10 sites encompassed in the New Anglia Enterprise Zone, led by the New Anglia LEP and hoped to create 18,500 jobs in 25 years.
Later that year Princess Anne visited Scottow, by which time it was home to 62 businesses and had created more than 100 jobs.
The site is also home to the 50MW Scottow Moor solar farm, opened in 2016.