Data centres and the planning system
The world’s data centre markets are booming.
The digitisation in the way people live, work and play have grown exponentially in recent years, with growing demand for the storage of personal and commercial data, which has fundamentally influenced and changed everyday operations within daily life. The data centre market now accounts for 7% of the UK's total GDP.
This trend shows no signs of slowing with figures estimating the market is due to grow by another 5.7% between now and 2027 alone, putting pressure on data centre operators and developers to deliver appropriate space to house the infrastructure.
With the average data centre measuring 100,000 sqft, finding available land to meet this burgeoning need is no easy task. Yet in London, 110 MW of take-up and 158 MW of supply are due to be delivered this year alone, according to data from the CBRE.
As the demand for data centres continues to increase and evolve, sourcing land provision is set to become more challenging. Clear emphasis on the need for data centres is required within national and local planning policy to help meet the significant need.
A hiatus in policy
Data centres have been described as the factories of the 21st century. However, they, and other nascent sectors, are navigating a planning system that was never designed with their industry’s requirements in mind, with policies and guidance entrenched in planning for traditional employment uses only.
There is a significant hiatus in policy guidance, both at a national and local level to facilitate and plan for growth within the sector. For example, in the UK, data centres are not referenced in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) nor in the supporting Planning Practice Guidance, both of which guide development within England.
This lack of planning policy was recognised by a recent inquiry from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on The Future of the Planning System in England, which stated that data centres are a specific issue which may need further consideration by the government to address their omission in national planning policy guidance.
Despite the findings of the inquiry, there remains a distinct lack of direction or recognition within the proposed reforms to national planning policy as part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently in consultation (between December 2022 and March 2023).
The absence of any policy direction at a national level, is therefore exaggerated at a local level. This means local planning authorities do not plan or assess the need for data centres as part of their Local Plans, a document which sets out planning policies and proposals for new development within a local authority.
So, what next?
With the unprecedented demand for data centres and their role in our daily lives, including those working in the industrial, pharmaceutical and start-up sectors, our lives could not operate successfully without the mission-critical infrastructure hosted in a data centre.
It is therefore perplexing how data centres, and the digital infrastructure that supports them, are not included in the government’s National Planning Policy Framework and in turn the majority of Local Plans. To ensure that supply keeps up with demand, a multifaceted approach is necessary.
Firstly, the government should incorporate and embed specific references to the importance of providing for data centres - as a key piece of infrastructure - and place a requirement on local planning authorities to plan for data centres as part of their employment need.
Secondly, alongside updates to the NPPF, the government should also review the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) to provide greater clarity to local authorities on how data centres should be planned for in Local Plans and how decisions regarding data centre development should be taken.
In turn, local authorities need to place greater emphasis on the national and regional importance of data centre operations in determining planning applications and look to identify sites and outline planning policies to support the requirement for data centres within emerging Local Plans.
Over the course of the decade, data centres will play a key role in the prosperity of the world’s markets. But developers and occupiers will need to navigate a complex planning system in the process if it is to deliver the necessary space to keep up with demand.
Working with a planning and development consultancy which understands the nuances of the planning system, and has long-term experience of securing applications for the most challenging of data centre sites, will ensure developments are given the priority they deserve in the economy.
In the meantime, we will be taking the opportunity of the NPPF consultation to highlight to the government the importance and necessity of data centres' inclusion within the policy framework for the country.