Planning permission for data centres - the Use Class explained

Chris Hicks, Director – Planning, explains the Use Class System and the implication for data centre planning applications. 

Navigating through the UK planning system can be time consuming, expensive and – all too often – uncertain. Adding to this complexity - and despite the exponential growth in demand for UK data centres – is the fact that no definitive Use Class for these developments has ever been established.  

For data centre developers who need resilient programmes offering speed to market, a grey area is an unwelcome risk. So how do you increase your chances of success? Start by knowing your options. 

The Use Class System

In UK planning, the Use Class system determines what a property may legally be used forLegislated by central Government, it groups uses of similar character into a number of Use Classes. Within these Classes, planning permission is not required to change use. The system is used by local planning authorities to regulate land use. This ensures that inappropriate uses are not allowed in areas where they may cause harm. Local planning authorities are required to produce a development plan which sets out policies for the management of development, including the allocation of areas for certain uses.   

For most properties and businessesthe UsClass system is very straightforward as there is a clearly defined class for most uses. But for data centres it gets a bit trickier 

Data centres do not fit comfortably into any particular Use Class. Most local planning authorities (often influenced by precedent) categorise data centres for their ‘storage’ of data; opting for Class B8 – storage or distribution. But, as most of us who work with data centres know, it’s not quite as simple as thatThere is an alternative option used by some local planning authorities and that is to classify data centres as not falling within any Use Class – they are Sui Generis (from the Latin phrase ‘of their own kind, in a class by itself’). 

The Use Class system was updated in September 2020 but there was no change or recognition for data centres. This seems like an opportunity missed, given the economic importance of data centres. So, until they are accurately represented we must understand the two most likely Use Class options and when to use them.

The Storage Solution - B8

The B8 Use Class encompasses use for storage or as a distribution centre. It can be argued that data centres are for the electronic storage of data and therefore should fall into this category. That can work well for data centre planning applications on land allocated for a B8 use. However, the development plan policy for some industrial estates does not allow B8 use. 

While these estates can provide ideal locations for a date centre, some local planning authorities specifically don’t allow B8 uses on them due to the perception that storage facilities generate relatively few jobs compared to industryThis arises because some local planning authorities are particularly anxious to be seen to maximise job creation. That perception of data centres is arguable, but in terms of the initial assessment of planning application success, it can be an important consideration. 

Sui Generis

In these instancesthe alternative is to argue for classification as ‘Sui Generis’ use, based on the fact that B8 doesnt acknowledge the complexity of data centre operationsBeyond the storage of data, data centres often maintain and upgrade as well as facilitate services for clients, including remote multiple-user access. Their nature means they often have quite different physical and design requirements to traditional storage buildings. 

The planning argument then becomes one of extolling the virtues of a data centre as a special case; e.g. advancing the narrow geographic locational requirements; their importance as part of national infrastructure; and their wider benefits to the community and off-site employment.  

Do your research

The ultimate decision maker for the UsClass of a data centre planning application is the local planning authority. The best approach is to research the local area in advance to understand what Use Class will be accepted. Our best advice would be to play your cards according to the local planning authority and how they’ve treated data centres in the past.  

It’s also important to understand the arguments where a local authority might reject B8 use application’. One of the main reasons for this is because a storage facility is not thought to generate much employment. However, this is not necessarily the case and can include a range of jobs including technical support staff such as site managers, engineers, technicians and security officers as well as additional regular visitors.  

By researching in advance, you should be able to present a convincing argument for job creation. 

How can we help?

Data centres have witnessed significant growth in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for digital communication. But, even before the pandemic hit, demand for data centre services was booming and had increased by more than 500% between 2010 and 2018. This demand may lead to a specific classification in due course but, in the meantime, our team can advise the best route through planning for your particular project requirements. 

With an in-depth knowledge of the sector, and over 50 years’ planning experience, we can work as project partners from start to finish. Chat to a planning expert today.

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