Skip to main content

Space Sector: Leicester Space Park

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings during the debate when not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidelines, and that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. There will be no opportunity for the mover of the motion to wind up the debate, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Leicester Space Park and the wider space sector.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am delighted to have secured this important debate on a subject close to my heart, as there is huge potential for space science and technology to create the high-skill, high-quality jobs of the future, boost economic growth, tackle climate change and help keep our country safe. When most people think about space, they think about rockets and astronauts, but the space sector does far more than that. The satellites orbiting the earth and the data they provide keep us connected to family and friends; direct us around villages, towns and cities, underpinning all the apps now associated with GPS; underpin much of our country’s defence and security systems; help us see what is really happening to our environment, monitoring deforestation and changes in our oceans and air pollution; and support farmers to manage their crops. I believe the space sector will revolutionise many more aspects of our lives in the future.

The Minister will know that the global space economy is set to grow from £270 billion to £490 billion by 2030. The UK space sector is already worth more than £16 billion a year and employs more than 45,000 scientists, engineers, designers and manufacturers. Leicester is at the forefront of the space sector in this country and is extremely well poised to lead future development nationally and internationally. The University of Leicester is globally recognised for its space research and has contributed to international space missions for six decades. It has led major discoveries, including the observation of the first ever stellar black hole, and at least one Leicester-built instrument has been operating in space every single year from 1967 to the present day. My constituency is also home to the National Space Centre, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city each year and, through its National Space Academy, provides brilliant education to primary, secondary and post-16 students in science, technology, engineering and maths, helping to inspire the scientists and engineers of the future.

Space Park Leicester builds on that proud tradition, bringing together our world-leading university research with industry in state-of-the-art, high-tech facilities. Its aim is to create 2,500 high-skill, high-paid jobs and generate £750 million for the east midlands economy, making a significant contribution to the high-productivity economic growth that is essential outside London and the south-east if we are ever going to level up. There are three stages to the space park’s development. Stage 1, which was completed in the summer, brought together academics from the university with world-leading centres of research, such as the National Centre for Earth Observation, and global multinationals, such as Airbus, Rolls Royce, Thales Alenia Space and AST SpaceMobile. Stage 2—I visited last week—has built state-of-the-art robot and AI-assisted laboratory facilities to research, develop and design low-cost satellite production. Stage 3 will see the manufacturing and production of those low-cost satellites.

Currently, satellites are extremely expensive and take a long time to build. Manufacturing satellites more quickly and at a lower cost is absolutely critical to the future of space science and the space sector, and predicted to increase sixfold over the next decade. My message to the Minister is that Space Park Leicester is very well placed to lead growth in the UK, and across the world, in low-cost satellite production, if we act quickly enough.

The space park is part of a much wider development and regeneration of my constituency. Leicester City Council has led the development of Pioneer Park, next to the space park, which is a hub for high-tech, knowledge-based businesses, which will enable start-ups to develop and turn into viable companies. It includes companies such as EarthSense, which provides air quality monitoring services to local authorities and public health organisations around the world.

The company was spun out of the university’s research, started trading in 2016 and now employs 30 people; it has just taken an entire floor of the new space park, in the expectation that it will grow even further in future. I know hon. Members and people watching are really concerned about the quality of their air, and there are much wider applications for these services in the future. I welcome the £20 million that the council has secured from the Government’s levelling-up fund to expand Pioneer Park and help us to attract even more high-tech businesses to the city.

Underpinning all those developments, and a passion of mine from the start, is a serious commitment to ensuring that children and young people from Leicester and the wider east midlands have the skills they need to benefit from the jobs the space park is creating. That is absolutely critical to people in Leicester West, too many of whom struggle in insecure, low-skilled, low-paid work.

Ensuring the space sector and the workforce become more inclusive and representative of the communities they serve is vital too. Women, black and minority ethnic groups and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are seriously under-represented in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing. That is why I was thrilled to see Dr Suzie Imber running some brilliant sessions with children from two primary schools in Leicester West, Inglehurst and Queensmead Academy, when I visited the space park on Friday. Suzie is the associate professor in space physics at Leicester University. She was also the winner of the 2017 BBC2 series, “Astronauts, Do You Have What It Takes?” She definitely has what it takes to inspire children to take an interest in physics and science. They were hooked on her every word. They loved all the experiments, especially launching their home rockets. I am not going to lie—I had a brilliant time too.

There is even more that we can and must do to deliver the potential of Space Park Leicester and the wider space sector as a whole. Most importantly, we need a long-term commitment from the Government to support and invest in Space Park Leicester. As the Minister will know, we have already made great strides, but it takes time to conduct research, develop ideas, nurture them and turn them into viable and thriving businesses.

I am sure the Minister will agree that much of what we are doing in Leicester aligns with the four key objectives of the Government’s national space strategy, which was published earlier this year. Unlocking growth in the space sector is what we are doing. Growing the UK as a science and technology superpower—we are making a huge contribution there. We are collaborating internationally and developing resilient space capability and services.

I hope the Minister will tell me how the Government will support Space Park Leicester in its future ambitions, especially the development of low-cost satellite manufacturing, an area where I believe the UK can be a global leader if we act swiftly and decisively enough. Can he also tell me how the Government will support Leicester to develop the skills and training that are central to the national space strategy, including higher level vocational qualifications? Ultimately, our people are our best asset. Making sure that people from all backgrounds have the skills they need to secure and create the jobs of the future is integral to boosting economic growth. The east midlands needs support in this area if we are to be part of helping our country grow into the future.

Finally, I invite the Minister to visit Leicester and see, at first hand, the difference that Space Park Leicester is already making, and its potential to lead change in future. It is a positive, aspirational, inspirational programme, and so I urge the Minister to agree.

Thank you, Ms Bardell. It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on a hugely enthusiastic speech on an issue that she obviously cares deeply about.

I do not need to tell you, Ms Bardell, as a Scot, what a dark cloud—the highland clearances—hangs over the history of Scotland. One thing we in the highlands have always feared is that our young people would continue to leave and go to live elsewhere. It has been one of the tragedies of life in the highlands. On occasion, an Opposition Member ought to have a pop at the Government, but on this occasion, I will not do so, because the news that Sutherland was being considered for one of the UK’s first vertical space take-off sites was greeted with huge enthusiasm locally. It meant that there was hope that young people could stay nearby and see something encouraging for the future. We have the roads, we have the rail, we have the airport at Wick and we have the skills at Dounreay.

It is a curious fact that this issue unites me and the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. One might say that that was an unlikely combination, but the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has the manufacturing company Orbex in his constituency, and it is as committed to the Sutherland take-off site as the local people are.

I will pay tribute to two people and one organisation—Highlands and Islands Enterprise—as well as to the Highland Council. The Highland Council planning committee decided unanimously to approve the application for the space site in Sutherland, and that is unusual, to say the least. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has also gone out of its way to support the project. I will name-check Mr Roy Kirk, who has done tremendous work in bringing this forward, and a splendid person called Dorothy Pritchard, who is the chairman of Melness Crofters’ Estate. She has been a doughty fighter in taking us to where we are. Two challenges were mounted in court to stop the project, but they have both been defeated.

I will conclude with an offer that I made some weeks ago in the Chamber to the Prime Minister, to whom I also give credit for his support. It was no empty offer; I have checked with the people of Melness Crofters’ Estate, and they have said they will indeed offer the Prime Minister a delicious highland tea, including home-made scones, at the first take-off. I now fondly offer the same invitation to the Minister, who will be very welcome in my constituency come that happy day. I have also promised a rather large number of drams of good whisky from the highlands, but I will not go over that again.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to join two very esteemed colleagues from the other side of the House and support the eloquent advocacy of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for this key sector.

It is my great pleasure to be back in Government, now as Minister for Science, Research and Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is my mission to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a science superpower and, crucially, as an innovation nation—both themes that go to the heart of Members’ contributions.

To frame that mission, it is worth making clear that we are already a global powerhouse in science. What does “superpower” mean? I am defining it as the UK using our science for global good, to help to prevent the melting of the ice caps and understand the oceans, space and the new frontiers; being a global science nation, open to people from all around the world to come to do science, which is fundamentally collaborative; and ensuring that we attract more global research and development into the UK. It is great that we are going from £15 billion a year to £20 billion, and on to £22 billion on the journey to 2.4%. To get there, we will have to attract hundreds of billions of pounds over the next 10 or 20 years. I relish that prospect, and I think we can do it, because supply chains are global.

Fourthly, we must use our leadership in science to support the values of this country’s liberal democracy, and to make sure that cyber, artificial intelligence, space and all those other sectors are not dominated by one or two forces who may not be our best friends, but that we build clubs—commonwealths, one might say—of international collaborators who share our values. The innovation nation piece is about making sure that everyone in this country can benefit, as the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) have already said. To be an innovation nation—this is a passion of mine—we have to move from being a service economy that is really good at science in some silos and does a bit of innovation to being a nation in which every person can feel, see, touch and experience the excitement of science, as well as the opportunities it presents for careers in innovation. I have said this in every speech, but let me say it again. That includes the windy outreaches of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and, dare I say it, Norfolk, as well as coastal towns, left-behind towns and places that may not necessarily feel that they are at the heart of the Cambridge cluster. The good news is that the pace of technology and innovation means that we can create clusters all around the country, and that is my mission in this role.

I congratulate my good friend the hon. Member for Leicester West on securing this debate and raising this issue, as well as her tireless advocacy for the Leicester cluster. Leicester is indeed a vital location in the UK space ecosystem, and I pay tribute to the University of Leicester for its leadership and for being the home of the National Space Centre, which would not be there if it were not for the university’s leadership. That university has been hugely helpful in building the space engineering apprenticeship trailblazer group. As the hon. Lady has eloquently said, not only is the National Space Centre in Leicester drawing people into science and driving a new generation to take an interest in the potential of space to create jobs and opportunities, but it is key to levelling up and creating opportunities in that cluster.

The hon. Lady has described her local cluster eloquently and powerfully, so let me explain the national cluster that we are on the road to developing. As she has said, part of my mission is to make sure that people see the space economy as more than just some American billionaires going into space in rockets. This is about highlighting that space technology is fundamental to our everyday lives. It is key to our telephones, our weather forecasting, most of our banking and our digital transactions, and, crucially, understanding earth observation data, climate change and net zero. It is fundamental to the sustainability of our economy, our society and our planet. It is key to stress that, so that people understand that this is not a vanity project for one or two countries, but is fundamental to a modern, dynamic economy. The truth is that space innovations are already being realised in sectors ranging from autonomous vehicles to wearable technology and health and life science. When I met Tim Peake, he was conducting 32 experiments in space, including experiments on bone density and eye and retinal damage, both of which repair when astronauts come back, giving us a real insight into those diseases and how we might prevent them.

Space technology is so much more than the rockets and the big launches that a generation of us grew up watching on our televisions; it is integrated into the economy. However, that is not to say that those two things are not linked. Part of our strategy is to be the first European country to do domestic launch. After all, we are the Department for industrial strategy, and in order for our downstream skills to grow and for us to support and attract investment, we need to have an ecosystem.

Further to the Minister’s point about being the first country to achieve launch in Europe, I am sure he would agree that there is a great prize to be won here in terms of the British economy and what we can sell to the world.

The hon. Member makes an excellent point, with which I completely agree. As he will know, we are very ambitious to make sure that we use that first launch into polar orbit from both Scotland and Cornwall. We are in a magnificent position globally to lead in that sector, and by launching, we also build the ecosystem for serving satellites, supply, and all those supporting industries that the UK is phenomenally good at. We are also using satellite technology to support a whole range of innovations across the economy. The NHS will shortly be starting to pilot drones for medicines delivery, particularly into remote areas, and the Rosalind Franklin rover that has been built in the UK will blast off and land on the surface of Mars, so we are a genuine space economy powerhouse.

The Government profoundly recognise the importance of the space economy. It was my great privilege, on day three as Minister, to launch the UK space strategy. I felt a little bit guilty because it was the culmination—the summit—of years of hard work that I was simply lucky enough to be able to read out, but it has landed internationally and sent a strong signal.

For the first time, the space strategy integrates the defence and civil sectors. I have already met my counterpart at the Ministry of Defence to map out where the MOD is investing. It was allocated significant space funding in the latest comprehensive spending review, some of which was, quite rightly, driven by primary security issues, but some of it can be used to support the wider ecosystem. In the middle of the Venn diagram, there is an area where the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and MOD are working together, and then some of the strategy delivery lies principally with BEIS, as the industrial strategy Department. This is an exciting time, and we are now turning the space strategy into a space plan, which will set out where we are going to invest and in what in the next few years.

The space sector already employs 45,000 people in the UK, over 75% of whom hold at least a first degree, so this is very highly skilled sector, which is key to the Prime Minister’s vision of creating a high-skill economy and moving away from being overly dependent on low-wage service labour.

Space employees deliver 2.6 times the UK average in terms of productivity, so for the Treasury this is a sector that is at the vanguard of driving UK economic growth. That is why we are completely committed to supporting it and to supporting a diverse workforce, as the hon. Member for Leicester West rightly highlighted. We are using the benchmarks created by the 2020 space census to measure that progress.

The sector already directly contributes more than £6.5 billion to UK GDP and underpins a further £360 billion in the wider economy, so this is not a small sector. It is already a substantial sector, in which we see substantial growth opportunity. That is why we have set out the level of leadership and governance that we have done. We have established a new National Space Council, led by the Prime Minister, to co-ordinate space policy. We have also created the National Science and Technology Council—the science Cabinet Committee on which I sit with the Secretary of State—which is designed specifically to lead a cross-Government integrated approach to key technologies and sectors, such as space, so that we integrate defence, civil, the industrial strategy and the global security issues around cybersecurity and data security. We are putting in place the mechanism of government to ensure that this is a cross-Government plan.

On 27 September, as the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross both highlighted, I announced the space strategy. Its ambition is very clear—to make the UK one of the most attractive and innovative space economies in the world. We are in a competitive environment. Russia, China and India all have substantial sovereign programmes, but there are a number of nations—Japan, Spain, Australia, Canada, France, Italy and others—who are looking to be part of a global space technology economy, and who clearly see the UK as fundamental to that. We want to build a domestic space and satellite cluster on that opportunity.

We launched the national space innovation programme pilot in 2020. That was the UK’s first ever dedicated fund for advancing space technology, innovation, products and services, and we have just announced follow-up funding of £7 million to help fund 11 projects in the scheme. We will be setting out the next phase in our forthcoming science space plan.

We have set out our ambition to be the first country to launch small satellites from Europe, and we have kick-started that work with grants worth £40 million to support the work required to deliver that ambition. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross made clear, we are on track for the first launch from the UK next year, whether it is in quarter 3 or quarter 4. We see a huge opportunity, particularly for Scotland and Cornwall, to be at the heart of that launch economy and to drive that supply chain.

As the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross have highlighted, this sector, properly harnessed, is key to supporting the sustainable jobs and opportunities for the regions of this country—not all of this is in the golden triangle—and that is partly why we are so supportive of the sector’s potential. The sector also underpins modern public services.

Turning to the points that the hon. Member for Leicester West made earlier, Space Park Leicester is absolutely integral. It is an excellent example of a locally led regional technology hub and I encourage other regions to look at it. Space Park Leicester’s plans align hugely with our own ambition to promote sector growth and I am delighted that the first two phases of Space Park Leicester are complete, having been delivered through a partnership between the university and the local enterprise partnership, through the growth deal and Research England.

Both hon. Members made some really important points that I want to refer to. The hon. Member for Leicester West spoke about skills and inclusive growth. As the former co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth—I have had to stand down—I know that she is absolutely right that if we are going to create an economy in which a new generation can see new opportunities, we need new sectors that will create opportunities in new places.

The high-level vocational qualification piece is key. I have already met the Minister for Further and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and the Secretary of State for Education to highlight that skills are one of the key barriers to cluster growth but also one of the key opportunities for the Government. We will pursue that agenda and look to address that career path.

The hon. Member for Leicester West made an important point about the power of the space economy to attract a new generation of girls and boys into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For many people, the excitement of space is a gateway to discovering the opportunities in the broader science and innovation economy.

A key focus of my mission at BEIS is on clusters. I am pushing the Department, Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation hard to think about regions—not simply to allocate funding on the basis that a bit of it goes to each of the Government regions, but to think about the clusters that will really drive growth and investment. I encourage the hon. Member for Leicester West to continue to make the case, as she has done powerfully today, that Leicester is at the heart of a cluster, and to follow up with me on that. I think she is right about Leicester in that regard, and I will talk to Innovate UK and UKRI about how we support such clusters over the next few years. That will be about infrastructure, connectivity, skills, data and planning. I would be delighted to come and visit Leicester.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross highlighted similar points, and I pay tribute to his passion and commitment to using this area to promote opportunity for a new generation. The highland clearances were a long time ago, but the fact that they are still a sore point speaks volumes, and we need to do more to create opportunities, as he has highlighted. As he said, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is hugely supportive of creating such opportunities, and it is nice to see a flourishing of cross-party working for the good of Scotland. The Orbex opportunity is huge, and I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to local leaders, because for national strategies to work we need local leaders to deliver.

Space is a huge opportunity, and—from Goonhilly in Cornwall to satellite manufacturing hubs in Surrey and Glasgow, the Leicester cluster and up in Scotland—we have the opportunity in the next few years to do something really significant for the UK economy, for global science innovation and, just as crucially, for a new generation of people in left-behind areas, who need to see that they have an opportunity in the economy of tomorrow.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.