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The Irish High Court has potentially scuppered Apple’s bid to sell on a plot of land it owns in Athenry, County Galway, as a datacentre development opportunity, by quashing the planning permission extension it had secured for the site.
The consumer technology giant secured a five-year extension to the planning permission needed to build a datacentre campus on the site from Galway County Council in August 2021, but this decision was challenged via judicial review and has now been overturned, Computer Weekly has learned.
The High Court judicial review judgment, dated 24 May 2022, confirms that a request for an “Order of Certiorari” to quash the council’s decision to extend the planning permission deadline was submitted in September 2021. That request has been granted.
The challenge was raised by Allan Daly, a longstanding objector to the project, and environmental consultancy Eco Advocacy against Galway County Council, with Apple indirectly involved in the action and listed in the court document as a “Notice Party”.
The document, seen by Computer Weekly, stated: “The court doth order… an Order of Certiorari… quashing the decision of the council made on the 5th day of August 2021 to grant to the Notice Party an extension of duration of planning permission… in respect of a development compromising the construction of a datacentre building, substation and associated development at Derrydonnell, Athenry, County Galway.”
This means there is no longer an active proposal or permission for a datacentre to be built on the site, which may complicate how Apple positions the site to potential buyers.
Apple put the site up for sale in 2019 and it was marketed as “Data Hub West” by real estate agents in both Ireland and the US, who described it as being a “ready-to-go datacentre development”.
The marketing materials confirmed the “masterplan” for the campus as being designed to house a total of eight data halls once completed, although planning permission had – at that stage – been granted only for the first phase of the build.
With no active planning permission now in place to build a datacentre campus, Computer Weekly understands the site will have to be listed for sale as “open space”.
Apple acquired the site – near Derrydonnell forest in Athenry – with the intention of building a server farm campus to underpin its European operations, and secured the original planning permission for the build in September 2015.
After years of legal action, planning disputes and local opposition to the project, Apple was unable to proceed with the project, and confirmed in May 2018 that it was abandoning its plans to build a datacentre campus in Ireland. The site was subsequently put up for sale.
The planning permission granted for the first phase was due to expire on 24 September 2021, and – with a buyer for the site still to be found – details emerged in June 2021 that Apple had applied to Galway County Council to have the planning permission deadline extended by five years. The request was granted by the council in August 2021, before being challenged in the High Court by Daly and Eco Advocacy.
Since Apple originally applied for planning permission for the site, the rules governing how datacentre developments should proceed in Ireland have been subject to changes.
Computer Weekly understands the challenge raised by Daly and Eco Advocacy relate to this, with the pair of the view that – in the light of the new planning rules – that Apple should have been asked to submit additional, updated details about the environmental impact of the proposed build.
“Apple did everything that was asked of them by the council and were operating in line with the planning framework, and then the rules changed,” said a source close to the case, speaking to Computer Weekly on condition of anonymity.
“Galway County Council felt there was nothing additional required for Apple [despite the rule change], so the planning permission extension was granted, but then an appeal was lodged by the two plaintiffs, who felt a different environmental impact assessment should have been submitted.”
Computer Weekly contacted Daly, Eco Advocacy and Apple for comment on this story, but all declined. A request for comment was also submitted to Galway County Council but, at the time of publication, no response had been received.
News of the High Court’s decision in the Apple case coincides with a push by utility regulators and local councils to curtail the number of new datacentres being built in Ireland over concerns about the robustness of the country’s national grid.
For example, South Dublin County Council has been criticised by business groups for waving through amendments in its draft development plan that would constitute a ban on new datacentre developments without “strategic justification”.
Meanwhile, state-owned electric power transmission company EirGrid confirmed in early 2022 that it would not be issuing any new grid connections to datacentres in the Dublin region until at least 2028 because of grid capacity concerns.