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As Pfizer tries to take over AstraZeneca, the global nature of corporate strategy is being pitched against the intensely local passion to hold on to jobs, says Peter Williams

This article was first published in the June 2014 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Alderley Park, a 400-acre estate in the pretty Cheshire countryside, is surrounded by woods and a lake. The top floors of the dozens of its three and four-storey buildings must command fine views eastward to the glowering Pennines. From the aerial photographs it is impossible to tell that it is the major research site for AstraZeneca, employing 2,900 skilled science professionals in its global centre for cancer research. In March 2013, the company announced it would move the research – and most of the jobs – to a global facility in Cambridge within three years.

Contributing to the fight against cancer, Alderley Park also helped to seal the prosperity of this part of north-west England in the later decades of the 20th century. It gave the nearby villages of Alderley Edge and Prestbury charm, money and confidence, a trio that still attracts the wealthy, including many of the well-paid footballers who ply their trade for the Manchester clubs. A plaque to the Beckhams on the converted barn they once owned will surely not be long in coming.

I grew up a few miles to the north, not in quite so salubrious a place, and still return regularly to the area. The decision by the company to relocate its research and development facility to Cambridge made national news at the time. The story was given extra legs partly through the short-term political embarrassment over the loss of 2,150 jobs (1,600 to go to Cambridge and 550 to be made redundant) in the constituency – well, local MP George Osborne does double up as chancellor of the exchequer. The local press eventually reported that his intervention had succeeded in keeping 700 non-R&D jobs at the site.

Still, the closure was undoubtedly a blow to the local economy even if the weekly Socialist Worker isn’t a big read in the cafes and wine bars of Alderley Edge. However, it seems that Alderley Park will live on. In March 2014 public-private partnership Manchester Science Parks said it was buying the site for bioscience research, although the jobs tally is unclear.

The change does mean the site isn’t centre-stage in the titanic takeover battle between Pfizer and AstraZeneca, although in one local skirmish fears have been raised over the prospects for manufacturing of drugs in nearby Macclesfield.

As the takeover battle heated up in the markets and the boardrooms, and politicians fought over the principles at stake, it is hard not to speculate what would have happened to Alderley Park and those thousands of jobs had the site still been fully operational. And then perhaps closed by a merged entity. Relocation to Cambridge, England, is one thing, moving to (for instance) Cambridge, Massachusetts, would have been a very different one.

Medicine plays a major part in the well-being of humanity, whether it is saving lives through cardiovascular or oncology drugs or merely adding to the sum of happiness through tablets such as Viagra. We expect miracle cures. But the miracle requires an enormous amount of time to be spent conjuring it by highly educated – and therefore expensive – teams. Researchers can spend a working lifetime and at the end be unable to point to a single product in the high-street pharmacy or the hospital dispensary that they directly contributed to.

Getting a fair distribution between all the different stakeholders – those who develop drugs, those who risk their capital, governments and the ill individuals who pay for the end product – is one of the ongoing global political issues of this age. The search for effective drugs is clearly global but the desire to protect jobs is intensely local.

Those caught up in the Pfizer/AstraZeneca deal are doing their best, from their own particular perspective, to reach some answer. But as Alderley Park’s uncertain fate demonstrates, it is doubtful whether corporate manoeuvring effectively produces the pharmaceutical products we want.

Peter Williams is an accountant and journalist

Last updated: 29 May 2014