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£11.4m innovation centre hailed as 'game-changer' for food industry

An £11.4m new business hub has opened outside Norwich with ambitions to fulfil East Anglia's potential as a powerhouse food and drink producer.

Source: Chris Hill

The Broadland Food Innovation Centre was hailed as a "game-changer for the region's agri-food sector" during its launch event at the Food Enterprise Park (FEP) at Easton.

By offering business incubation facilities and innovation support, it aims to improve the proportion of home-grown food processed in the region, and retain more of its value in the local economy.

More than 100 visitors - including council leaders, funding partners and prospective tenants - were shown around the 13 food-grade production units, as well as conference facilities and sensory and test kitchens.

The centre will be a flagship centrepiece of the FEP, which is already home to Condimentum, which mills mustard flour for Colman's, and the world's largest vertical farm being built by Fischer Farms.

Trudy Mancini-Boyle, deputy leader of Broadland District Council, said she was "thrilled and proud" to finally welcome visitors to these "outstanding food grade facilities" - a collaborative project first discussed in 2018.

She announced that "firm commitments" had been made on two of the four larger units, with "a promising pipeline of further serious enquiries" - and announcements expected soon on the first tenants.

"This is such an important project," she said. "There is a clear need to address one of the weaker aspects of our agri-food sector, which is food processing.

"Norfolk is the largest agricultural producer in the UK, but only fifth for food processing. 50pc of the produce grown here leaves the county to be processed outside the area."

Centre manager Sarah Pierce said: "It is incredible to be able to show people around, and it will not be too long before we see people producing food out here.

"We have got a wonderful space to use, but when the building was built we didn't know who was going to use it, or how they will use it.

"Soon we are going to have 13 different businesses in here and we will all need to learn to work together and interact together as a community. It is very exciting."

The project is also urging private companies, public sector bodies and academics to join a wider "Food Innovation Cluster", led by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Cluster manager Alex Larter said it aimed to empower collaborations along the supply chain from farms to retailers, as well as harnessing the food science expertise of the nearby Norwich Research Park (NRP).

"We want to be that connector and enabler for the whole food sector," he added.

Meanwhile, eligible businesses are also being offered bespoke innovation support co-ordinated by Hethel Innovation, and access to a funding pot totalling £250,000 for consultancy to help their venture take its next steps.

The innovation centre's funding includes £5.7m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and a £4.14m investment by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Further funding came from delivery partners Broadland District Council, Hethel Innovation and the University of East Anglia.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of New Anglia LEP, said: "It is amazing to see this building come to fruition. We think it is a really good investment and a great vote of confidence in the food sector in Norfolk and Suffolk.

"There is a real need for this facility. We are great at growing stuff here and we have great expertise in the UEA and the NRP in growing things in exciting ways, but we have some way to go to being the best at food processing.

"Why send all our raw materials down the A14 to the Midlands when we should be doing that here?

"And we want to be doing that with small businesses, new businesses, the businesses of the future. That is a real focus."

Clarke Willis, a director of the Food Enterprise Park, thanked all the project partners and paid tribute to the "vision and drive" of landowner Ian Alston.


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