The 2021 Integrated Review of the UK’s Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy announced, to no great surprise, an increase in cyber security spending. This included the creation of a new National Cyber Force and the further development of the National Cyber Security Centre, based in Cheltenham. Cheltenham has long been the cyber centre of the UK, hosting GCHQ as well as the many supporting services surrounding it. The UK Cyber industry has seen a 200% rate of growth in the last two years, with nearly two billion pounds invested by the government in cyber industry to date. The importance of the cyber security industry to the UK cannot be emphasised enough, bringing not only the best part of ten billion pounds to the national economy annually, but ensuring the safety of British industry as a whole and ensuring the continued competitiveness of the UK on the digital stage.
As the cyber security industry grows and develops within the UK, it has begun to put down roots and a physical footprint; centred, of course, around GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre. Microsoft and IBM have all established a presence in Cheltenham, among many other smaller actors. In recognition of this, a new ‘Golden Valley Development’ is seeking to make the most of the potential in the area. Centred around ‘Cyber Central UK’, a campus-style tech centre with a combination of business, leisure and residential facilities, this ‘garden community’ development will be situated a mere stones throw away from GHQC. It will also be adjacent to an international airport, major cities, and with rail links to the rest of the country. This development has been on a rapid timeline, from the initial project launch in May of 2020 to the final proposal being submitted a year later; the initial partner has been selected – HBD X Factory – and the billion pound first phase of development will soon be underway. Supported by the Department for International Trade, and with land already purchased and set aside, it will not be long before the rest of the development becomes a reality.
Cheltenham’s Golden Valley offers real promise to the UK’s cyber innovators and offers potential for the exponential growth of an industry, similar to the growth of tech in the Silicon Valley – albeit on a smaller scale. Cyber security as an industry largely takes place in the digital realm, leading to a lack of physical centralisation and opportunity. It is nonetheless still conducted by humans, and therefore in need of certain infrastructural elements. The ability to mingle with others in the same field drives innovation, the location next to national and global transport links provides convenience and connectivity, the facilities for events and academia provide flexibility and education. In addition, the site will provide a further boost to the local economy, as of course cyber central UK will be far more than a housing development; bringing with it over ten thousand jobs and two million square feet of commercial space. Not only this, the location close to so many universities will ensure that ‘cyber central’ becomes a hotspot for attracting fresh talent.
As with any major project, negatives come with the positives. In the case of the Golden Valley Development, it can be argued that despite the excellent transport links, it may well not be enough to tempt cyber industry to up sticks and move to Cheltenham. Likewise, existing cyber entities in the area – GCHQ being a prime example – with confidentiality as a key aspect of their business model may not recognise the benefit of an industry-wide residential centre. However, in response to the first point, cyber industry is already centred for the most part around the Cheltenham area. In this instance, the Golden Valley will not be tempting business ‘away’ from anything; rather, it will be tempting innovative new cyber business to join what is already the UK’s cyber centre, and providing them with the opportunity which many businesses need to find success – location, office space, infrastructure and a capable workforce. As for the second point, confidentiality is not necessary in the traditional sense to allow the cyber industry to prosper. ‘Cyber Centre UK’ will indeed take the form of campus-style living and working, with residents and employees mixing on and off the clock, but very much ‘over the road’ from the adjacent GCHQ. Confidential work will remain confidential, especially in the cyber industry where the majority of work takes place in the digital space, but in the private sector the ability to live and work in proximity to those of a similar disposition is a blessing rather than a curse.
To sum up, the Golden Valley development is arriving at a crucial juncture if the cyber industry in the UK is to become truly world-leading. Cheltenham is already the home to many big players in the industry, and has the transport infrastructure and location to provide for more. What has been missing has been a dedicated ‘district’ in which the cyber industry can take root and find a distinct identity. Despite the risk of spending time and money on a project designed to attract business to an area, the project has progressed at pace and enjoys the backing of the Government, local authorities, and industry leaders. As such, small businesses and start-ups will be able to join the bigger, established cyber players, and provided with the space and infrastructure from which to innovate and develop. The Golden Valley is therefore in important step if the targets set out in the Government’s Integrated Review are to be met – to ensure that the UK becomes and remains a leading cyber superpower.