Park Life: All the people, so many people

James Dipple 2

James Dipple 2 - Credit: NG

Milton Park is home to close on 200 businesses and 7,000 workers. We meet its Managing Director James Dipple.

The landed gentry among our Cotswold Life readers will, naturally, be familiar with the management of vast rural estates. Milton Park business park near Didcot isn’t really very different. Yes it’s bricks, mortar and plate glass rather than soft Cotswold stone and wooden cow byres, but both nurture land for production. However Milton Park grows buildings not crops and you don’t have to wear wellies and a Barbour jacket to work there (unless you want to). From start-ups to multinational businesses, Milton Park is home to close on 200 businesses and 7,000 workers.

And with Didcot Parkway station just seven minutes on the shuttle bus and the A34 alongside, many international companies are located here, paying less in rent and salaries than they would do in Central London, with all the benefits that go with being in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside.

Milton Park is owned by MEPC which itself is wholly owned by the BT Pension Scheme, the UK’s largest corporate pension scheme. MEPC owns a further six such parks across the UK, but at 2.5 million square feet of space, Milton Park is its biggest asset, and in fact one of Europe’s largest business parks, home to all types of business from manufacturing and medical services to mobile technology and Oxfordshire’s largest Life Sciences cluster.

Overseeing all of this is James Dipple, who has been with the company at Milton Park and at MEPC’s head office in London, since 1997. James is also responsible for MEPC’s sales and acquisitions, the most recent of which is the £32 million purchase of a 999-year lease over 200 acres of land and buildings next to the iconic home of British motor racing at Silverstone in Northamptonshire. He is very upbeat about it. “We are going to create a cluster there for automotive high performance engineering. At the moment such companies are dotted all over Motor Sport Valley, Silverstone will be an opportunity for many of them to come together in a mutually beneficial environment.”

However, we’re here to talk about James and his biggest responsibility: Milton Park. Earlier this year the Park won a £7 million grant to support the development of a £14 million, 40,000 sq ft laboratory incubator for small and growing businesses within the life sciences sector. The balance of funding will be provided by MEPC and the new facility will be called the Milton Science Centre (MSc).

There is strong demand from small university spinout science companies for space across Oxfordshire and while Milton Park competes with Begbroke Science Park, Harwell, Churchill Hospital and Oxford University, its heritage lies in supporting science-based companies, and it continues to be a popular destination for them. Currently such companies occupy around 500,000 sq ft of space. “Over the years more than 20 ISIS Innovation spinouts have chosen Milton Park as their preferred location as the environment provided by the Park management team has offered stepping stones for these companies from a small lab with the opportunity to move to larger facilities when they are ready, without leaving Milton Park,” adds James.

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There is welcome flexibility for small companies, with single-page leases ranging from a month upwards and an agreement that growth can be accommodated without onerous lease obligations. MEPC is speculatively developing new buildings to allow breathing space for companies either looking to trade up or bring inward investment into the region.

Returning to the analogy of a country estate, there really is everything any worker, with straw in his hair or otherwise, could ever need on site. “We have cafes and restaurants here, a beauty salon, pharmacists, a crèche, health and fitness clubs and a convenience store,” says James. “Business parks operate in a hugely competitive market, not only against local competition but globally, against such places as Grenoble in France, Scandinavia and North America. It helps that Oxford is a strong brand and London is close. Many of our tenant companies have a global workforce of qualified people. Living in London is expensive and companies need to pay top whack to employ the best people. Locating here means being able to attract the best talent but at lower pay levels. The local authorities have had the foresight to provide substantial numbers of new housing allocations right on our doorstep in Didcot which is affordable and sustainable for the workforce.”

Milton Park tenants include the upmarket furniture company OKA (owned by Nancy Astor) which has a very large warehouse, to high precision engineering companies making stainless steel cases for MRI scanners such as LTI Metaltech, Crystalox making photovoltaic cells, industrial research companies like Yasa Motors and Nexeon, academic publishers Taylor and Francis, and over 50 companies in the Life Science sector, some large like Vertex and Evotec through to newcomers like Psoixsis and all the eco-system of companies that go with such tenants: lawyers, training companies, patent attorneys etc etc.

BT’s pensioners will, no doubt, be delighted at all this as the rents collected amount to around £25 million per annum.

James Dipple:

A job as a chartered surveyor at Strutt and Parker followed James’s degree in Estate Management from Reading University where he now mentors students coming through their MSc programme (and a very clever lot they are too, he says).

In the late 1980s he worked for Speyhawk, the now defunct property company. One of his projects while there was the Pantiles shopping centre at Tunbridge Wells. “All listed buildings and retained facades,” he says. “A really difficult job keeping all the local residents happy.”

James joined MEPC three years before it was taken private in 2000, then the UK’s largest ever private-equity backed management buy-out.

At the time the company owned a whole raft of shopping centres, offices and other property around the M25, including the Leavesden Studios near Watford, now owned by Warner Brothers and home to the Harry Potter experience.

A youthful 57, James is married to Jane and they have three grown-up children. Jane runs a community shop in the village of Hampstead Norreys.

When he’s not overseeing the running of Milton Park, or heading up to MEPC’s headquarters in London, James is often to be found cycling the highways and byways of the Cotswolds, or across the Alps and beyond as an avid Sportive cyclist.

History of Milton Park

Milton Park began as a World War 2 supplies depot. It was sold for £625,000 to the English Property Company (EPC) by the MOD in 1971 as warehousing. EPC was bought out by MEPC in 1985. The current site is the result of a long-term vision by Ian Laing (MD of the English Property Company) and his university friend Nick Cross who realised the site’s potential, being located close to the largest concentration of research and development in Western Europe.

They invited Martin Wood, founder of Oxford Instruments, and representatives from Oxfordshire County Council to meet and the result was a site dedicated to offering space for science-based companies at every stage of their life cycles.

As a former MOD site, Milton Park was dotted with all sorts of buildings, and even now doesn’t look like one of those amazingly sleek and architecturally coherent science parks found on the West Coast of America. There is every sort of building, from 1980s office blocks, to red brick pastiche designs to a few remaining MOD huts. James explains: “We didn’t have the luxury of a blank canvas and couldn’t impose as much design rigour because we had to pick sites off as we went. Instead we have created a landscaped infrastructure – diverse buildings sitting in a cohesive landscape. There are no great gates or passes to get in, but there’s lots of subtle management going on here which you wouldn’t necessarily notice.”

From a visitors’ perspective it gives the site a personality that other, more rigidly designed business parks don’t have.