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141118 Bob Hutchinson,Tulla Road.Pic Arthur Ellis.

Residents in the dark over €500 million data centre

PEOPLE living adjacent to the site of a proposed one million square foot data centre campus on the outskirts of Ennis have been almost completely left in the dark about the implications for them.

On Wednesday, several of the people living close to the site said that while prospective developer Tom McNamara has spoken to them, they still have little information and harbour significant concerns.

One woman said she is “totally in shock”, while resident Edward Casey said it has caused a degree of upset in the area. “A neighbour of ours didn’t sleep for two or three nights after hearing about it. The first time I heard it, I didn’t know what to think. I have a business, going well, but it could be turned upside down,” he said.

However, Mr McNamara, said that consultation has taken place. “Significant consultation has already taken place with adjoining residents and there is more to follow,” Mr McNamara told The Clare Champion on Wednesday.

“There will be two opportunities for consultation. One at the variation stage and a second at the planning stage. The particular site is suited due to the availability of key infrastructure, such as power, fibre and gas access, the road network and proximity to town,” he added.

Members of Clare County Council were briefed about the matter on Monday but residents were not invited to attend and most seem not to have even known it was happening.

After the briefing, news of the proposed data centre appeared in both local and national media, much to the surprise of the locals, who say they are very poorly informed.

In a statement on Wednesday, Clare County Council said that the local people will get a chance to make their views known.
“The proposal to commence a proposed variation to the County Development Plan was presented to elected members ahead of the November monthly meeting of Clare County Council on Monday. On commencement of the statutory variation process to accommodate a data centre development, Clare County Council will invite input from the public and other stakeholders. Clare County Council anticipates that such a process will commence before the end of November.

“This process will be advertised publicly in the local media, including The Clare Champion newspaper. Input from the public and other stakeholders would also be invited in the event of any future planning application submitted for a data centre proposal.”

At Monday’s briefing, a vision for the data centre, which would be located on the Ennis-Tulla road, was outlined, with huge economic benefits forecast.

A slide presented to the councillors forecast that €400 to €500 million of inward investment could be secured and that the completed campus would be one million square feet in size.

Should it go ahead, it was forecast that there would be 1,100 construction jobs over five years. The centre would also provide 200 permanent data centre jobs, 150 ancillary jobs, 50 full-time maintenance jobs and hundreds more jobs would be created due to the impact of the data centre on the local economy.

“Data is the new oil, the new gold,” director of economic development Liam Conneally said during the presentation, illustrating the potentially significant economic impact.

It was explained that the site was especially suitable, located next to a motorway, close to Shannon Airport and close to the electrical substation.

The meeting also heard that the climate on the west coast of Ireland is very suitable for such projects.

The members were told that the town of Lulea in Sweden has benefited hugely from data centres, seeing its economy boom and its population increase.

Councillor Tom McNamara, who is not the same person as the businessman backing the proposal, was part of a Clare County Council delegation that travelled to Lulea and he said that having a data centre had made a massive difference there.

Speaking afterwards, he said that representatives of Facebook, one of the world’s most powerful companies, had told them that if the data centre could be delivered with planning permission, it would “be like a gold mine”.

The council was also presented with what were referred to as “Key Milestones’ on the delivery of the project, with the first step being a variation to the plan for the area.
It envisaged that planning permission could be secured by late next year, that Phase 1 could go into operation in 2021 and that all phases of the campus would be operational by late 2024.

Bob Hutchinson is retired and lives on the opposite side of the road from where the development would be located. Sitting there on Wednesday afternoon, he said he knows very little about the proposal.

“We don’t know what to think because we know so little about it. A guy came, it must have been a month ago now, and mentioned it. It was very vague and, of course, I was taken completely by surprise.

“I understood that there was to be a meeting but there hasn’t been a meeting.”

He says he is uneasy about the development. “Obviously concerned, very concerned. Look out that window; it’s quite a nice view. I can only imagine there would be a lot of issues from something using so much power but, quite honestly, it’s pure guesswork because we don’t know anything.”

His daughter Carey lives in the same house and she said she heard about the plans for the site only through a casual conversation at her job. “I went to work last night and I was told by somebody there about it. He said ‘I hear this is going to be in your area’.”

Bob expects it would have a very detrimental impact on the value of the house, where he says he lived happily.

“We have quite a large family, some in Portlaoise, some in Arklow; it’s still looked on as the family home. We’ve had no problems. The farmer next to us is a very good neighbour; he has been very helpful over the years.”

Edward Casey lives on the same side of the road as the proposed data centre would be on. He said he had spoken to Mr McNamara about the proposal but still has a very sketchy understanding of it.

“The information we got is that people would be compensated for all the trouble. The road is to be dug up for two-and-a-half years running pipelines. Other than that, I don’t really know. We’re supposed to have a meeting this week but I think it’s cancelled until next week.

“We got drawings and that but we’ve no idea how far back it’ll be, or how high it is. There’s speculation that 200 people will be employed in it. Then people are saying 300, then they say 1,500 building it. We don’t really know. Until we have this meeting, we don’t know what’s going on.”

He is not particularly impressed with the proposal, which will change the character of the area around his home.“How would I be happy? If I open my back door at night, it’ll be like an industrial estate. It’s going to be constantly lit up, this whole place here. If you come out here at night, it’s quiet and there are no lights. This is going to change it all.”

He said he had been told that Clare County Council would get a significant sum in rates every year, should it go ahead.

Another woman said she was “absolutely thrown sideways” when the developer spoke to her about the proposal.

She said she still has very little understanding of what it means but hopes it will be made clear when residents meet with Mr McNamara again.“It’s very minimal, we have no key facts at all, which is why we are having the meeting next week.”

She said she hasn’t got her head around the situation yet. “I am totally in shock.”

Despite the advantages listed at the council meeting, she feels there are better sites. “I work for a tech company. I’m all for advancement.

“I want my children to work in a technologically-advanced society and community but I think there are other locations that could be considered. Moneypoint for example. It seems like a fait accompli. Whether it is or not I don’t know.”

She feels it would have a very serious impact on her lifestyle and that of her family, particularly in the construction phase.
“I work from home, I have kids, I drive to school, I pop out at lunchtime. None of that would be possible for a few years,” she said.

Owen Ryan

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.