AstraZeneca’s bitter pill for George Osborne

The pharma giant has announced major job losses in the British chancellor’s own constituency


The “bitter pill” puns came a couple of days early for George Osborne as AstraZeneca interrupted his budget preparations with unwelcome news of major job losses in the British chancellor’s own constituency.

There was good news – the Anglo-Swedish drugs giant is to keep its global headquarters in the UK and will spend £330 million (€387 million) building a new research hub in Cambridge. The group’s head office in London’s Paddington area will be transferred to the new Cambridge site by 2016.

But the bad news, particularly for Osborne, is that 600 jobs will go at the company’s historic research centre at Alderley Park. A further 1,600 staff there are being asked to relocate hundreds of miles away to Cambridge.

Located in the chancellor’s Cheshire constituency of Tatton in northwest England, Alderley Park is Britain’s biggest drugs research centre and over the years scientists there have been responsible for developing life-saving cancer and heart-disease drugs.

British minister for science David Willetts hailed the news from AstraZeneca as “a real vote of confidence” in the UK’s life sciences sector. “They chose to make this major investment in the UK after considering options around the world,” he said.

But for the depressed northwest region, the loss of 600 jobs and the flight of 1,600 more highly skilled professionals is a serious blow. Local council leaders were supportive of the chancellor, saying he had fought hard to keep AstraZeneca in the UK amid global retrenchment in the pharmaceuticals industry, and that without his involvement the Cheshire site could have faced complete closure.

But the unions accused the drugs giant of creating a devastating skills shortage in the region and were scathing about the company’s relocation plans, saying it was impractical to ask people to move so far away from their homes. Officials said they would be contacting local MPs as a matter of urgency, and would be asking them to put pressure on AstraZeneca to rethink its decision.

They may have trouble getting hold of Osborne, over the next few days at least. On the eve of his fourth budget, and with Britain teetering on the brink of its third recession in four years, he probably didn’t need reminding of the realities of recession, certainly not in his own back yard.

The AstraZeneca announcement was doubly badly timed, coming on the same day the government reaffirmed its commitment to boost regional economies. Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine was tasked by the government to come up with a plan to stimulate economic growth outside London. On Monday, the bulk of his proposals were accepted. Osborne welcomed Heseltine’s “bold ideas”. We can but hope the chancellor has some of his own when he stands up in the Commons today.

Sale of Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet, the backpackers’ bible, is on its travels again. Little more than five years after it was bought by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the broadcasting corporation, the travel guide company has been sold on to US billionaire Brad Kelley.

It has not ended well for the BBC, which is selling the business for little more than £50 million, a substantial loss on the £130 million it paid Lonely Planet’s Australian founders, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, in 2007.

The deal was done just before the global financial crisis struck and Lonely Planet has also suffered from the rise of online rivals, such as TripAdvisor, as well as the strength of the Australian dollar. The BBC covered the sale yesterday with admirable impartiality, sugaring no pills with the headline on its website story: “BBC Worldwide sells Lonely Planet business at £80m loss.”

Fiona Walsh writes for the Guardian newspaper in London