When everything depends on a successful application, shaping the right planning strategy can be the key to speed and success. Chris Hicks, Director – Planning, shares his six-step recommendation.
The data centre industry is growing at an exponential rate. Accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the demand for cloud services has risen sharply leaving data centre operators in a race to keep up. But somewhat of a double-edged sword for the industry, the pandemic has also slowed project completions throughout 2020. Now, to make sure supply can keep up with the forecast demand, it’s all about speed.
In the UK market, one of the biggest hurdles can be obtaining planning permission. The UK planning system can prove incredibly time-consuming to navigate, but it is not ‘one-size-fits-all’ and there are different routes available. So, when everything depends on a successful application, shaping the right planning strategy can be the key to balancing speed, investment and risk while keeping your data centre project moving.
Planning considerations should begin at initial site selection. Right up front, whether an existing building or plot of land, you should consider whether the site has suitable B8 planning permission or is allocated for B8 use respectively. Data centre applications are most commonly treated by planning authorities as a B8 use class, making this the simplest and often quickest route to approval.
However if your profile doesn’t fit this criteria, there are other options available. We explain the data centre planning use class and its implications here.
Either way, the message is simple. Appointing a specialist planning consultant as early as initial site selection can save you significant time and effort in the long run; they will advise whether planning permission for a data centre is likely to be forthcoming and the best routes available to you.
It’s normally a good idea to meet relevant local authority officers for a formal discussion – known as a pre-application meeting – before you submit an application. This can sometimes be time-consuming, but will save time in the long run by providing invaluable insight into the position of the authority. When attending a meeting, get the most out of it by putting forward as much information as possible at this early stage. You will be given an assessment of the likelihood of planning permission, the potential issues that need to be addressed, and conditions that might be imposed. Pre-application advice can:
Timing is important when creating a planning strategy for your data centre. The speediest route is where land or buildings already have a B8 use – i.e. the principle of the land or building use has already been established. Next - in terms of least ‘planning difficulty’ - is previously developed land (sometimes know as brownfield land). This will be given preference for development over a greenfield (previously undeveloped) site.
Where the site selection process has identified a greenfield site it’s important to be aware this will present the greater planning challenge, and therefore time, to secure a permission. It’s still possible to make a planning application on such a site, presenting a special case as to why it should be developed for a data centre. But an alternative and possibly more productive route is to seek to change the development plan so the land becomes allocated for commercial development. However that will be a lengthy process – years, rather than months.
When preparing your data centre application, there are several routes available. Considering these options can be particularly valuable if you have uncertainty over whether approval is likely to be granted. In this instance you may not want to commit to pursuing a full planning application straight away – or the financial investment associated.
A cheaper and less time-intensive first step is an outline planning application, which will determine if the proposal is acceptable in principle. Outline planning applications need to include information on the scale and nature of the development proposed - but you are (largely) in control of the level of detail you provide. It should allow you to find out, in principle, if the site will be accepted without the cost of the full application or the time associated with preparing it. However, the local authority may still ask for more detailed plans before accepting.
In comparison, a full planning application should include a breakdown of access, layout of the site, full plans and elevations. If you’re confident that your site will be granted permission, a full planning application is more cost-effective and can save time overall.
The third option is a hybrid of the two and one that a local planning authority may accept at their discretion. This might apply for a larger site that you want to stagger development on and would mean splitting into two applications. Where full details of the data centre are known, but details of the rest of the scheme are not worked up, you could apply for full planning permission for one part and outline planning permission for the other. The local authority may allow this so that permission for separate elements can be given priority.
When time is of the essence, we would always advise to commit to a Planning Performance Agreement (PPA). A PPA is a voluntary agreement between the applicant and the planning department regarding timing and resourcing. It’s essentially an outline for the parties to come together and agree on how they will take a development proposal through the planning process. Although this is a voluntary agreement, some local planning authorities will insist on it as it generally prioritises the application and ultimately saves time. It applies to the pre-application process and the application itself. These agreements are typically used for applications that might be complex to determine and so are ideal for a UK data centre.
In the UK nearly all planning applications are the subject of consultation. The larger the scheme the greater the degree of consultation. That consultation includes local residents, local politicians, amenity groups and other technical bodies – these are collectively often referred to as stakeholders. The success of an application will be heavily influenced by the views of this group. A vital step to increase your chances of success is therefore to try and influence these stakeholders as part of a structured campaign.
For larger schemes it will be helpful to find out what the key issues in the area are and how the proposed scheme might help address those. Such information exchange might come for example from exhibitions, leafleting, online and even door to door conversations.
Those stakeholders in turn will influence the decision makers – normally the elected Members of the Planning Committee that decide large applications. There are likely to be some key Members of this Committee and appropriate liaison with those key members can be important (for example if a Committee Member also represents the local area in which the application has been made).
Meeting with a planning officer for an informal discussion before you apply is a good idea. This meeting can verify the list of requirements the local planning authority has and can ensure that your application is valid. The ultimate decision will be the local authority so a good approach is to research the local area in advance to understand how data centres have been treated in the past. If concerns have been raised previously, or data centre applications rejected, it’s good to know this in advance to help you prepare your case in response. For example, some local authorities may raise concern around employment generation, however the true employment generation of a data centre is often underestimated.
Navigating the planning process can be complex, and when everything depends on a successful application it’s important to get it right. RPS planning consultants make complex easy. We can advise how to increase your chances of success, streamline and manage the process and help you mitigate risk. With an in-depth knowledge of the sector, and over 50 years’ planning experience, we can work as project partners from start to finish.
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