Council bosses say they are "thrilled" as plans to create an £18.75m Skills and Innovation Centre in Stowmarket passed another major milestone.

Mid Suffolk District Council aims to address a local skills gap by building a hub for high growth start-ups, collaboration and innovation spaces, training and meeting rooms, as well as a café at the new Freeport East site at Gateway 14.

The full council approved the funding strategy for the centre - subject to agreement from Freeport East in March - at a meeting on January 25.

Councillors agreed to use £10.75m of council reserves up-front for the project to be replenished from business rates once the centre is operational.

The three-storey centre - which is being created in partnership with West Suffolk College and the universities of Suffolk and Essex - aims to seize opportunities around growing sectors such as the green economy and digital/AI technology.

Council leader  Andy Mellen said it was a "fantastic opportunity" which could be transformative for the business and skills landscapes in and around Stowmarket.

“We know that this project is ambitious and investing £18.75m in a building is a 'deep breath moment', but one we should go for," he said.

Cllr Richard Winch, cabinet member for housing and property, was thrilled. It was a "real statement of intent" from Mid Suffolk District Council, he said.

“By bringing business and training together, it can ensure employers have a fantastic talent pipeline. Bridging this skills gap, with a particular focus on skills for the green economy, can encourage more inward investment in our district, while helping businesses grow and innovate.

“For example, if you look at a sector like heat pumps, the industry is saying in a couple of years 600,000 will be installed annually. I know of two entrants in the market this year who are each due to each train up 10,000 engineers. Our centre could dynamically tap into these opportunities.”

Careers and recruitment advice would be available on site, and a new local labour market data observatory would be created to record and identify areas of skills demand and supply.

Speaking on behalf of all the project’s education partners, Phil Stittle, executive director of business development at West Suffolk College said: “We are delighted to be part of this significant investment in the region, helping to ensure local skills and talent matches the needs of growing and evolving demand from employers and we look forward to working with Mid Suffolk District Council as the project evolves.

The 35,000 sq ft building will be built to meet a minimum BREAAM standard of ‘excellent’ which will ensure it is highly sustainable. BREEAM excellent rated buildings on average reduce carbon emissions by 33%.

In November, the first unit on the site was handed over to The Range, which is setting up a new logistics and distribution centre creating 1,650 jobs.

Outline planning permission is already held for the whole Gateway 14 site. Gateway 14 Ltd, wholly owned by Mid Suffolk District Council, would need to submit a reserved matters application for the new Skills and Innovation Centre. 

The full business case will be presented to the Freeport East Board in March 2024 for final approval.