Plans to build a £1bn Huawei research base near Cambridge have been given a green light by a council planning authority, despite an escalating row over accusations the company poses a security risk.
Just hours after US officials declared that Huawei was linked to the Chinese army, the South Cambridgeshire committee gave the green light to plans for the R&D centre.
The debate over whether to approve the lab, in the village of Sawston, has involved some of the world’s most powerful politicians including US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the US ambassador to the UK.
But on Thursday, the South Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee set aside issues of geopolitics and cybersecurity to focus on the potential impact of the application on local wildlife, cycle paths and rivers.
The debate over Huawei’s £1bn research campus followed a more typical presentation about a new bus stop and car park in a local town centre.
The parish council of Little Shelford, a Cambridgeshire village home to 840 people, expressed concern about the potential impact of the development on local nesting birds.
With the application waved through, Huawei, a Chinese telecoms company, is now able to begin construction of a new state-of-the-art research lab in the British countryside, even as it faces increased scrutiny from US politicians and UK spy agencies.
On Thursday, reports emerged that the US government was planning to label Huawei as linked to the Chinese military. Huawei, which makes telecoms equipment for networks including BT, has been caught up in a row amid accusations from US officials it represents a security risk to Britain’s future 5G mobile networks. Huawei has always denied the claims and stresses it is an independent company.
The three-hour council video call occasionally became heated, with the sole committee member who voted against the plans accusing Huawei of attempting to push through its proposals through a “Trojan Horse” approach by rushing through its plans.
Local councillor Deborah Roberts, who introduced a last-minute motion to attempt to delay the planning decision, said: “I do not like Trojan Horses being wheeled through gates, whoever they are being wheeled by.”
Ms Roberts was subsequently told to “just be quiet” by the committee chair, councillor John Batchelor, who was unable to vote on the proposal because his poor internet connection meant that he repeatedly dropped out of the video call. “I need some new technology,” he joked after his video stream froze.
Members of the committee were told by a local council employee during the meeting that there has been “considerable local, national and international interest in this proposal over the last week” and were instructed not to base their decision on political or security concerns about Huawei.
The approval of Huawei’s plans came despite a last-minute lobbying campaign.
Neil O’Brien, a Conservative MP who co-founded the China Research Group, said earlier this week that a decision on the application should have been delayed until after the publication of an emergency review by the National Cyber Security Centre into the impact of new US sanctions on Huawei.
Huawei plans to turn the 550-acre site, which it purchased for around £37.5m, into an office housing more than 400 employees near Cambridge’s Silicon Fen technology hub. It plans to use the facility to develop new broadband technology as well as to work on artificial intelligence software.
Huawei’s UK head, Victor Zhang, said Huawei began its plans to develop the site in 2017, before the row over its future role in the UK’s 5G network erupted.
Mr Zhang said: “We are very pleased that phase one [of the facility] has been approved. We look forward to building a world-class research facility in the heart of Silicon Fen, where we will develop world-beating products.”