The proposals for the 500-acre site would involve developer Digital Reef building 15 warehouse-sized data storage facilities within a new “ecology park” situated outside the M25 east of Upminster and Cranham.
Havering Council describes the datacentre as a “£5.3 billion inward investment” that would create 1,200 local jobs and bring in approximately £13.5 million in income within four years.
However, the council and Digital Reef will need to demonstrate there are “very special circumstances” to justify building on legally protected land.
Speaking at Havering’s cabinet on Wednesday (November 9), lead member for planning and regeneration Cllr Graham Williamson said the centre would “attract high-tech jobs and businesses” to the borough.
He added that, once the centre is complete, the council’s income would be “transformed” with the addition of about £12 million in business rates – or up to £40 million if the centre is part of a new Thames-area investment zone.
Environmental benefits include 300 acres of currently private farmland becoming a public park with a mix of “biodiverse” grassland, wetland and woodland.
A report on the datacentre proposal, approved at the meeting, instructs director of regeneration Neil Stubbings to do “all things necessary and appropriate to expedite delivery”.
Following the meeting, council leader Cllr Ray Morgon confirmed that the council has submitted an ‘expression of interest’ for the borough to be within one of the government’s new low-tax investment zones, which would also include the existing Thames Freeport.
Figures in the report suggest that, if this did happen, the council would be able to keep 100 per cent of the business rates collected on the site, bringing in more than £40 million a year once construction is complete.
Digital Reef has also offered the council a £9 million ‘premium’ if construction starts by 2024, which the council believes is only likely to be possible by speeding up the planning process through a Local Development Order (LDO), which must be approved by a senior government minister.
According to a Digital Reef presentation, the size of the centre would increase London’s data capacity by 50 per cent and its location is close to an electricity substation able to supply the 600 megawatts (MW) required.
Energy regulator Ofgem estimates 1MW per hour is enough to power up to 2,000 homes, meaning the site would use enough electricity to power 1.2 million homes.
Although the plans suggest the centre would aspire to be “carbon neutral”, this would only be achieved by offsetting the energy use against the ecological benefits of the park and the potential use of renewable energy.
A paper modelling the financial benefits of the proposals, produced for Digital Reef by Oxford Economics using 2019 prices, estimates that within Havering the centre would support 1,200 jobs and create £65 million in wages.
In addition to the 15 data storage buildings of currently unspecified heights, smaller buildings containing batteries are proposed to reduce pressure on the national grid at peak times.
According to the council report, The University of Leicester has agreed to establish an Earth & Space Sustainability Institute that would monitor land use to “improve the sustainability of the planet”.
The university would also research indoor “vertical farming” on-site, using the large amount of “waste heat” produced by the datacentre to grow food.
In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Conservative group leader Cllr Damian White said the proposals represent a “significant opportunity” but questioned whether the council’s leadership is fully committed to protecting the Green Belt.
He added: “Whilst delivering significant inward investment for the borough, how will residents right across Havering benefit from the loss of 100s of acres of Green Belt land?
“This should form part of a wider debate on the upcoming update of the local plan.
“Rushing ahead without reallocating the land through an open public enquiry would be the wrong route for this type of development to be achieved.”
Addressing concerns about building on the Green Belt, Cllr Morgon said: “This is to bring back land into public use which is not currently accessible.
“Has this administration changed its attitude? No, these are exceptional circumstances, we’d be using the benefits of the land without any loss.”
Digital Reef is a company founded by property developer Reef Group’s chief executive Piers Slater and Ark Data Centres founder Jeff Thomas.
Ark has a datacentre in Edmonton and also has two more centres planned for West London.
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