EDITOR'S LETTER: The Medicines Agency’s headache

The belief by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that it could vacate its HQ in London without being financially on the hook to its landlord now seems misplaced.

Its argument that Brexit amounted to ‘frustration’ of the lease and that it therefore wouldn’t have to pay £13 mln annual rent for the remainder of the 25-year term was batted away by the High Court in London last month. While a disappointing outcome for the EMA, the decision was welcomed by UK property owners who feared the genie would have been let out of the medicine bottle, allowing other tenants to opt out of legal agreements had the agency won its case.

We shall see if an appeal is forthcoming or successful. In the meantime, we are hearing mixed stories on a human level to do with EMA’s move to Amsterdam that leads one to suppose this is a bit of a headache from another perspective. On the one hand, some workers have decided that relocating from London to Amsterdam is an adventure and have seized the opportunity. On the other, some staff feel distressed and say the whole thing is sad and a waste of time.

According to an insider, at the end of February every interim, plus many contractors and trainees left the EMA. There is also a number of staff members who have resigned.

Roughly one third to a half are to telework from the UK and ‘other’ EU countries from early March, some on condition that they make an appearance at the Amsterdam HQ say for one week every month.

It is thought that roughly half of those that have decided to stay with the EMA have relocated. Those with families that wished to go to Amsterdam moved last year in time for the new school year. Others have just moved over. But anecdotally, we hear that many are struggling to sell their house or flat in the UK. Also, spouses or partners of EMA workers that have relocated are looking for a job. Furthermore, because the new home for the EMA is not yet built and might only be ready late this year or early 2020, staff find themselves working in a renovated office half the size of their former swanky base in Canary Wharf.

A bit like Brexit itself, the whole thing feels like a hodgepodge, but who knows, it might work out well in the end. The EMA will get a brand-new building, it hopes to retain as many staff as possible, and has received 3,500 unsolicited applications.

What relocations of major institutions like this do show is how they deeply affect people’s working and private lives and how they are forced to adapt to new routines in new urban environments. And, how urban environments are designed and what city dwellers desire and value happens to be the theme of our special report in this issue. In the case of EMA workers used to commuting to or within London, Amsterdam will likely be a somewhat different experience. 

One wonders how the relocation of another EU agency, the European Banking Authority (EBA), is progressing. Its 160 staff are moving to the Europlaza tower in Paris’s La Défense business quarter after protracted wrangling over its departure from London. The banking watchdog is expected to move into the office in April, shortly after the UK leaves the EU.

As folk prepare to head down to the south of France for Mipim, the continued fall out from Brexit continues. One would expect Brexit to take up more talking time at Mipim than the other current political turmoil we see – that of the Yellow Vests movement. Having begun in Paris in November 2018 there is plenty of unrest over issues like fuel prices, the cost of living and tax reforms perceived to attack the middle and working classes. Yellow vest protests have since caught on around the world, but I would have thought property investing is fairly insulated from such unrest. Brexit of course is another matter, as the EMA has just shown us.

For those of you that are in Cannes, we hope you have a successful trip!


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