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Huawei plans approved in Sawston




Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter

Controversial telecoms giant Huawei has been granted approval to build the first phase of its planned Cambridgeshire campus.

Ahead of the decision on Thursday (June 25) the application drew international attention owing to concerns over Huawei’s technology and its relationship with the Communist Party of China.

Councillors on South Cambridgeshire District Council’s planning committee voted nine to one in favour, granting the company planning permission to build an office and research and development facility in Sawston, nine miles outside of Cambridge.

LDR sawston (37261078)
LDR sawston (37261078)

According to the planning application it is “the first phase of a wider campus” and “provides Huawei with the opportunity to move their operation from Ipswich to Cambridge”.

Business Weekly reported that Huawei bought the 530 acre site – home to the former wholesaler Spicers, just off the A1301 Sawston bypass – for £37.5 million in 2018.

In a statement released after the planning decision was made, the company said it will invest £1billion in this first phase of the campus project.

LDR sawston (37261073)
LDR sawston (37261073)

The vice president of Huawei, Victor Zhang, said: “It’s the perfect location for this integrated innovation campus. Through close collaboration with research institutes, universities, and local industry, we want to advance optical communications technology for the industry as a whole, while doing our part to support the UK’ broader industrial strategy.

“Ultimately, we want to help enshrine the UK’s leading position in optoelectronics and promote UK tech on a global scale.”

Somewhat unusually, the planning committee drew the attention of senior figures in the US government earlier this week.

The Times reported that a source had said the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “really furious” over the planned research facility.

LDR sawston (37261076)
LDR sawston (37261076)

Ahead of the meeting the US Under-Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Keith Krach, was reported in the Times as calling Huawei “an extension of the Chinese government”.

He was quoted as saying: “They [Huawei] are after the people and technology. They want to co-opt the researchers and talent from one of the most prestigious universities.”

Critics have alleged the telecoms company is too closely aligned with the Chinese state – a criticism that has played a prominent role in the debate over the extent to which Huawei should be involved in the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

As recently as Wednesday (June 24) the Financial Times reported that the US government had named Huawei as a company “aiding” the Chinese military.

The UK government has said it is reviewing Huawei’s involvement in the nation’s 5G infrastructure.

Huawei has denied that it poses a greater cyber security risk than its competitors, has said that there is no evidence the company has been involved in espionage, and that it is independent of the Chinese state.

Councillors on the planning committee were advised to put aside those concerns, and prior to the meeting the council vowed it would decide the application “based entirely on consideration of its planning merits”.

The council’s delivery manager for strategic sites, Chris Carter, told councillors “the proposed user of the development is not a material planning consideration for us here today”.

Speaking for the applicant, the chief executive officer at Huawei Technologies Research and Development UK, Henk Koopmans, said the plans for a “state-of-the-art research and development facility” are “exciting” and that the company had taken “a great deal of time” to liaise with the council and the community.

He said: “Huawei is a long-term major investor and partner for the UK. For more than 20 years we have invested and operated in the UK, providing 3G, 4G and now 5G products, and we plan on continuing to do so for many years to come. We currently employ 1,600 people in the UK across 20 UK offices.”

In response to concerns over the company’s future plans and the next phases of the proposed campus, he said most of the wider site owned by the company – more than 500 acres – is greenbelt and said “as the current application shows, we have no intention to build on the greenbelt, there is plenty for us to build on the brownfield site”.

He said the company will “work closely with all the stakeholders” on future development.

The company said in a statement the plans would “directly create around 400 local jobs”.

But when asked about the impact on the company’s current site in the Cambridge Science Park, Mr Koopmans said that staff would be moving from its site in Ipswich.

He told the committee: “It will be our team from Ipswich actually that will move across, we hope that most of them will move across, and that would mean that we would create about 200 additional new jobs.”

He said the current proposals for the Sawston site require 367 jobs to operate the facility.

The plans had been recommended to the committee for approval by planning officers.

Councillor Deborah Roberts pushed for the decision to be deferred and was the only councillor who voted against approval.

She said there were “unanswered questions” over the company’s wider development plans for the area.

She pointed to the water-intensive nature of the processes at the facility, and said that although Cambridge Water did not object “they are certainly putting warning signs in there”.

Cllr Roberts said that given the applicant has stated it plans further development on the site, she said “it should have a master plan”.

“What about the impact on travel? What about the impact on housing?” she said, adding “this area is being pushed and pushed and pushed. We have no real plans to accommodate this sort of growth that this business is likely to be bringing.”

She said the committee needed to look at “the bigger picture”.

“I think [the decision is] premature, I don’t see what the great hurry is here,” she said, adding further information may come once the decision has been made.

“It’s a Trojan Horse,” Cllr Roberts said, “and Trojan Horses are highly dangerous beasts”.

A planning officer told the committee the application is in an established employment area and therefore a master plan is not necessary – but that one will likely be required for future development.

The chairman of the planning committee, councillor John Batchelor – who could not vote in the end because his internet cut out several times during the virtual meeting – spoke in favour of the development.

Cllr Batchelor said: “This looks like an excellent use of a brownfield site. It is fully in compliance with our local plan. There are significant benefits to the local area and wider, particularly in terms of improvements to infrastructure, the creation of jobs, and the protection of landscape.”

The application site is about 16 acres. The plan will see some buildings on site demolished and an office and research facility built.

The applicant said the buildings will stand around 30 metres at their highest point and provide 300 parking spaces and more than 80 cycling spaces.

Whittlesford and Sawston parish councils supported the application subject to conditions, and Linton Parish Council objected.

Cambridge Past, Present and Future, a charity to protect the green character of Cambridge, objected.

A planning officer said the design of the building aims to reduce energy demands. Officers said it would – under the BREEAM environmental assessment criteria – be rated as “very good” overall with “excellent” achieved for energy use and carbon reduction.

The council’s urban design officer said the application would create “a distinctive new building that responds to both its setting and [the constraints] of the site”.



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