17 June 2024

Nimby Watch: No building on the eastern front


For this week’s edition of ‘Nimby Watch’, Jonn Elledge takes us to Greater London’s easternmost settlement, where Nimbys are up in arms over a planned data centre…

Where are we off to this week? The far east of London.

Oh, how novel. No, I mean the far east. Extremely east. As far east as you can go without falling out of the city altogether. To be specific: the village of North Ockendon, the easternmost settlement in the whole of Greater London, and the only one to lie outside the M25. For some reason, the city boundary extends a whole two miles beyond the orbital motorway out here:


How is that east London? Boundaries gonna boundary, but it is: the furthest flung corner of the London Borough of Havering.

So who wants to build what? Digital Reef, which describes itself as the legal industry’s ‘leading e-discovery and ECA management tool’ (no idea) wants to build the East Havering Data Centre, which it describes as the largest of its kind in Europe.

What’s there now? Not a lot: I’ve walked it, and it’s just miles and miles of distinctly un-rolling fields dotted with occasional spots of light industry and, inevitably, golf courses. The development would transform 40 hectares of flat agricultural land straddling the boundary with Thurrock into data centre space, battery storage, and educational and renewable energy facilities, plus a further 113 hectares, nearly three times the size of the actual site, into an ‘ecology park’. So although this is a slight loss of green belt, it would actually make what green space remains both greener and more accessible to the public. It would also, not incidentally, create 1,240 jobs.

So I’m guessing the locals have welcomed it with open arms. The council seems surprisingly keen, because it would create jobs and tax revenues and stuff – ‘Councillors are aware of the strength of feeling of some residents in North Ockendon but they also have to consider the broader interests of the Havering community as a whole’, said a spokesman, which is the sort of sentence you don’t hear enough in these debates. But press coverage has inevitably focused on those who disagree.

You amaze me. Complaints have included the disruption of construction work, the fact the local roads are B-roads not A-roads, and the fact that one resident is ‘going to get views of 60 and 80 foot buildings, eight of them the size of Tesco superstores’. Such a change from the current view of flat, beige, agricultural monoculture dotted with rusting farming equipment, of exactly the sort that inspired Van Gogh. ‘Why not build three or four around the M25?’ asked the same local, before adding: ‘But the land’s cheap here and [there are] fewer people to scream when you pour boiling water on them’, thus inadvertently answering his own question.

Havering Friends of the Earth, meanwhile, describes itself as a ‘climate action group’, but its coordinator rather gave the game away with a quote whining that it’ll ‘take between ten and 12 years to build, and the impact of lorries during construction will be intolerable in these quiet country lanes’. Farmland, it’s worth noting in passing, is often not brilliant for the environment either.

Okay, but you can’t eat data. You can’t eat houses either, but I don’t see these people volunteering to demolish and rewild their homes and return the land to a state of nature. The Nimby line is always ‘development may go this far and no further’. Well, other people have just as big a right to life and prosperity as you do, and the desire to pull the ladder up behind you makes you a bad person.

Come on, a couple of paragraphs back you couldn’t even explain what this thing was for. No, I couldn’t. There are lots of things which I can’t explain the purpose of. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful, and my lack of comprehension has bugger all to do with anything. I can’t tell you exactly what sewage works do either, that doesn’t mean I think we’d be better off without them. Even the guy who thinks, possibly rightly, that it’s going to ruin his view doesn’t have an issue with the idea of data centres per se – he just doesn’t want one where he can see it.

Well, sorry, somebody has to. They should be compensated for the inconvenience and so forth – but yes, it probably is better to build where there are fewer people and the land is cheap, it’s better to inconvenience a small number of people than a big number, and we can’t keep giving everyone a veto.

Incidentally, you know that North Ockendon’s only claim to fame is that it produced the unexpectedly tall and glamorous wife of the miniature twice-failed Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich? True story.

Jonn, are you alright? I think it is fairly clear by now that I am not. 

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.