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UK Government blocks Green Belt data centre project, decision called ‘deranged’ on social media

Written by Tue 7 Nov 2023

A UK Government Minister has denied permission for a data centre construction in Buckinghamshire’s Green Belt to safeguard the protected area. 

Minister Lee Rowley’s decision, made on behalf of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, resulted in criticism on social media. One X user labelled it ‘deranged’ due to the nation’s growing need for increased computing capacity.

The Iver hyperscale data centre was designed to provide up to 147MW of capacity across three buildings, with a combined footprint reaching up to 163,000sqm. The project included ancillary offices, internal equipment, emergency backup generators, and fuel storage.

The data centre was planned for a former landfill site believed to have been abandoned for several years. The hyperscale data centre was also planned to be located adjacent to the West London Industrial Park and close to the M25.

In a letter to developer Pegasus Planning, Rowley said the data centre project would ‘profoundly transform the landscape’. He said the Industrial Park’s boundary serves as a marker between urban Greater London and open land, which is further accentuated by the River Colne. 

“The Secretary of State agrees … that overall, due to the size, bulk and height of the proposed buildings, the proposal would significantly harm the openness of the Green Belt in this location, both spatially and visually,” said Rowley.

The UK’s Rising Need for Data Centre Capacity 

There is significant demand for more data centres in the Slough Availability Zone (SAZ). A data centre availability zone are isolated data centres located within specific regions in which public cloud services originate and operate. 

The SAZ is situated close to digital connections running from London to the South West of the UK and across the Atlantic.

Data centre demand is driven by the rise in cloud computing, rapid growth in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and the rise of data analytics.

Buckinghamshire Council has expressed concerns in meeting data centre demand. Developers are running out of available land and they are encroaching on the Green Belt. This has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of such a strategy. 

“There is a significant and substantial demand for new data centres in the Slough Availability Zone (SAZ), and the provision of data centres would make a significant contribution to the UK economy. The Secretary of State agrees that significant weight should be given to the need for additional data centre capacity within the UK and the SAZ,” said UK Minister Lee Rowley.

In the data centre project appeal, evidence was presented by Pegasus Planning on behalf of investment company Greystoke Land and industrial services provider Altrad Limited. This evidence indicated a projected 20% annual increase in overall demand for data centre capacity in London.

The figure could potentially rise from 2,500MW to 3,100MW between 2022 and 2027. In the SAZ in the same period, demand could increase from 1,460MW to 2,000MW with a central estimate of 1,730MW. 

With the planned IT load at the proposed site, the facility was expected to provide an estimated 8.5% additional capacity in the SAZ between 2022 and 2027. 

The Council said it has no evidence to dispute the estimates of the capacity required in the SAZ provided by Pegasus Planning. However, there does remain a degree of uncertainty.

Support for Maintaining the Green Belt Faces Opposition

Minister Rowley’s decision to reject the Iver data centre project spurned outrage on social media.

Minister Rowley’s opinions were previously echoed by Planning Inspector, Peter Mark Sturgess, in a May report sent to Michael Gove. Sturgess recommended rejecting the data centre project appeal, citing that the harm to the Green Belt outweighs the benefits of the development.

“The countryside doesn’t have to be beautiful or publicly accessible to be protected; it simply needs to be free from development,” said Sturgess. 

Planning Inspector Peter Mark Sturgess stressed that nearby architecture to the site, like the M25, have an urban influence but do not detract significantly from the largely rural feel. He argued the site maintained a strong unspoilt character. 

“This is absolutely deranged. UK Government refuses planning permission for a data centre despite recognising an ‘urgent need’ for it partly because it thinks being right next to the M25 has negligible impact on Green Belt amenity value,” said David Algonquin on X (formerly Twitter). 

Council Questions Future Data Centre Demand

Buckinghamshire Council contended that a decision to build on protected land like the Green Belt needs to be made for the long term and not just for the short-term demands of the industry,

“Once the land proposed for the data centre is built on, it is lost forever. A key characteristic of Green Belts is their permanence,” said Buckinghamshire Council.

The local Council argued that decisions regarding data centre construction need to be made with a long-term perspective, rather than solely catering to short-term industry demands. 

“Therefore, the sustainable answer to the need for new data centres is that the need must be met, but met elsewhere. If the SAZ has reached its capacity, then that need should be met in another availability zone where there is electrical capacity so that it can be delivered sooner to meet the identified need,” added Buckinghamshire Council.

The Council stressed the importance of recognising the current need for data centres is only projected until 2027. The Council said that while data centre demand has been rising, it could potentially slow down due to shifts in behaviour, data storage saturation, or technological advancements making massive data centres obsolete.

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Written by Tue 7 Nov 2023

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