21st century new town

21st century new town

Technically an office park, Cobalt is more like a new town befitting the 21st Century. Adrian Hill, driving its development, explains to Brian Nicholls how it has achieved in 16 years what has taken older new towns many decades to get to.

It’s the UK’s largest office park - but surely, too, a new age new town. Cobalt on North Tyneside, unlike some early post-war new towns that have taken decades to develop, has become within 15 years somewhere you can find a job with a major company, a home nearby, and a life of self-sufficiency with little compulsion to shop elsewhere.  

Cobalt is one of two former Enterprise Zones which, over 12 months, have hosted 1,800 more jobs, taking their workforce total to 17,000.

And through seamless connection to Silverlink, a shopping park developed earlier by David Clouston of Silverlink Developments, Cobalt has besides its own shops neighbouring retail facilities attractive both to shoppers and businesses the size of Marks & Spencer, which recently increased its store size by a third to 60,000sq ft. Jokers might argue that, even shorn of Silverlink, Cobalt could claim urban status since it has a Greggs.

You can visit a multiplex cinema, a 25 metre swimpool, several eating places and a railway museum minutes from work. There are marquee events and seasonal markets. No church steeple or local hostelry proximate perhaps. But there are churches just beyond, and the Village Hotel on Cobalt has a bar as well as that swimpool. Tesco has an off-licence. And a couple of pubs are a brief walk away.

Most impressive from business and career viewpoints is the list of big-name office occupiers: Santander, Accenture, IBM, Procter and Gamble, Siemens, Hewlett Packard, Balfour Beatty and Newcastle Building Society for example. Jobs are so attractive that people travel in daily from as far as Alnwick and North Yorkshire.

To illustrate scale: into Cobalt an area of neighbouring Newcastle between the Tyne Bridge and the Town Moor would fit. Cobalt’s working population, now nearly 14,000, rivals the entire population of Morpeth, Northumberland’s county town. Around 1,000 buses a day serve the workforce. Its high security data centres, impressing even Americans used to world best, are environmentally greener and cheaper to run than those within the M25.

Cobalt, owning all but one of its numerous roads, has its own snow plough and gritter to keep them open. So wheels of business turn even during worst winter snows. It has its own (low profile) security corps 24/7 and a medical clinic.

Oddly, Cobalt wasn’t intended like this, as Adrian Hill, director of the developer Highbridge Properties, and the driver behind Cobalt’s rolling success, well remembers. It was a patch of Enterprise Zone meant for industrial warehouses, hopefully to help offset job losses in local coalmines and shipyards.

“I was working with the commercial agents Healey and Baker in 1997,” Hill recalls. “They approached me saying they’d acquired a site for warehousing. To the consternation of my industrial partner, I thought it too good for that and, rather, offices should go there. I’d been involved with the successful development of Doxford International Business Park at Sunderland.

“This, I felt, was an even better location – also on the A19 but bigger, and with better demographic. I felt it should be a business park of real quality, and advised a Stockley Park of the North should be the aim. Stockley Park, near Heathrow Airport, was seen then as the nation’s best.  Everyone referred to it as gold standard.

Cobalt01“I felt that to build a Stockley Park of the North you couldn’t afford to water it down with industrial buildings.  Quality and scale were essential – over 1m sq ft, we should aim for. That’s what happened. Now we’re about twice Stockley Park’s size, have a bigger workforce and far more facilities. We’ve out-Stockleyed Stockley!”

Highbridge Properties initiated building from 1998-9. Today it has let more space, and has more people working there than any other business park in the UK. Hill says Cobalt should shortly be over 80% occupied after 15 years and several recessions. Up to 18,000 people may work there eventually, no doubt appreciating its appearance and ambience.

Siemens’ microchip plant at Silverlink closed with a loss of 1,100 jobs in 1998. But the wheel of fortune, like blades of a wind tower, appears to be turning full circle. Siemens has just moved 200 staff into 39,200sq ft of Cobalt offices on a five-year lease to rent – space enough for another 50 later. It has recently recruited 350 people for its Newcastle based wind energy service.

The former microchip building now serves both tiny start-ups and blue chip - anything from an individual with a single workstation up to whole floors. As Cobalt Business Exchange (CBX) it provides 117,000sq ft of serviced offices, the largest such building in the UK.

Hill says: “While Hewlett Packard (HP) awaited their third building here, having won new business, they took temporary space at a click of the fingers in CBX. They also did the deal for another 25,000sq ft. They may take even more space eventually. 

 “CBX is 98% full but needs a constant flow of ins and outs. When someone like Hewlett Packard comes along, we can temporarily accommodate. People in there are very good. They’ll move to another floor perhaps if we need their floor for a block of, say, 50 work stations.”

The first 120 staff for HP’s latest expansion, giving it now 170,000 sq ft, have relocated to the third building. Hill suggests: “That seven major occupiers have taken additional floors at Cobalt is testament to the quality here. For HP to be our first occupier expanding a third time there can be no better endorsement of the quality.”

Four companies, in fact, expanded at the park in a recent six months, the others being G4S, Cobalt 8 and Accenture.  IBM also secured 5,000sq ft more earlier this year.

“I know all the UK schemes and the bigger ones in Europe too,” Hill says. “Nowhere else has anything like Cobalt’s record  - two-thirds of the let space occupied by people taking more than one building or more than one floor in a building. People wouldn’t do it if they didn’t like the building or the park. Or thought they’d got a bad deal. Or thought we weren’t maintaining the park properly.”

Matthew Wylie, HP’s specialist on global real estate, affirms that flexible, modern office buildings with unrivalled travel links are the attraction.

Unlike the Lego look of some modern estates, Cobalt’s architecture is varied, clean cut outside and light and airy inside through unusually high ceilings. “We’ve responded to changes in styles and environmental issues. There’s Breeam outstanding accreditation on some buildings,” Hill points out.

No cars obstruct roadsides, parking within property boundaries being adequate. Even more remarkable: Cobalt’s green mantle. Besides its landscaping tended by an in-house team, fully 100 of the 250 acres in all (40%) is wooded country park, wetlands and other wildlife space, “It gives a lovely feel,” Hill agrees. “That won’t change. Those 100 acres are protected.”

Hardly surprising, then, even outsiders visit. They, like the lunchtime workers, jog, cycle and enjoy picnic spots. In the country park they can view North Tyneside from its highest point, though that’s mentioned with a grin. The borough’s mainly flatland.

How it all fitted together

Cobalt Aerial

Everything came together, as Hill explains. “Silverlink retail park was under way when we started and has been a big plus throughout. Our EZ status then enabled earlier investors to raise money through tax advantages, allowing us to build ahead of demand speculatively. Cobalt could have taken years to get anywhere. But being able to fund buildings we could offer tenants good packages, including tax advantages.

“EZ status expired in 2006. A 10 year extension would have taken us to 2016, but the Government ended that in 2011. We’d realised, though, quite big buildings were in demand. We initially put up buildings of 30,000 to 40,000sq ft, then on up to 100,000sq ft. A number of those now attract  the bigger companies.

“While EZ was a big plus initially, scale and quality of the buildings told, long term. With scale you can add on facilities. If the park was only 100,000sq ft you wouldn’t have two cafes now and a spa and a gym – all the things we can provide, besides what’s at Silverlink.

“We also realised that occupiers needed to get their people here. A Metro station existed nearby (Northumbria Park) and one of the first things we did – costing us a lot – was to subsidise the introduction of a shuttle bus from that station. The Route 19 still runs down to Percy Main and on to the Tyne ferry terminal. It ran at peak times, about 10 times an hour.

“Of the 1,000 buses now bringing people to work here daily, including the Cobalt Clipper, 500 go right through, the rest to each end. Our catchment area made recruitment easy, and as the workforce grew quickly, the bus services became self-sustaining.”

The biggest challenge? “Recessions. We’ve done well through most, but they do impede letting. People lack confidence to move then. However, even when everything stopped, we built two data centres, one office building and our central building of shops and management offices. You must have buildings ready in a range of sizes that people can move into. So despite the recent conditions we’ve still let or had an offer on 170,000sq ft. That’s huge.”

In fact it has let more space than any other UK park so far this year. “There are always issues to tackle, but we don’t get people complaining. It all works extremely well.”

One recent deal, bringing Tyneside’s tearaway success Utilitywise, the AIM listed energy consultants, across the river from South Shields to Cobalt is North Tyneside’s biggest letting for five years. Utilitywise is now able to increase its workforce from 800 to 1,360.  

Attractions go beyond ambience - speedy entry and exit for commuting drivers and service deliveries for a start. Hill explains: “No other scheme has five access or egress points. Four link into dual carriageways with a roundabout leading to two levels of traffic. Stockley Park has one. Stockley outStockleyed again. One access/egress point is a problem if up to 10,000 people even in 5,000 cars try to leave at once.”

Unique selling points of the three doubly ringfenced data centres include scale, availability and quality. There’s 110,000sq ft scale of net technical - the room where servers are installed – and that’s the biggest volume of available data centre campus in the country, it’s claimed.

As for the massive power required, Cobalt has two separate supplies from the Grid, each of 40MW capable of increase to 60MW. “If you forget the data centres, everything else on Cobalt needs about 12 to 15MW. So it’s a huge amount of power,” says Hill. Another advantage of the North East, like it or not, is that it’s cooler than M25 area, so they need less power to keep the service going. In short, cheaper to run and greener.”

The data centre campus is Tier 3 N+1 standard – the highest standard of technical real estate in the region. DC1 (45,866sq ft) has a Breeam “excellent” rating. The two other centres totalling 64,584sq ft are each rated Breeam “outstanding”.

Local boy makes good

Hill, though resident in Oxfordshire and one among a number of key personnel on Cobalt who commute from London and the South for part of the week (mostly temporarily) is himself from Whitley Bay. “When I was a boy this was farmland,” he points out. “I’m proud not only that I was involved from the start, but about what we’ve achieved in creating just under 14,000 jobs and 2m sq ft - and all done very attractively. Maybe I’m entitled to feel proud of that.”

Yet he admits his most satisfying deal to date may have been initiating Indigo Park, like Cobalt a collaboration with North Tyneside Council. It’s adding 1.3m sq ft of manufacturing and distribution space with potential for 1,000 jobs at Sandy Lane near the A1 at Gosforth Park.

Hill explains: “It was a site we identified for development around 2003. Nothing happened. I became aware of its potential. The difficulty was, the site had three unrelated owners – the Home and Communities Agency (which had inherited part from One North East), North Tyneside Council, and a local farmer.

Cobalt02“One government body, one local authority, one private individual - I had to try to bring the three together and knit one joint venture with Highbridge. You can imagine… It wasn’t easy. But we’re now starting on that scheme.”

Cobalt, working extensively with the BNP Paribas Real Estate and Cushmans Wakefield agencies, has gone so smoothly, Hill says, because of co-operation from North Tyneside Council, especially over planning and design. It sounds a more progressive arrangement than what some of those early post-war new towns had, reared by development corporations (quangos). True, they also had to develop housing, whereas local housing largely surrounded Cobalt already.

But if current proposals for another 23 garden “cities” in the UK eventually go ahead, the relationship of Cobalt and Silverlink, their respective developers and North Tyneside Council, might provide a sound model – especially if speed is of the essence.