Developer waves £9m carrot for Havering Council in green belt data centre bid

A developer hoping to build a huge data centre on the edge of Havering has offered the council £9million if permission is granted.

Digital Reef is proposing to build 15 warehouse-sized data storage facilities within a new 500-acre “ecology park” on green belt land to the east of Upminster and Cranham.

Late last year Havering Council endorsed the plans as “too good to pass up” due to the economic benefits and the area’s current landowners have signed conditional contracts to let their properties.

In turn, Digital Reef has now updated its offer to the council by offering a £9m “development premium” if planning permission is granted.

Previously, the company had only offered the payment if the council gave up planning powers for the site through a fast-track option known as a Local Development Order (LDO), which it hoped would allow construction to start by 2024.

Speaking at a meeting of council leaders on April 12, cabinet member for planning and regeneration Graham Williamson said the premium would be “most welcome”.

He added that the government has abandoned its plans for investment zones, which would have allowed the council to keep millions in income from business rates paid by the data centre.

The council emphasised that the developer’s offer would not “seek the predetermination” of any decision made by the “local planning authority” that it runs.

The council and Digital Reef will also need to demonstrate there are “very special circumstances” to justify building on legally-protected greenbelt land.

Despite the huge 600 megawatts needed to power the centre, a report before cabinet members argues it could be a “carbon-neutral facility”.

Digital Reef would achieve this by investing £116m in the nearby Warley electricity substation to supply the national grid with “up to 1,060mw of green energy” produced by solar, wind and “green hydrogen projects” on the site.

The report claims that “up to 9,900 jobs” would be created by the centre, although the council’s director of regeneration Neil Stubbings admitted only about “30 or 50” people would work at the data centre at once it is operational.

Other ideas for the site include a 40,000sqm research and development centre for horticulture and a “very substantial green open space”.

The University of Leicester has also expressed an interest in establishing an “Earth and Space Sustainability Institute” to monitor land use and “carbon sequestration”.

Local and national environmental groups have raised concerns about the plans, with the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) saying it is “appalled” at the scheme.

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter