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Royal Agricultural University launches its vision for £100m Innovation Village

A concept for a sustainable, carbon neutral, Innovation Village which will be home to a community of entrepreneurs, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers committed to addressing the major global challenges we all face, has been unveiled today by the Royal Agricultural University.

The proposed £100m development, on a 29-acre site at the University’s Cirencester campus, is central to the RAU’s vision and aims to support industry, food producers, farmers, and landowners in developing sustainable solutions for healthy land and nature, food production, and resilience in rural communities.

The University will be liaising with local residents and stakeholders to shape the proposals as they progress with a view to submitting a planning application to Cotswold District Council later this year.

Outlining the concept at today’s launch event, RAU Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter McCaffery said:

“A first for Gloucestershire – and indeed the UK – we are delighted to be working with the support of Cotswold District Council, GFirst Local Enterprise Partnership, Gloucestershire County Council, and the Department for International Trade to establish a rural Innovation Village here at the RAU, the UK’s global agricultural university.

“A £100M project, centred on supporting industry, food producers, farmers and landowners in developing new innovative practices while protecting land health and building resilience in rural communities, our Innovation Village will turbo-charge SME agri-tech enterprise activity with a distinctively rural feel. We anticipate we will increase the RAU’s current contribution of £52m to the local and regional economy by half as much again over five years when the project is up and running.”

The site will comprise a number of integrated areas including a Research and Innovation centre, live/work residential units, business start-up and support spaces, as well as business and conferencing hospitality facilities.

A cluster development of this nature, applied to agriculture, food and land management, does not exist in the UK and gives the proposed Innovation Village the opportunity to impact globally, addressing issues such as climate change, sustainable land use and food production, biodiversity loss, and heritage management.

The initiative, which has a GDV of between £80 and £100m and already has the support of the Department of International Trade (DIT), Gloucestershire County Council, and GFirst LEP, will provide a rural complement to the proposed developments in the urban core of the county such as Cyber Central in Cheltenham and Kings Quarter/The Forum in Gloucester. In addition, there will be benefits to the prosperity and productivity of rural communities, locally and regionally. 

The RAU is committed to ensuring that the Innovation Village will push the boundaries of sustainable design to ensure a development that is beautiful, carbon neutral, rich in nature, and inspires innovation through its environment, and has employed Architype, the leading Passivhaus Architect with more than 30 years’ experience, to lead the design process.

Design principles include construction methods and materials that will minimise environmental impact of the development, enabling energy efficient and low carbon ongoing usage, operations and maintenance of the site. Low carbon transportation will be promoted in and around the site which will be designed to protect, and enhance, biodiversity and, visually, the construction will complement the local landscape.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Chair of the RAU’s Governing Council, said:

“As well as benefiting the Royal Agricultural University, as a global centre for the future of sustainable farming and food production, this will also benefit the people of Cirencester and other local communities.

“We are determined that the Innovation Village will be green and beautiful and, importantly, led by the landscape which inspires us daily. It will reflect our core values as well as inspire intellectual, community, and collaborative working.”

Mark Barry, Director at Architype, agreed:

“The Innovation Village is an amazing opportunity to create an exemplar ecological development for the University and wider community. We are excited by the potential to enhance biodiversity, revitalise access to the beautiful site and provide a thriving and vibrant new hub for Cirencester with an exciting breadth of new facilities.”

Hereford-based architect will be joined by Cirencester’s OPS Structures and QODA MEP Consultants of Faringdon, meaning that the core design team are all based within 60 miles of the site at the RAU. The landscape-led design will be the responsibility of BD Landscape Architects of Tewkesbury whose job it is to develop a scheme that embodies the values of the University and supports the ‘village’. The project is being overseen by Oxford-based Ridge and Partners who are working closely with the RAU to provide project management and planning services.

Ruth Dooley, Chair of GFirst Local Enterprise Partnership, also presented at today’s launch event. She said:

“This mixed-use scheme, adding to the RAU’s reputation as a global centre of excellence in agriculture, food, and land management, will be a major boost to the economic development of Gloucestershire.  

“Through fostering the emergence of new start-up companies and supporting the growth of scale-ups, as well as being a magnet for inward investment from elsewhere in the UK and overseas, this exciting Innovation Village will provide many new job opportunities across a range of subjects. It will also help in the delivery of new skills needed to tackle the challenges of food security and sustainable land management.

“Our Inward Investment Team will work closely with the RAU and partners to secure new tenants for this exciting venture whilst our Growth Hub Team will provide a range of services to the new and growing SMEs within this new community.”

Councillor Tony Dale, Cotswold District Council Cabinet Member for the Economy and Transformation, said:

“Growing the local economy in a sustainable way, and bringing high quality jobs and careers for young people, is a key priority for the Cotswolds so we are happy to see this sort of innovative project coming forward in the district.

“We have seen real and positive growth in our economy over recent years and this development, which is the biggest of its type in the district for a very long time, has the potential to add real value to local businesses and residents. We look forward to continuing our work with the RAU and other partners to grow the green economy in the Cotswolds.”

Councillor Mark Hawthorne, Leader of Gloucestershire County Council, voiced his support for the concept, saying:

“This is a fantastic opportunity for innovation and sustainable investment in the county, particularly in a rural area. We are very pleased to support this exciting project and I look forward to supporting it further as it gains momentum.”

Dame Fiona added:

“The RAU has a proven track record of delivering development projects for innovation and enterprise in agriculture. The Alliston Centre, which was built in 2016 and houses the RAU’s Farm491 – the leading agri-technology incubator and accelerator facility in the country which has helped more than 200 businesses generate £33m in investment and created more than 120 jobs – really paved the way for this Innovation Village concept.”

In the 2022 Research Excellence Framework, more than half of the RAU’s research was deemed to be ‘world-leading and international in quality’ making the Cirencester university the leading specialist university in England.

It is hoped that, in the first five years of operation, the new Innovation Village will double the current new business output of Farm491 and the Growth Hub as well as providing skills, training, employment, and affordable housing, targeted towards improving retention of 16-24yr olds. 

Professor McCaffery concluded:

“The design team has already started working with stakeholders and industry. We plan to engage with the local community and local businesses throughout the whole process, initially with drop in information and Q&A sessions regarding the Innovation Village project. We hope to be able to submit an outline planning application to Cotswold District Council later this summer with a view to gaining full planning consent by next spring.”

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