A decision by technology giant Apple to cancel a plan to build an €850 million data centre in Athenry, Co Galway shows the need for the State's planning processes to be more efficient, a Minister has said.
Apple on Thursday announced that the project would not be going ahead, saying it had applied to build the data centre “several years ago” and despite its “best efforts, delays in the approval process have forced us to make other plans”.
“While disappointing, this setback will not dampen our enthusiasm for future projects in Ireland as our business continues to grow,” it said in a statement.
The company first unveiled plans to build the data centre in February 2015 but a series of objections to the project has meant that construction did not begin on the site. Doubts about the company’s commitment to the site intensified in recent months as the planning process stalled as a result of legal challenges.
Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys expressed disappointment at the decision. She said the delays the project has faced have “if nothing else, underlined our need to make the State’s planning and legal processes more efficient”.
“The Government has therefore already been working, over the last number of months, to make improvements to those processes. This will ensure we are better placed to take advantage of future such investment opportunities, whether from data centre providers or other sectors,” the Minister added.
However, she welcomed Apple’s confirmation that it remained committed to its existing operations in Ireland and insisted the Government and IDA Ireland did everything they could to support the development, including engaging with the firm at home and abroad.
“Ultimately, in spite of these efforts, Apple has taken a commercial decision not to proceed, making it clear that the delays that beset this project caused them to reconsider their plans.”
Some 300 jobs were forecast to be created over multiple phases of construction of the centre and it was expected that 150 technical staff would have worked here on completion. The project would have been the single biggest private-sector investment in Connacht.
More than 2,000 people staged a march in Athenry in support of the centre in November 2016 after objections put the plan on hold.
The Supreme Court may yet proceed with hearing an appeal concerning An Bord Pleanála's approval for the first phase of the data centre project.
Oisín Collins, for objectors Sinead Fitzpatrick and Allan Daly, said the appeal raised important legal issues relevant to similar projects which should be decided on.
The objectors sought a Supreme Court appeal after the High Court rejected their case last October.
Nuala Butler SC, for An Bord Pleanála, said she would take instructions on whether it will argue the appeal is pointless given Apple's decision.
The central issue concerned the manner in which An Bord Pleanála was required by law to have regard to the potential expansion of the data centre project from one data hall to the possible construction of a total of eight data halls.
The objectors argued that the board was legally obliged to carry out an environmental impact assessment of Apple’s entire “masterplan” for eight data halls, which would increase total demand on the national grid by 6-8 per cent, and not an assessment of just one hall.
The overall grid connection planned at Athenry would have a footprint equal to Dundrum town centre in Dublin but there is no national assessment and no strategic assessment concerning how data centres being built across the country will be supplied with energy, they said.
Apple has had a presence in Ireland since 1980, when it opened a manufacturing facility in Cork employing 60 people. The company now employs more than 5,500 people in Ireland.
Work on a new four-storey office block at the Hollyhill campus in Cork, which serves as the company’s European headquarters, is expected to be completed shortly. The expansion will give Apple space to accommodate 1,000 people.