Green light for 50,000 sqm Huawei research facility in Cambs despite heritage impacts

A Chinese telecommunications company has won consent for a 50,000 square metre research and development centre in South Cambridgeshire, after officers advised that the scheme's "substantial" economic benefits outweighed the "significant harm" caused to the setting of a nearby Iron Age fort.

A visualisation of the permitted Huawei development in Sawston, Cambs. Pic: Huawei Technologies UK
A visualisation of the permitted Huawei development in Sawston, Cambs. Pic: Huawei Technologies UK

Huawei's application was granted full planning permission by South Cambridgeshire District Council’s planning committee yesterday (Thursday). 

The scheme includes a 22,351 square metre research faciliity, 9,503 square metre of offices, a central utilities building and a basement containing 284 car parking spaces. 

The new centre is planned for the 6.3 hectare former Spicers site in the village of Sawston, which is part of a bigger estate purchased by the Chinese company last year, and is surrounded by green belt. 

The new facility will be used to carry out research and development in the field of photonics, which involves the use of lasers, optics, fibre-optics and electro-optical devices across a range of technologies such as data communications. 

An officers' report for the committee says the site lies within an "established employment area" designated for employment development in the 2018 South Cambridgeshire Local Plan.

It warns that the proposal "would have dis-benefits, including the significant harm caused to the setting of the scheduled Borough Hill marsh-fort, the moderate harm caused by the visual impact to neighbouring sensitive locations, and the limited harm caused by construction impacts". 

However, officers advised that these harms "are outweighed by the planning benefits that the scheme would bring". 

The report says the employment of up to 400 people on the site when it is fully up and running will bring "substantial benefits locally". 

It also says that Huawei submitted an application for a 28,954 square metre research and development space last year but withdrew it due to concerns about the scheme's visual and landscape impacts due to its massing and height.

While the new proposal's heigh of up to 48m has not changed, the report states, its redesign has created a "high-quality" building, which is "much more sympathetic" in its context with a well-articulated roof design. 

The "carefully chosen" finishing materials, matt-coloured roof and limestone cladding elevations will all help to reduce the building’s visual impact, the report adds

The application also proposes measures to improve the conservation and management of the  nearby Borough Hill Iron Age fort, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, potentially increasing public access. 

The building's visual impacts are to a "considerable extent" mitigated by biodiversity gains from measures to create "important" new grassland habitats offsite, officers added. 

Heat recovered from the centre’s operational process will meet the building’s entire heating and hot water demand. 

In addition, solar photovoltaics panels will provide approximately 11 per cent of the building’s energy demand. 

These measures will reduce the building emissions by a quarter, enabling it to meet the BREEAM "excellent" accreditation, the report adds. 

Officers concluded that "these positive benefits of the scheme are considered to outweigh the identified harm to heritage assets and visual impact". 

The application has been determined against the backdrop of growing political concerns about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s telecoms infrastructure. 

However, South Cambridgeshire council lead cabinet member for planning, Dr. Tumi Hawkins, said the application was determined on its own planning merits. 

The Liberal Democrat councillor said: “There has been a lot of wider comment on this proposal but when we determine planning applications, we can only take into account material planning considerations when coming to a decision. 

“Whether the applicant is a small, local sole trader or a large multi-national company, we must follow these same rules. 

“Having spent over 12 months working with the applicants and their technical team on this proposal, the council concluded that against these requirements, the planning application should be approved.”

The council said that the decision is subject to the conclusion of a section 106 planning agreement. 

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