Data Centre planning applications: Four early considerations to maximise your chance of success

Getting a data centre through planning can be time-consuming, expensive and not always straightforward. Planning Director Simon Gamage shares his four recommendations for early considerations that can improve your chance of approval; and how we can help make complex easy.

Simon Gamage, Planning Director
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In the development of data centres, programme is everything. In a race to keep up with demand, new build data centre projects are time pressured, and often delay is not an option. But getting a project though the UK planning system can be time-consuming, and difficult to navigate.

In this competitive market an unsuccessful application, or going to appeal, can risk an entire project programme. But a lot of that risk can be mitigated by factoring in planning considerations early. A pro-active approach, including these four considerations, can give your project the best chance of success.

Local context and effective engagement

The decision maker for all new UK data centres is always the local authority. It’s therefore important to understand, early in the process, the planning history of the Local Planning Authority (LPA) you’re submitting your application to. In many cases, your project may be the first data centre to request planning but it’s important to check if any others have been approved, what issues came up and how much interest there was.

No matter if your proposal is the first data centre or the latest in a series that the local authority have dealt with, it’s always a good idea to look at the history to be able to engage with relevant stakeholders and evaluate any potential risks and opportunities.

Most sites will bring unique issues to consider but early and effective engagement, targeted at the right people at the right time, will set the tone for the entire planning process and identify any potential problems as early as possible.

Partnering with a planning consultant that has the depth of local knowledge can prove invaluable. RPS has a nationwide network of offices and local experts who can offer that insight right across the UK.

Pre-application consultation and EIA screening

Due to their emerging nature, UK data centres are generally not provided for in local development plans and development control policies. As your project may well be the first of its kind to be proposed in a certain area, it’s a good idea to use the pre-application consultation service offered by LPAs. The pre-application process will allow you to discuss the principle of the proposed project and how it might fit in with local plans and adopted planning policies as well as the council’s overarching strategic priorities. It will also allow you to explore and agree what environmental supporting studies and reports will be required.

We normally recommend seeking an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) screening opinion at the same time. A screening opinion will tell you whether the proposal needs an EIA before making the planning application. It’s always better to plan for this early as if it’s required unexpectedly further down the line, it can add significant delay to application submission and to getting a planning decision.

Taking these steps adds a little time in the short term, but ensures the right information is prepared and submitted first time, mitigating the need to go back and provide additional information - and the time and costs associated with that.

RPS can provide the full multi-disciplinary range of services required to prepare an EIA; removing the need to engage with and manage multiple suppliers.

BREEAM and sustainability

Many LPAs will have a policy that requires projects to achieve an ambitious BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) score, as well as concurrent targets for embedded sustainability (reducing embodied carbon and incorporating operational energy and/or carbon reduction measures like the provision of renewable energy generation on site). BREEAM is an international scheme providing third-party certification of the assessment of the sustainability performance of buildings, communities and infrastructure projects.

Currently data centres are assessed under ‘BREEAM Data Centres 2010’, a methodology which is now 11 years old. We expect this guidance to be updated soon, and for the requirements to become more challenging to achieve. In comparison to more recent versions of BREEAM, such as ‘BREEAM New Construction 2018’, BREEAM Data Centres 2010 has less stringent requirements and is relatively straight forward to achieve if addressed at the appropriate time.

Precise target requirements for data centres vary from each local authority so, again, it’s important to understand the latest regulatory background and the local authority policy position fully to establish what the requirement is as early as possible and what can be realistically achieved. If this consideration is left too late it can be increasingly difficult to ‘retro-fit’ sustainability measures to an evolving design, or to adapt a standard design to incorporate them.

Where it’s not possible to achieve particular standards, due to technical or financial feasibility, it’s important this is identified and fully reasoned early to enable a pragmatic conversation with the relevant regulators; and so you can begin looking for alternative solutions.  

At RPS we have architects, town planners and BREEAM and low carbon energy specialists working alongside one another meaning we’re able to fully interrogate these matters early; finding innovative and pragmatic solutions to help our clients meet these policy requirements.  

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG)

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is now commonly required by Local Planning Authorities as part of planning application submissions. Therefore, for all data centre projects in the UK we now expect to need to demonstrate BNG. This means that proposed projects should be able to deliver biodiversity enhancements above and beyond the site in its original condition.

To move through the planning process swiftly applicants will be asked to determine and evidence a project’s final BNG value using the specified Defra biodiversity metric. To achieve biodiversity net gain, proposals must follow the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ which compels planning applicants to avoid harm in the first instance, then mitigate or finally compensate for losses on-site, off-site or through a combination of the two solutions.

This is not always straightforward and can introduce unforeseen implications, like the need for more land to accommodate enhancements which may not have been factored into the original strategy.

You may need to work collaboratively between ecology, landscape and design professionals to deliver the best balance of mitigation measures whilst still delivering a high quality, cohesive project. Accommodating BNG enhancements might require adjusting standardised designs which can be difficult to achieve if identified late in the design stages.

Engaging a team of ecology, design, landscape and planning experts at a relatively early stage in your scheme development will ensure BNG requirements are flagged early, understood, and allowed for. 

 

How we can help

We have all the necessary expertise in house to support your planning application from start to finish. We can prepare a bespoke planning strategy that identifies the relevant stakeholders, potential risks and opportunities. Removing the need to engage with and manage multiple suppliers, we can also provide the full multi-disciplinary range of services to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment and deliver Biodiversity Net Gain. Chat to the team today and find out how we can help.

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