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Britain’s Brewing Battle Over Data Centers

Britain’s Brewing Battle Over Data Centers
Britain’s Brewing Battle Over Data Centers


As mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz has plenty of problems to reckon with. Her London borough is wrestling with entrenched poverty and the capital’s highest rate of residents stuck in temporary housing. But midway through her second term, Fiaz has a new plan to turn things around. She believes that AI could provide a multimillion-pound boost to economic growth, and she’s campaigning for Newham to get a share. “We want to be able to seize the opportunities of the data economy,” she says, “and data centers are a core part of that.”

Fiaz’s support for the server farms reflects the enthusiasm of a new generation of Labour politicians expecting to be voted into power in the UK election later this week. After 14 years of center-right Conservative rule, polls predict that voters will endorse the center-left Labour Party’s pledges to kick-start economic growth and grasp the potential of AI—in part by making it easier to build more data centers across the country.

Last month, Newham approved the nation’s latest data center, on a patch of industrial land overlooking the River Thames. The plan was welcomed by some residents, who had fiercely campaigned against a new lorry depot destined for the same site. “Everyone breathed a sigh of relief,” says Sam Parsons of the Royal Wharf Residents Association, which represents 1,600 people who live in a nearby housing development. Personally, however, Parsons is still worried—mostly about the noise the data center could make once building-work has finished. “There’s a place in America where residents had a terrible time with this humming sound,” he says, referring to reports out of Virginia last year. On a Thursday morning in Newham, the handful of people that spoke to WIRED as they were passing London City Hall near to the data center site said they did not know about the plans. Most local residents seemed disinterested in how the 210-megawatt infrastructure would impact the already hugely built-up area, but one resident, Paul, who refused to give a surname, summed up the general sentiment: “We have zero need for it,” he says.

If Labour does get elected to power this week, ministers will have to convince people across the UK, already Europe’s biggest market for data centers, why they need even more and decide where to put them.

Discontent is brewing across the country, with opposition particularly strong in areas known as the “green belt,” swaths of countryside designated to prevent urban sprawl. Labour is well-aware the party’s plan to make it easier to build data centers risks causing conflict between developers and locals, according to two people with knowledge of internal party discussions. Residents in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Dublin have clashed with data center developers, complaining of the buildings’ insatiable appetite for power and water. All three cities have since imposed restrictions on new developments.

“The question for national politicians, rather than poor little us, is: What does the country value most?” says Jane Griffin, spokesperson for the Colne Valley Regional Park, a stretch of farmland, woodland and lakes on the outskirts of London where there have been six applications to build new data centers. “Green spaces with trees and lakes? Or do we want a massive, great data center?”

Britain’s Brewing Battle Over Data Centers

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