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Huawei’s plans for £1bn Cambridge R&D centre in Sawston approved - despite warning from Trump administration

Huawei’s revised plans for a new £1billion research and development centre in Sawston have been approved by South Cambridgeshire district councillors today (Thursday), despite the disapproval of the US government.

The Chinese technology company, which has a base on Cambridge Science Park, says the centre will create 200 new full-time jobs on the former Spicer’s site.

Councillors voted 9-1 in favour of granting planning permission, with only Cllr Deb Roberts (independent, Foxton) voting against it, and the chair Cllr John Batchelor (Lib Dem, Linton) unable to vote because he lost signal too many times on the remote meeting.

How the Huawei site will look
How the Huawei site will look

Henk Koopmans, CEO at Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK), told the council's planning committee that he hoped most of the company’s staff in Ipswich would move to this site, where 367 are expected to be employed in total.

The 50,445 square metre R&D centre will be used to conduct research in the field of photonics - the technology of generating and harnessing light, which has many applications, including in fibre optic broadband, data storage, lasers, electro-optical devices and other fields. Huawei has expertise in telecommunications, consumer electronics and smartphones. There will also be about 9,500 square metres of office space.

The Sawston plans have attracted criticism from the US administration.

Keith Krach, US under-secretary of state for economic growth, accused Huawei of being “an extension of the Chinese government”.

Urging the UK “to put the whole thing in perspective”, he warned of “aggressive tactics of the Chinese Communist party, because it all starts from there”.

He told The Times newspaper: “They are after the people and technology. They want to co-opt the researchers and talent from one of the most prestigious universities.”

His comments came as the FT reported how the Pentagon had named Huawei among a list of Chinese companies it believed were tied to the country’s military.

In January, the UK government confirmed that Huawei would be allowed to play a limited part in the roll-out of the country’s 5G network - a decision that prompted fury from US President Donald Trump. It was decided that it could not supply equipment for the core, sensitive areas of the network.

But in May it was confirmed that the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) will review the decision and consider the impact of allowing Huawei telecoms equipment to be used on Britain’s 5G network after the US brought fresh sanctions against the company, citing security fears.

The Telegraph reported how Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, co-founder of the China Research Group, called for today’s decision by councillors to be delayed for the NCSC review.

How the Huawei site in Sawston will look
How the Huawei site in Sawston will look

He said: “We have not really got our heads around what our overall approach is to strategic tech investments from China.”

Huawei has maintained that as a private company, it is not subject to influence from the Chinese government influence and poses no security threat.

South Cambridgeshire councillors were told by council officers today that “the proposed user of the development is not a material planning consideration for us here today”.

Their decision was based on the site’s planning merits.

Cllr Roberts called for a deferral over what she called “unanswered questions” and queried why there was no masterplan, given that the company has said it has wider plans for the site.

Suggesting it would lead to more development, she said: “It’s a Trojan horse and Trojan horses are highly dangerous.”

But her motion was defeated by eight votes to three.

The site sits between Whittlesford Road and the Cambridge to Liverpool Street railway line with the A1301 beyond.

Huawei submitted initial plans in summer 2019, but withdrew them following concerns over the impact on the landscape and the visual effect of the buildings.

Planning officers said the revised plans considered today featured a building that was “much more sympathetic” in its design. A report spelled out how it will include features to reduce energy demand and satisfied questions over underground water contamination and water demand.

A travel plan to reduce the use of cars has been drawn up, featuring a new cycle and pedestrian path that will link the A1301 and Whittlesford Road.

Huawei’s Henk Koopmans in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Huawei’s Henk Koopmans in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Huawei will fund improvements to the A1301/Mill Lane junction to aid cyclists and pedestrians, along with further improvements to the northern arm of the A1301/A505 roundabout.

After the meeting, South Cambridgeshire District Council’s lead cabinet member for planning, Cllr Dr Tumi Hawkins, said: “There has been a lot of wider comment on this proposal but when we determine planning applications, we can only take into account what are called material planning considerations when coming to a decision.

“These include national and local planning policies and the consideration of issues such as how the building fits into its surroundings and impacts on local roads. Whether the applicant is a small, local sole trader or a large multi-national company, we must follow these same rules. To the planning system, it does not matter who the applicant is.

“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.”

There will be a 20-metre buffer to help preserve the Iron Age hillfort known as Borough Hill, which sits to the south east of the site, and is designated as a scheduled ancient monument. As part of the application, there are plans for better public access to the monument, with an archaeological conservation management plan and a community outreach plan to be drawn up.

Huawei's plans for the Spicer's site
Huawei's plans for the Spicer's site

The development avoids the adjacent woodland, which is protected as a biodiversity priority habitat and offers potential homes for bats, nesting birds and dormice.

The council confirmed that a management plan will be established to safeguard the nearby Dernford Fen, a site of special scientific interest, while new grassland will be created to the west of the existing woodland, utilising soil from the site.

At least 10 per cent of the emissions from the development are to be offset by renewable or low-carbon energy sources, with solar panels generating electricity for the building.

Heating and hot water will be provided using renewable sources and reuse schemes.

The application had the support of Sawston Parish Council and Whittlesford Parish Council, while Stapleford Parish Council raised no objection.

The decision to approve is, as is usual with such applications, subject to the completion of a Section 106 planning agreement.

Additional reporting: Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter

Read more

Huawei submits revised plans for R&D centre in Sawston that would create 350 jobs

April 2019: Huawei moves to quell fears over plans for Sawston site

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