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Labour vows to smash down datacentre planning "barriers"

Party’s manifesto takes aim at nimbys and deep fakes, promising to cut red tape stopping the building of new tech infrastructure

Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Labour has pledged to cut through planning laws it says are holding up the build out of the datacentres the UK needs to realise its AI dreams.

The party, which is highly likely to form the next UK government, unveiled its manifesto late last week, just days after the ruling Conservative party also highlighted the promise of AI in its pitch to voters.

The Conservatives didn’t offer any new concrete measures to support the AI-powered revolution but restated commitments such as a £1.5bn investment in high-end compute, as well as its ongoing work on AI safety.

However, the UK, in common with many other countries, is struggling to deliver enough datacentre capacity in place to deliver on its ambitions. This is partly due to planning issues and energy concerns. Strangely enough, people are resistant to enormous bit barns appearing in their local area, and equally squeamish about the erection of pylons and other generation and distribution infrastructure needed to keep them whirring.

Labour’s manifesto declared: “We will ensure our industrial strategy supports the development of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector, removes planning barriers to new datacentres." [sic]

It also pledged “a National Data Library to bring together existing research programmes and help deliver data-driven public services, whilst maintaining strong safeguards and ensuring all of the public benefit.

More broadly, on the AI safeguarding front, the manifesto said “Labour will ensure the safe development and use of AI models by introducing binding regulation on the handful of companies developing the most powerful AI models and by banning the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes.” This echoes commitments made by shadow science and innovation minister Chi Onwurah earlier this year.

Elsewhere, Labour said, “We will also update national planning policy to ensure the planning system meets the needs of a modern economy, making it easier to build laboratories, digital infrastructure, and gigafactories.” And it will “make a renewed push to fulfil the ambition of full gigabit and national 5G coverage by 2020.”

But datacentres without abundant power, ideally clean power, are not much good. Elsewhere in the manifesto, Labour outlined its plans for a “Great British Energy” company that would provide some of that power.

It also referenced the Small Modular Reactors – nuclear power plants – that some see as the answer to datacentres’ energy needs. All of this will be hard to deliver without an urge to drive through local – and regional – objections.

Digital also found its way into trade policy, with Labour pledging to negotiate “standalone sector deals, such as digital, or mutual recognition agreements, to promote our services exports.”

It’s also worth noting Labour actually said the D word. The Tory manifesto didn’t.

Philip Kaye, cofounder of datacentre design firm Vesper Technologies, said that while Labour had delivered the most detailed tech proposals so far, “It still amounts to just a few lines of policies which the industry has been crying out for for years.” Whoever forms the next government needs to start listening to data experts, he said, “or risk playing catchup at the next general election as well.”

Séamus Dunne, Managing Director, Digital Realty UK and Ireland said, “Building resilient, future-proof and sustainable systems isn’t a singular endeavour – it requires collaboration between government, industry, and tech providers to build resilient, future-proof systems that both support digital growth, and benefit local communities.