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Planning authorities need to keep pace

Robert Thorogood

Robert Thorogood

If information really is the fuel for the 21st Century economy then planning authorities need to move faster

In 2011 Peter Sondergaard, Executive Vice President at business research and advisory company Gartner, claimed that “Information is the oil of the 21st Century and analytics is the combustion engine.” Given that the combustion engine powered industry and helped change the developed world during the 20th Century it follows that the influence of data and its analysis on our day-to-day lives is set to spike.

The widespread availability of Information and its transfer has already had an enormous impact on society. It is barely 20 years since the heady days of the dot.com boom where there was near vertical growth in the everyday use of the Internet by both businesses and individuals. During those years data network providers rushed to install fibre networks in a bid to respond to the clamor for more information, more quickly.

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That first phase was focused on the requirements of the financial sector which was driving the e-revolution. This meant the networks needed to hit FSA requirements, be resilient and meet all regulations. A second phase in the digital revolution, almost in tandem with the first phase, saw the development of colocation spaces and shared data centers but now we find that the widespread uptake of cloud computing is seeing the need for single, outsourced data centers – huge knowledge banks that store data from homes and businesses across the world. Hospitals, banks, dentists and local authorities are all taking advantage of the flexibility that cloud computing and the datacenters needed to sustain it can bring.

While it is widely accepted that these data centers provide an increasingly essential role across our day-to-day lives, it can prove difficult to get agreement to construct these centers in the first place.

When categories don’t exist for data centers, this can lead to difficulty in obtaining planning permission

For example, in the UK, buildings that are to be constructed as data centers don’t naturally fall into a standard planning category e.g. B1, B2, B8.  Instead they are often deemed to be ‘Sui Generis’ (a Latin term that roughly translates as ‘of its own kind’), this can lead to difficulty in obtaining planning permission. In other parts of the world, categories don’t yet exist to cater for data centers, so careful communication is required with the local authorities and/or mayoral offices to demonstrate their need and value to society as a whole.

Even tech giants, such as Apple, have been caught in the planning permission mire. Apple had to wait for more than two years to get the final all clear to build a €1.7 billion data center in County Galway in the Republic of Ireland despite the local planning authority giving it the thumbs up in September 2015. Objectors called for a judicial review with objections largely based on the center’s environmental performance. A final decision has now been made, although it now that Apple itself may have cold feet.

Another example, back in the UK, in West London developer Prologis needed to revisit a planning permission for a B1/C and B2 light business use development. It wanted to change its use to a B8 class which covers ‘storage and distribution’ so that it could let the site to data hosting specialist Virtus. But a clause in the original permission had specifically excluded use as a data center – once again based on their environmental performance and their energy consumption.

There is no shying away from the fact that these such centers command vast amounts of energy and power to keep them running. They also require little staffing once open – certainly offering nowhere near the number of jobs of a similarly sized warehouse.

The counter argument is that they are invariably built to the highest environmental standards which can offset some of that energy consumption and that the number of jobs data centers support across the wider community far outweighs those that may have been displaced by any change of use.

Guidance is needed

A guidance framework specifically for data center developments is needed, to aid governments and planning authorities through the process, to avoid the business-stifling delays that have hit the Apple scheme.

Large tech companies are not constrained by national and international borders. They can and will develop these centers wherever they are needed and wherever is attractive to them. Countries that want to attract the level of investment these centers can bring need to find a simple, more cost-effective and more timely way of satisfying the planning authorities.

Clearly it can happen. Following completion of its first data center in Denmark, Apple announced it is to build a second center there. Plans for the Galway scheme and the initial Denmark project were announced on the same day!

Robert Thorogood is executive director of Hurley Palmer Flatt. He is a speaker at DCD events, including DCD>Zettastructure, which took place in London this week.

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