‘Superlab plan could include new housing’
An aerial view of Somers Town highlights where the lab would be sited if the plan gets the go-ahead
University professor says controversial research centre could mean more social homes as he urges community to look at benefits
ONE of the key players behind plans to bring a £500 million superlab to Somers Town has told the New Journal that the council’s planning rules are “not an obstacle” – but hinted the provision of social housing could smooth the deal.
The provost of University College London, Professor Malcolm Grant, said that affordable housing could be built off-site to offset the loss of land in Brill Place that the council had earmarked to ease Camden’s housing crisis.
He added that Somers Town residents would benefit from the medical breakthroughs that the research centre would make.
Professor Grant said that the consortium behind the plans, led by the Medical Research Council in partnership with University College London, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, considered that: “Affordable housing is something that it may be possible to address.”
He suggested the derelict National Temperance Hospital in Hampstead Road, bought by the consortium for £28 million in an abortive first attempt at bringing the superlab to central London, as a possible solution.
“I know that the Medical Research Council have been thinking about the sale of the Temperance hospital and given consideration to affordable housing,” said Professor Grant, “although I think it’s accepted by everyone that that site could not accommodate the volume of affordable housing that could be built on this site [Brill Place].”
Although concerns over the bio-security of the lab – which the New Journal revealed last October would house deadly pathogens including avian flu – flared up last week, the longest-standing grievance of residents is that the site was pledged for housing in a council planning brief written in 2003.
That guidance still stands, and campaigners are keeping up the pressure on the council to turn down any application that does not include social housing.
But Professor Grant insisted that the public benefit of the lab outweighed the council’s planning wishes.
He said: “To have realised the objective of the planning brief would have required commercial development on the site. You couldn’t produce affordable housing without sufficient profit from a commercial development. We are not-for-profit, and the parameters are different. Somers Town itself is an area where there is a high incidence of disease. Studies into cancer have a very strong relationship to people living in urban areas such as this.”
Professor Grant insisted that the consortium had not approached the council over the deal and denied that they had received assurances from government that it would be pushed through regardless of the Town Hall’s view.
He said: “It would seem to me that the optimal outcome for Camden and ourselves is to bargain hard, but come to some mutually acceptable agreement. At no stage have we had discussions with Camden about them somehow waiving their expectations. I think their view is that if this is to proceed they would look to us in negotiations as to how we would achieve benefits for Camden.”
Professor Grant said jobs would be created and links to schools enhanced by the presence of the lab, acknowledging that it had received a mixed response from residents.
“I think people wanted to be very sure that they don’t get a barbed wire, spotlight kind of fortress, and I think it can’t be for that reason,” he said.
“It’s a real opportunity to say something about science and open it to the wider public.”
Professor Grant compared the launch of the lab to another controversial project that UCL has taken on – sponsorship of the proposed new city academy in Swiss Cottage.
He said: “My whole driving force with the academy is to try to develop some support for education in science, technology and mathematical areas, and that sort of altruism lies behind this as well.
“I have a concern that major world-class universities like ours go wrong when they turn their backs on the communities with which they are based.”
But for those living in its shadow, the medical research centre will inevitably create fear of an accident or attack that releases the diseases that it is built to cure.
Although the consortium claims plans have yet to be finalised, it is likely to include “Category 4” contained facilities, the highest security level in the UK.
“The Pirbright thing [centre of a foot-and-mouth outbreak last year] has shaken the scientific community,” Professor Grant admitted. “The fact that this issue has been raised will mean that architecturally this will be much more secure even than [existing labs at] Mill Hill.
“I am not an expert but I believe the solution will be deep burial. It’s incumbent upon us if we bring Category 4 facilities to demonstrate in the planning application why it will be foolproof.”
UCL’s own labs have never suffered an accident, and the Health and Safety Executive conduct regular unannounced visits to check on safety, he said. Professor Grant added that the animal research conducted at the lab was unlikely to be the kind that has attracted militant protests elsewhere.
“Yes there will be animal experimentation undertaken in the research, but there will be no primates,” he said. “The animals that are currently used are rats and mice and some zebrafish. This is common to every university and research institution. It is not as if this is a trivial use of animals. It is impossible for us to make the sort of advances we want to without their use.”
He denied that he had had discussions with MI5 over the lab, but could not answer for the rest of the consortium. A leaked memo two years ago revealed that MI5 had raised security concerns over the earlier plan to move the lab to the Temperance hospital.
But Professor Grant said: “The security services issue would be around the Category 4 containment and since we’re not involved at that level at UCL, we’re not involved in that discussion.”
And the breakthroughs that the lab might achieve in research into cancer, malaria and flu have massive implications for sufferers everywhere, including Camden, Professor Grant added.
“There are colossal breakthroughs occurring in cancer research,” he said. “We’ve unleashed the power of genomics and computing, which will allow us to study genetic propensity.
“I think it is a reasonable forecast that within a decade or two – and I am being deliberately vague – cancer will become a chronic disease, capable of being treated, rather than a killer disease.
“The question is what would be the expense of treating it? Because the generation of new drugs will not be cheap, which is why it’s rather important to have a public sector laboratory leading the search for cures.
“Its whole point is to lead to the cure of these diseases.
“We will be able to do that in a laboratory with a more concentrated expertise than any in Europe.”