Residents and councillors clash over plans for ‘Europe’s largest data centre’ on rural land

Proposals have been drawn up to build ‘Europe’s largest data centre’ on the outskirts of Havering, though residents fear their concerns about its feasibility are going unheard.

Digital Reef, a London-based infrastructure developer, has put forward plans for the East Havering Data Centre in rural North Ockenden.

Straddling the boundary of Havering and Thurrock, the centre would comprise 40 hectares of data centre space, battery storage, horticulture, and educational and renewable energy facilities, according to promotional material.

The scheme will also feature a 113-hectare ‘ecology park’ – roughly the size of 174 football pitches – which Digital Reef says will be accessible to members of the public.

Havering Council has been supportive of how the scheme will affect the borough, saying that “while data centres are run by big companies, the demand for data centres is driven by consumers”.

The council believes it will boost employment and bring in funds that can help cover vital services, with Digital Reef expecting the centre to create 1,240 permanent jobs.

A spokesperson for the authority added: “The council is confident that if the data centre is approved, it will be a catalyst for new high tech industries locating in the borough providing further job opportunities, particularly for our young people.”

However, Ian Pirie, the co-ordinator of climate action group Havering Friends of the Earth, said many residents “totally oppose” the plans.

He said: “The data centre will take between ten and twelve years to build, and the impact of lorries during construction will be intolerable in these quiet country lanes.

“The impact on the site, if it is built, would also be unacceptable: instead of farmland, there will be a large number of warehouse-sized buildings, containing banks of computers, batteries, cooling systems, backup power sources, and more equipment.”

He added: “If this development is allowed, it will set a precedent, and we would then lose more and more of our green belt. The green belt forms the lungs of our city, providing clean air as well as rich wildlife.

“The plan to build such a massive structure on the green belt doesn’t just affect the residents of North Ockenden. If we allow this creeping industrialisation of our countryside, where will it stop?”

The group has also challenged the council on the site’s eco-friendly credentials, raising concerns it will “demand a tremendous amount of electricity and enormous quantities of water”.

The campus will be powered by the substation in Warley, which some have argued will constitute a reliance on fossil fuels.

A spokesperson for Havering Council told the LDRS it will meet net-zero targets and not produce any emissions. It will be powered entirely by renewable sources and no diesel will be used in any back-up supply, the spokesperson said.

The council and Digital Reef will hold a public consultation in due course but resident Danny Leach, whose farm backs on to the proposed site, said locals feel “shut out”.

A resident of the area for 19 years, he said he felt “angry” that residents were only told of it relatively recently, despite the plan having been in development for around two years.

He added that his 178-year-old home will “feel every vibration” of the construction work and the work would have a “massive impact” on the openness of the area.

He said: “Why not build three or four around the M25? But the land’s cheap here and fewer people to scream when you pour boiling water on them.

“I’m going to get views of 60 and 80 foot buildings – eight of them the size of Tesco superstores. It could force us to move.”

Though the council has said it will look into mitigating noise during construction and operation, he said he had “no idea” how it would be done without an adverse effect on people living nearby.

Another resident, living in nearby Church Lane, said she opposed the scheme “on almost every level”.

She said access to the centre will be via a “narrow country lane” and there wasn’t the infrastructure to support it.

She said: “These are B-roads, not A-roads. It’s going to have an absolutely horrendous effect on residents of Fen Lane.”

While councillors have also been accused of not listening to their constituents, the authority spokesperson added that it would .

They added: “Councillors could, if they wish, comment on the concept of the data centre, but are not in a position to comment on the proposals while it is still in development and essential research remains unfinished.

“Councillors are aware of the strength of feeling of some residents in North Ockendon but they also have to consider the broader interests of the Havering community as a whole.”

Digital Reef is pursuing a local development order (LDO), which does not require a formal planning application. The council leadership will either approve or reject the proposals, instead of Havering’s planning committee.

LDOs are often sought because they are more streamlined and can mean plans get passed quicker, but have been criticised for being ‘less rigorous’.

Residents have since launched a Change.org petition – Just Say “NO” to the Mega Data Centre in the green belt countryside – that has received almost 500 signatures.

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter

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