A DERELICT complex of buildings in west London, where the records of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were pressed, is ready to rediscover its historical role as a centre for advanced manufacturing.
The Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, Middlesex, was once the home of music companies EMI and HMV, employing 22,000 people in its 1960s heyday. As the headquarters of industrial group Thorn EMI, it also became a hub of British engineering innovation, spawning the development of broadcasting systems, stereo, airborne radar and the CAT scanner.
Now a joint venture between developers Cathedral Group and Development Securities — backed by London mayor Boris Johnson — is moving to revitalise the windswept 6.8ha site as London’s first "soup-to-nuts" incubator for hi-tech manufacturing entrepreneurs.
Advances in rapid prototyping through the use of 3D printers are revolutionising product development by allowing individual entrepreneurs and researchers to make complex components quickly and at low cost.
Reviving the site’s historic name of the Central Research Laboratory, the joint venture aims to combine this technology with commercial training, offering research and development space, a small-batch production facility, mentoring and seed funding. The scheme is one of four London projects in the running to win investment from a £40m regeneration fund secured by Johnson. Cathedral is bidding for £7.7m of the £11.2m it needs to establish the facility, with the rest to be provided by the developers. A decision is expected in weeks.
The developers will also be raising a £5m fund via an enterprise investment scheme (EIS), a Treasury tax break to encourage investors in start-ups. Martyn Evans, marketing and creative director at Cathedral Group, said: "The EIS fund is probably the most crucial element of the scheme. Other facilities rarely have money attached to them."
Nigel Cramb, partnerships and business engagement manager at Hillingdon council, said the town had struggled to replace the jobs lost after the decline of manufacturing across London’s suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. "Hayes has suffered for so long…. This could deliver a new heart to the town."
If developers and civic leaders are confident the scheme will succeed, why has the revival taken decades to happen? The trigger for regeneration was Crossrail, the east-west London rail route that opens in 2018. It will stop at Hayes, just 270m from the facility. Cramb said: "Crossrail has been the catalyst. We’ve had a lot of interest over the past four years from developers who’ve realised it’s not that far away."
Kit Malthouse, Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for business and enterprise, said the scheme would aim to replicate for west London’s hi-tech manufacturing sector the conditions that had been so successful for software and digital companies in east London. "This facility is about planting acorns."
He warned that entrepreneurs were likely to remain constrained by the investment environment, with evidence of a lack of risk capital available to small businesses. "We’ve lost the VC (venture capital) feeling. We just don’t have the level of investment we used to. Finding the funds you need — unless you know someone rich — is hard."
Hillingdon still has a base of international companies in business parks which host companies including Apple, IBM, Sharp, Toshiba and Canon a short distance from the Old Vinyl Factory.
Evans said the development would distinguish itself from "bland" business parks by mingling homes, offices and the research lab, while preserving the character of the site’s historic buildings. These were designed by the Art Deco architects Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, who built the Hoover Building in Perivale and the Firestone Factory in Brentford. "It was built at a time of enormous technological change so it has large, adaptable floor plates. Work was hot, therefore it’s designed to be easily cooled with high ceilings and windows that open. It’s the sort of green and adaptable building that companies want today," he said.
Work on 132 flats, workshop units, a café and a community space is due to begin in the next two months.
© Financial Times Ltd 2014.