Politicians must show vision and foresight to power data centre growth

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending (virtually, of course) Built Environment Networking’s Data Centres Development Conference. The event was organised superbly and the platform, which included a ‘speed networking’ function, made the experience almost as good as being able to meet up in person. Congratulations to the BEN team for organising.

Data Centres are an area of development that SP Broadway has started to work in, with the sector in the UK, particularly in and around London, booming, contributing trillions to the global economy. If you’re not sure what a data centre is, it basically enables you to read this right now, as well as use your emails, social media, online banking and shopping. They are the key infrastructure that keep us all connected.

You would be forgiven for thinking that with such a huge amount of value and strategic importance, data centres would be front and centre of Britain’s post-Brexit, post-COVID industrial strategy. However, they are not even mentioned. What’s more, as has become apparent from our own work supporting the data centre proposals, they are nowhere to found in either local or national planning policy.

In my experience, the planning system failing to have appropriate, specific policies for different sectors is sadly nothing new. Numerous LPAs have had little or nothing to say in their adopted and emerging Local Plans on all sorts of non-residential uses, from football stadiums, film studios, hotels and even certain types of specialist accommodation for older people. Like a lot of these, data centres often get crammed into an entirely inappropriate use class, mainly alongside warehouses, resulting in totally unnecessary conditions being attached, such as a large amount of parking space.

But the planning challenges go beyond this. Data centres can’t just be built anywhere. A reliable, low carbon power supply needs to be available, explaining why the areas around large cities such as London have become so attractive for the sector. Around the world, data centres are now opting to supply their own energy, such as from dedicated wind turbines. Good luck getting those consented in the Home Counties!

The sector is thinking of innovative ways to contribute to the global effort to hit net zero carbon emissions. Collaborative developments, where a data centre can be built alongside other employment or even residential would offer the opportunity for heat generated by the data centre to be used by its neighbours. Again though, how this could be made to fit with current local and national planning policy is a challenge.

Land is another issue and, as with other non-residential and residential developments alike, the Green Belt presents a huge hurdle. Innovative and attractive design means that data centres are no longer big ugly warehouses but as long as the planning system remains wedded to precluding development from some of the most suitable sites for such development, the sector will continue to have a fight on its hands.

The sector isn’t going anywhere and is continuing to grow at a fast pace but in order for the full potential to be released in the UK, some joined-up thinking and a bit of vision from politicians, both local and national, will be needed. The opportunity to expand a multi-billion pound industry, alongside expansions in low carbon energy, is one which is there for the taking.

As with housing, the demand, knowhow and investment is there. All that it requires is the political will to make it happen.

Author: Robert Laird

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