back to article 'Admin error': AWS in dead company data centre planning application snafu in Oxfordshire

Some companies will go to great lengths to hide business expansion plans, but it appears AWS may have namechecked a defunct UK business in efforts to conceal a planning application for a new data centre. closed didcot power stations cooling towers stand idle on the horizon - didcot oxfordshire - 2013 Former Didcot power …

  1. Stoneshop Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Concealed planning applications

    "The use of such shell companies was undoubtedly used to conceal Amazon's involvement in the planning procedure, and there could be various reasons for this. There may have been fears that the planning application might prompt an adverse reaction from those living in the area, or perhaps even have led to inflated costs if it were known that a global giant such as Amazon was involved."

    Same is currently happening here in the Netherlands, FacebookMeta intends to build a datacentre near Zeewolde, Southern Flevoland, but that it are them that are behind that plan was unknown until someone involved in a tangential matter blabbed that it was FaceMeta wanting to build there.

    But in contrast with Amazon a datacentre, especially a dedicated one from a giant like FaceMeta, Google or Microsoft, doesn't offer much in the way of local jobs. Of course the quality of jobs at an Amazon warehouse can be debated, but the number of bods running around in it is a fair bit larger than in a DC. Nevertheless, FaceMeta got a preferential treatment from the Minister of Economic Affairs who leaned hard on Tennet, the national energy distribution system operator, to provide them with a dedicated substation and sufficient green energy. This goes against several recommendations from civil servants at the Department of Economic Affairs that this would severely hinder the CO2 reduction goals while bringing very very little economic benefit in the form of jobs, direct and indirect. For the time being the municipal council of Zeewolde has given the green light, but this affair has triggered action to suspend that until national guidelines are in place, especially concerning area/location and energy use, and the Eerste Kamer (Upper Chamber of Parliament) has spoken against the plan. There's also the snag that half the area on which it is planned falls under the Rijksvastgoedbedrijf, the government department owning real estate, which had already put a stop on sale of agricultural area.

    So, the last word hasn't been said about this matter, And in the meantime there's now a new Minister for Economic Affaiirs.

    The one thing that pleases me about the choice for that particular location is that it's below sea level.

    1. oiseau Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Concealed planning applications

      ... preferential treatment from the Minister of Economic Affairs ...

      ... against several recommendations from civil servants at the Department of Economic Affairs ...

      ... severely hinder the CO2 reduction goals ...

      ... very little economic benefit in the form of jobs, direct and indirect.

      No surprise there.

      It's more or less on par with the usual everywhere.

      But ...

      Surprise !!! -----> ... there's now a new Minister for Economic Affairs.

      Kudos for whoever took care of that. 8^D

      The cherry on top would be a thorough investigation.

      Now, if it would only set a world-wide example ...

      Best,

      O.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Concealed planning applications

        Kudos for whoever took care of that.

        The fall of the previous cabinet (on an entirely different matter, and before this became public), the ensuing elections and uncommonly lengthy negotiations on forming a new coalition.

        So, more or less democratic process as usual.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Set the rules

      Multinationals are not the only things capable of defining the rules.

      Set your own rules. First of all, no tax rebates. At all. Next, mandatory presence for the next 30 years. Any abandonment of service before that time is subject to penalty equal to the average amount of revenue times the number of years not present before the limit.

      Note that I said revenue, not benefits.

      1. Robert Grant Silver badge

        Re: Set the rules

        You're sort of talking as though "tax" isn't already a rule defined.

        And the power dynamics are inverted: multinationals only define "rules" because they create enough value to have money. Rules-defining happens constantly by government because if you don't follow them you get locked in a box.

        1. ShadowSystems
          Coffee/keyboard

          Re: Set the rules

          They've stopped trying to lock me in a box. I swiped a cat, a Shoggoth, & all the MindBleach. I told them that they would have to open the box to get to the MindBleach which would then reveal what the Shoggoth, the cat, & I had been up to that required the MindBleach.

          They threatened to leave me in the box, I threatened to stream the video on Youtube, then they caved because I still had all the MindBleach. =-)p

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Concealed planning applications

      "Same is currently happening here in the Netherlands"

      Ditto for France. It's so usual that even the mainstream media are looking into some of those hidden DC projects.

      "The one thing that pleases me about the choice for that particular location is that it's below sea level."

      ah ah ! You're cheeky ! No such thing in here, sadly :)

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: Concealed planning applications

        "Same is currently happening here in the Netherlands"

        Ditto for France."

        It's "nice" to know that [my/our] American corruption in governmental operations can be so welcomely exported, and so easily too.

        Say hello to the Club, guys!! ;-)

    4. AnotherName
      Joke

      Re: Concealed planning applications

      > The one thing that pleases me about the choice for that particular location is that it's below sea level.

      A whole new definition of 'pulling the plug' on a project!

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Coat

        A whole new definition of 'pulling the plug' on a project!

        In which case we'll have to keep Hansje Brinkers otherwise engaged at such a moment.

        That wetsuit with the diving mask and the snorkel, thx.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Concealed planning applications

      "The one thing that pleases me about the choice for that particular location is that it's below sea level."

      Not the only one. The Thames estuary has one - surrounded by brick walls and some big pumps in case of a tidal surge.**

      ** IIRC the original pumps were connected to the mains electricity supply - not the on-site emergency generators.

    6. The Indomitable Gall

      Re: Concealed planning applications

      "But in contrast with Amazon a datacentre, especially a dedicated one from a giant like FaceMeta, Google or Microsoft, doesn't offer much in the way of local jobs."

      You've clearly not noticed that the article is about AWS -- Amazon Web Services -- building... datacentres.

  2. Martin Summers Silver badge
    Meh

    Gripping stuff...

  3. Graham Cobb Silver badge

    Rather close together

    Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together? Bracknell, Didcot and Swindon are all basically on the M4. Sure, many of their customers are also in that corridor but one would have thought a bit of geographic diversity would be welcomed by their customers? A single major storm sweeping along the Thames Valley could severely impact all 3 together: power, communications, staff, supplies.

    I can see the point in the former Didcot power station site. But Bracknell must surely be very expensive land. Why not one in the North West and one in the East Midlands (or somewhere like Lincolnshire), as well as one in Didcot?

    Or are these not all datacentres? The locations would make much more sense if they were warehouses.

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: Rather close together

      > Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together? Bracknell, Didcot and Swindon are all basically on the M4.

      So they have low latency between the sites so databases work, the network is fast etc etc.

      It's the same reason why the banks have their backup DCs in London's commuter belt.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Rather close together

        It's the same reason why the banks have their backup DCs in London's commuter belt.

        Isn't most of this at Vauxhall? Not that I've been near that place for at least two decades, but that's where it was at the time. We had a couple of E10000s room heaters there :).

        1. Lon24 Silver badge

          The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

          I can understand Bracknell if you want to tap into an existing pool of experienced IT talent. Didcot should be a cheap brownfield site with excellent grid connections.

          It's Swindon that's got me beat!

          1. Korev Silver badge

            Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

            > It's Swindon that's got me beat!

            THE MAGIC ROUNDABOUT (damn it)

            (and Intel)

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

            I don't think the geographic proximity of available talent is such an issue for something like this. My understanding is that for security the minimum number of people even know were the DC is, nevermind having physical access to it. The majority of administrative work is done remotely, so only need a relatively small pool of staff onsite for installing/replacing hardware.

            1. Dave Null

              Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

              This is correct. Modern DCs for AWS / MS etc are "lights out" facilities that contain very very few humans. There's a bunch of things to consider - from the practical - power, land with expansion room - to the risk profile (not under a flight path, physical security of site, outside of the UK this will also include things like geopolitical situation, geographical eg risk of earthquakes etc) that will lead to this decision. There will also be factors like any subsidy a local gov might give them to use a certain site etc. I'd presume they will build these so you have a clearly defined level of resilience per facility, ability to use multiple ones to increase this and the ability to use paired regions for highest resilience requirements.

              1. phuzz Silver badge

                Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

                this will also include things like geopolitical situation, geographical eg risk of earthquakes etc

                I guess that's part of the attraction of Didcot. If it was a safe spot for a nuclear reactor, it's probably a good bet for a data centre.

              2. Mike S

                Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

                > This is correct. Modern DCs for AWS / MS etc are "lights out" facilities that contain very very few humans.

                My guess is there are probably 20-30 humans needed at a data center once its up and running. You need people for:

                * A couple of people receiving shipments

                * A set of electricians on site most of the time just to keep the lights on, service generators, etc

                * HVAC engineers

                * A couple of network operators on-site

                * A couple of people to rack servers, replace failed hardware, plug stuff in

                * A couple of security guards

                * Probably a manager or two

                None of these need any specific high-tech skills, but there's a non-trivial amount of labor that has to happen.

          3. TwistedPsycho

            Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

            "It's Swindon that's got me beat!"

            20 miles from Corsham?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

              > > "It's Swindon that's got me beat!"

              > 20 miles from Corsham?

              Honda shut-down recently so a large site is available.

          4. hoola Silver badge

            Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

            Possibly incentives due to Honda moving out?

            All these massive developments: warehousing, distribution centres and data centres has one thing in common, the planning applications all are filled with total lies on the issues of jobs,

            Here in the Midlands we 1000s of acres are disappearing under distribution centres, the most recent gumpf sent out to residents is for the DB Schenker site at Hinckley.

            Apparently it will create 8000 jobs locally. That is simply not possible unless it is 8000 ZHC that add nothing to the economy. Similar for the East Midlands Airport site, Magna Park at Lutterworth and the monster, speculative build a Nothhampton.

            They are all built with companies setup specifically for the site to provides means of getting incentives and then folding at a loss.

            1. sad_loser

              Re: The town of a thousand roundabouts ...

              Didcot and Honda site = big electric pipes in situ with high resilience

        2. Korev Silver badge

          Re: Rather close together

          I know a company a DC for DR hosting into Godalming a few years ago.

          Also, if you read the Malcom Campbell page linked from the article then you'll learn where quite a few banks' DCs are.

      2. Mog_X

        Re: Rather close together

        A large company that I know of has got its two primary data centres separated by less than two miles.

    2. John Riddoch

      Re: Rather close together

      Latency and the speed of light. Basically, AWS runs "Regions" (e.g. eu-west-2 is somewhere around London) in which are multiple "Availability Zones" (i.e. data centres). If your data centres are too far apart, you'll start hitting latency issues with certain services which replicate data within a region, so you need to keep them relatively close together to remain performant.

      As you've rightly pointed out, this does entail keeping them in the same "blast radius" of certain events which is why you should be looking to have a DR solution in another region to cover for the rare cases of an entire region going out. That said, the more common event is a networking/maintenance SNAFU which takes out a region rather than natural disaster.

    3. DJV Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

      Maybe the guy installing all the servers only has one boot floppy and a bicycle...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

        Floppies? Luxury!

        Punch cards all the way!

        :)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

          Paradise. We had to manually type in the operating system from memory every morning.

          1. DJV Silver badge

            Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

            You were lucky to have something to type on! We had to input our operating system using binary switches ...

            ...and when I say "binary switches" I mean manually pressing together bare wires that had thousands of volts going through them...

            ...all while standing in a puddle because the server room was in the gents!

            1. Terry 6 Silver badge

              Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

              The 1975ish IBM schools' computer ( it was an experimental programme) was a bit like that. If for some reason it lost its OS someone ( a teacher) had to sit and type lists of numbers into it. God knows how they did this without errors. And it was (is) a mystery to me how this worked.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

                Probably a secret plot by the Catholic church to get technical people to pray again.

                :)

            2. Mike S

              Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

              We would have killed for binary switches. I remember manually positioning RAM to have bits transmuted by cosmic radiation. And we liked it!

            3. Aussie Doc Bronze badge
              Coat

              Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

              You 'ad operating systems?

              My slate's in my pocket.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why on earth would AWS want to build 3 datacentres so close together?

        Wouldn't surprise me! May have mentioned before, I visited Didcot many moons ago as a field engineer to look at some of our PC based kit that they were complaining about being slow.

        Switched on the PC, straight away it came up with an error message for the HDD - something along the lines of "SMART error detected, replace disk drive immediately before data loss"

        Their response "Oh, it always does that!"

        I persuaded them to replace the HDD, and what a surprise - everything worked fine!

        IIRC they are next to motorway services - with the biggest rats I have seen....

        1. DJV Silver badge

          Re: Rats

          They employ huge rats in motorway services now? Are they working on the tills or cooking the food?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Rats

            Cleaning up the car park - dragging away the discarded food.

            Never stopped in there again.....

          2. Rob Daglish Bronze badge

            Re: Rats

            Either way, quality and productivity is on the up...

    4. spireite Bronze badge

      Re: Rather close together

      How many major storms actually hit that corridor though? I haven't seen too many report of hurricanes there.. Bracknell is just up the road from me.

      In fact, one of my former employers made used of a datacentre which was literally a stones throw on the same estate as Waitrose office/distribution.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Thames Valley Storms

        The Hurricane of 1987 did a huge amount of damage around Bracknell/Reading. I spent three hours working with a bunch of Gurkas clearing the road from Hook towards Reading. I was lucky in that I had a chainsaw in the back of my car. Those guys moved a heck of a lot of timber that morning.

        Even last weekend, a tree came down not far from Bracknell just missing a care home.

        but using fake/shell companies... Can they sink any lower?

        Hiding the next step in their plan to rule the world. Nasty.

        Let's go Amazon.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Thames Valley Storms

          >but using fake/shell companies... Can they sink any lower?

          Hi I'd like to buy your house.

          About me? Oh I'm a Trillion$ multinational and desperately need your property to allow me to connect two halves of my new site. I assume this information won't affect your price ?

          1. fredblogggs Bronze badge

            Re: Thames Valley Storms

            "Hi I'd like to buy your house.

            About me? Oh I'm a Trillion$ multinational and desperately need your property to allow me to connect two halves of my new site. I assume this information won't affect your price ?"

            Probably not, actually. My house isn't for sale and I'm not super excited about moving somewhere else. Therefore my price is going to be set so high that it would enable me to purchase pretty much any property I want anywhere in the world (even one that's itself not for sale) and whatever passports I need to live on it, improve it in ludicrous fashion, and pay someone else to move not only all my belongings but also to fly me directly there in my new S-92 helicopter. About the only thing your having a huge pile of cash handy might affect is whether the deal actually happens; my price is going to be the same regardless.

            1. anothercynic Silver badge

              Re: Thames Valley Storms

              That's the entire point the poster you replied to is making... :-)

          2. Ross 12

            Re: Thames Valley Storms

            Yes it'll affect the price, so some of your vast wealth can start trickling down :)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Rather close together

        In fact, one of my former employers made used of a datacentre which was literally a stone throw on the same estate as Waitrose office/distribution.

        Well, there you go. At risk from people throwing stones.

        :)

    5. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: Rather close together

      Bracknell is close enough for the large orgs in and around Reading.

      Didcot is ideal for the general Oxfordshire region, from Oxford/Bicester in the north to what's called the Science Vale, plus it's 10 minutes by train from Reading as a backup region.

      Swindon is ideal for Brizzol and the tech companies there (although it's an hour by train), plus it's a good backup for Didcot.

      I suspect it's mostly for a *lot* of the pharma companies in Milton Park (literally 2 minutes from the Didcot site) and the science companies in Harwell.

      I travel past the site every day, and there's been a *lot* of work done in the last 2 years to a) decontaminate the soil, b) recondition everything, c) improve drainage to avoid flooding (we're talking 4m deep drainage channels), and now starting construction of some warehouse space already (it's not Amazon).

      1. Security nerd #21

        Re: Rather close together

        Cheltenham's not that far away from Swindon either, so perhaps some dark fibre between the sites ? ...

      2. Graham Cobb Silver badge

        Re: Rather close together

        Sure. As I said in my post, Didcot is reasonably logical.

        But Swindon is in desperate need of jobs - they aren't going to be handing out incentives for a data centre. An Amazon warehouse maybe (but don't they already have one? They certainly have many others already).

        And Bracknell is just too expensive. Speed of light delays don't explain why Didcot can't do anything Bracknell can do at a fraction of the cost.

        I just don't believe more than one of these is going to actually happen.

  4. Kev99 Silver badge

    The use of shell companies / straw buyers is fairly common in the US. When Disney was buying up square miles of land in Florida, it used, if memory serves, Buena Vista Development among others.

  5. Snowy Silver badge
    Megaphone

    Where do you...

    tax a data centre?

    A) Where the customers are.

    B) Where the data centre is.

    C) Some tax haven.

    I think the answer is clear.

    1. UK DM

      Re: Where do you...

      Bring on the turnover tax.

      This is basically a tax 'where the customers are', but unlike VAT would not be passed on and is paid by every middleman. Now providing you keep it simple (few excemptions), it becomes easy to collect and easy to audit. Middlemen are fewer in the globalised world and the rate expressed as a percentage would be under 1% maybe under 0.001% during initial implementation.

      You can make it more attractive for companies to pay corporation tax instead of turnover tax by offsetting the these taxes against each other such that it is not at 1:1 equivalence. Because as things stand (current corp tax law) forcing a company to pay a useful amount of corporation tax has other significant gains to the way their money is structured. This also means to some degree companies already paying corp tax may find they have no turnover tax to pay at the end of the year.

      I think we can all agree, to the OPs rhetorical point, continually offshoring profits away from the customers nation state environment. An environment that facilities the customer and supplier to transact in relative peace and security has a cost to maintain.

  6. Dwarf Silver badge

    Lack of plannng

    Why Didcot, Its nowhere near any decent sized power stations, how on earth would they power it ?

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Lack of plannng

      No one told them the Didcot power station had been demolished...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lack of plannng

      It has what Amazon HR most desires: on site incinerators

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lack of plannng

      Presumably some of the old Didcot power station national grid infrastructure or wayleaves remain.

      1. Lord Kipper III

        Re: Lack of plannng

        The gas fired Didcot B power station is just over the fence with also the old open cycle gas turbine generators (Rolls-Royce Avon powered for the power generation geeks) also still there. The original connection to the Nation Grid 400 kV infrastructure is still there also. 84 MW of diesel generators on site though - surely some opportunity for batteries such as those being installed across the UK by the likes of Pivot Power with the opportunity for Amazon to trade the batteries in the UK power market although their primary function would still be keeping the servers and support infrastructure running.

    4. Majikthise

      Excellent planning

      The coal fired part of Didcot A shut in 2013 and is now demolished, but the gas turbine was retained as a backup and can still supply the grid.

      The 1997 gas turbine at Didcot B is still running.

      Didcot is very handy for all the compute needs of Oxford (just north), Culham & Milton Park (next door) and Harwell, including Rutherford Appleton Lab and Diamond Light Source (just south).

      It's usefully close to the Reading/Bracknell/Basingstoke area, not forgetting Aldermaston.

      There are many tech-qualified people in the area; while Didcot / Sutton Courtney has recently spawned a huge amount of housing for tech and non-tech staff.

      If I was setting up a big data centre, Didcot is *exactly* where I'd put it.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >"We are aware that an administrative error was made on the application"

    Unless they formally clear that error up quickly (ie. resubmit the corrected planning application) then it is no longer an error but misrepresentation and thus potentially fraud.

    1. Clausewitz 4.0
      Devil

      The intern filling the applications probably gotta a slap on the wrist

  8. YetAnotherLocksmith

    A bit worrying that not one person allowing the planning application actually checked the company wasn't long dissolved!

    What's the point of a prior proper planning process that piss poor?

    1. AListair 6

      planning permission is given to the site

      not the owner, the local authority dont really care who the applicant is.

      it's nothing to do with them really.

  9. AListair 6

    Hate to deflate the conspiracy theories

    But there is no tax or planning advantage to gaining the permission under a different name. Planning permission is given to the site, not the applicant, so if Joe Bloggs made the application then sold the site, the permission is still there and John Smith is free to build the permitted scheme. You don't even need to own a site to apply for planning permission on it, though in england you need their permission. In scotland I could submit an application to build 2 bed maisonette on the top of the scottish parliament and as long as i pay my £150 they'd consider it.

    The only control is on the copyright of the design, but that is easily dealt with and wouldn't be a problem in this case.

    The reason will either be to hide their plans and make them slightly harder to find for nefarious purposes, or to avoid any "anti-amazon" campaigners hijack the process... or litterally to hide their building layouts, others might seek to copy the arrangement.

    alternatively it could well be that a separate development company is buying the sites, putting in the application then selling the lot to amazon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hate to deflate the conspiracy theories

      > alternatively it could well be that a separate development company is buying the sites, putting in the application then selling the lot to amazon.

      Dunno why you got a downvote: the building opposite me is a small block of four flats and the owner wants to cram in a couple more (dolls) houses at the end of the garden by building on the garden used by his existing tenants.[1]

      That application has been submitted through an agent so the true beneficiary is hidden.[2] And it's only for a measly couple of houses.

      [1] One of the grounds for opposing a planning application is supposedly loss of amenity but, apparently, the loss of amenity to those in situ doesn't count.[3] Besides they're only benefits claimants so why on earth would their children want a garden to play in?

      [2] The applicant is effectively anonymous but objectors have to give their full name and address publicly. Funny that.

      [3] But the Council were extremely concerned to ensure that the garages attached to the new houses *must* have a cycle rack. Because apparently not having a £5 cycle rack attached to the wall of the garage is the main reason people don't cycle. Or something.

  10. martinusher Silver badge

    A more obvious reason

    Amazon is associated with "huge amounts of money" so anything with their name on it is going to attract inflated prices.

  11. 2+2=5 Silver badge
    Joke

    Swindon and Bracknell

    Swindon was in the news just recently when it was announced that five exceptionally well preserved Steppe mammoths, dating from 200 000 years ago, were uncovered nearby by an archaeological dig.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-59702237

    Bracknell is equally famous for the discovery of ancient humans, long believed to have become extinct, huddling around an ICL VME mainframe for warmth.

    1. Francis Boyle

      Re: Swindon and Bracknell

      ICL? Are you sure they weren't some species of hominids?

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