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Apple's delayed Irish datacentre prompts calls to reform country's planning system

The latest delays in Apple's bid to open a datacentre in Athenry, County Galway, has prompted calls for a revamp of how planning permission decisions in Ireland are handled

The delays faced by Apple during its two-and-a-half year bid to build a datacentre in Athenry, County Galway, are being hailed as proof the Irish planning system is in need of urgent reform.

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, Apple now has to wait until 12 October to hear the outcome of a judicial review into its datacentre construction plans, following several postponements by the Irish Commercial Court.

The project has proven hugely divisive within the town of Athenry, but supporters and objectors of the build are united in the fact they simply want to know if the project will proceed or not, after a series of delays, deferments and planning appeals.

In a post on the Athenry for Apple Facebook supporters’ page, group founder Paul Keane, called on the group’s 3,800 members to start pushing for an overhaul of the Irish planning system, to prevent other large commercial projects being treated in the same way as Apple’s datacentre plans.

“We must all push for change,” he said. “This cannot happen again. We must show the world that we are open for business – not for bureaucracy. That we can change to meet modern demands.”

“Ask for an overhaul of the planning system, especially concerning large commercial projects and the court systems accountability. Encourage others to do the same and let's make change happen.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Keane said the project delays are having a real-time impact on the town’s economy, and could shake the confidence of other firms looking to invest in the west of Ireland.

Read more about Apple's plans to build a datacentre in Athenry

“It’s not just Apple being affected by this. There are local suppliers that are hoping, who would have a verbal agreement with Apple for the various equipment, tools and hardware needed on site,” he said.

“There are also 350 construction jobs that haven’t started because of the delays, and the whole confidence in investing in the west of Ireland is affected. It’s having a very real-time affect right now.”

Calls for a reform

Martin Shanahan, CEO of IDA Ireland, the body responsible with attracting overseas investment into the country, recently backed calls for a reform of the Irish planning system, after being directly quizzed at an event on 18 July about the judicial review into the Apple datacentre project.

Shanahan said the organisation could not comment on the on-going appeal, but acknowledged the delays could prove problematic for commercial organisations looking to invest in the country.

“We do need a higher degree of predictability in relation to our planning processes. Not that we need predictability about the outcomes, but definitive timelines are what is required,” he said.

“We need predictability about how they progress and the timelines, and ensuring that those timelines are appropriate and tight, because frankly, commercial companies will not wait around and that is the danger here.

“It doesn’t send out a good signal, and a company the size of Apple might decide not to proceed, which would create its own issues,” he added.

Datacentre innovation in Ireland

The bulk of the datacentre development in Ireland to-date has predominantly occurred on east side of the island, with the city of Dublin proving a particularly attractive location for many of these firms to break ground.

So much so, a recent report by datacentre-focused analyst house, Broadgroup Consulting, suggests the number of server farms located in and around Dublin is now so vast the city is close to rivalling the more well-established hubs of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt in importance.

Hyperscale datacentre operators, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have collectively invested billions of pounds in building facilities in Ireland over the last few years, along with the great and good of the colocation and internet service provider communities.

The island’s congenial corporate tax regime, and the on-going efforts of the Irish government to court foreign investment from oversees firms have all played their part, along with the growing end-user demand for locally-hosted internet and cloud services.

In light of the lengthy delays and persistent opposition Apple has encountered while trying to get the green-light to proceed with its plans to build an 850 datacentre in Athenry, County Galway, there is a concern Ireland’s attractiveness as a datacentre location could be relatively short-lived.

Amazon’s datacentre build plans

One of the objectors in the Apple case is local environmental engineer Allan Daly, who is also in the midst of taking Amazon to task over its plans to build a €1bn datacentre in Dublin.

Like Apple, the company initially received permission from the local authority (Fingal County Council, in this case) to proceed with the project, before Daly and his co-objector David Hughes, asked ABP to challenge the decision on environmental grounds in May 2017.

The pair want an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be submitted alongside Amazon’s plans, and ABP have until 25 September 2017 to decide if that will be necessary or not.

If Daly and Hughes do not agree with the outcome of the ABP, they have the option to pursue a judicial review against ABP, which – as is the case with Apple – could see Amazon’s plans to crack on with the project subjected to similar delays.

If that were to happen, there is a concern other major tech firms may decide that setting up a server farm in Ireland is more trouble than its worth.

Ireland’s reputation as a growing datacentre hub

David McAuley, an advisory council member of Host In Ireland, an organisation that champions the country as a good place for overseas cloud firms to do business, is cautiously optimistic that Ireland’s nascent reputation as a growing datacentre hub will unaffected by these cases, though.

“In the longer-term, it could do some damage, but on the other hand it could enhance Ireland’s reputation because [situations like this] show we have a fair process, whereby corporates can’t come in and stomp all over the locals. We make them jump through a lot of hoops before we give them permission to do these things,” he told Computer Weekly.

There are datacentre builds that have already passed through the planning stages, and are in the throes of construction, meaning Ireland’s position as a thriving datacentre hub is assured for now.

“Once they press the button on construction, there is no going back,” said McAuley.

Computer Weekly contacted Apple for a comment on this story, but was told the company has no plans to comment further on the development at this time.

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