Durham's Aykley Heads will be one of the areas examined. Credit: Durham Council

Durham prepares to open Aykley Heads contest

The local authority wants to push on with finding a joint venture partner as it looks to make its 37-acre strategic employment site part of a wider innovation district.

A report goes before Durham’s cabinet next week seeking outline business case approval. which would enable progress to a full business case as the project is repositioned.

Cabinet is also recommended to agree with the development of Aykley Heads – where an outline consent covering 414,000 sq ft is in place – as part of a wider Durham Innovation District, and to greenlight the search for a joint venture partner.

This would include agreeing to the principle of council-owned land at Aykley Heads being invested as equity in the JV partnership.

Innovation districts are, as described in the report, geographic areas with networks of knowledge-producing organisations such as universities, research bodies, cultural institutions, and knowledge-intensive businesses.

The intention of these areas – one of the best UK examples being the Oxford Road Corridor in Manchester – is to bring together innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers, creatives, knowledge workers and investors, creating the conditions for business growth.

In short, they are a natural step for university-heavy cities to take, and as such a Memorandum of Understanding has been agreed between the council and the university, affirming their mutual intent to explore possibilities.

Aykley Heads is now envisaged as part of a 153-acre innovation district, also including the new Durham Business School and Milburngate development.

Durham has been touting Aykley Heads as a potential innovation district for some time, including the scheme in marketing materials at shows such as UKREiiF.

Existing businesses at Aykley Heads include Atom Bank, Waterstons and the Durham City Incubator.

A key part of the project has always been the relocation of the council headquarters at County Hall, Aykley Heads, to the Sands at Durham Riverside, and the subsequent demolition of County Hall. This plan was running in tandem with plans for a speculative office block to be built at Plot C at Aykley Heads to measure market appetite.

As market conditions changed, in April 2022 the council took the decision to dispose of its newly built £50m headquarters at the Sands to Durham University for its business school. Instead, the council will now occupy the 38,000 sq ft Plot C building as part of its HQ requirement.

The council also intends to secure the freehold interest in the Rivergreen Building at Aykley Heads for its civic, corporate, and democratic core functions along with some additional office accommodation and the provision of a conference facility for the wider Aykley Heads development.

According to the report to cabinet, with completion nearing on Plot C, the developable area at Aykley Heads now stands at 381,936 sq ft, assuming the council can acquire Plot E from Durham Constabulary.

However, should the Rivergreen acquisition not proceed, then Plot D would be needed as a civic HQ, reducing the developable area to 346,415 sq ft. Should Plot E not be secured from Durham Constabulary the developable land would reduce by a further 54,928 sq ft.

Rivergreen, a one-time RICS sustainable building of the year, offers around 40,000 sq ft.

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