Zeewolde sorts for the future. With the planned arrival of a gigantic data center of Meta, the recently renamed parent company of social medium Facebook, the municipality in Flevoland is a forerunner in the new digital economy. Gigantic gleaming white halls, 20 meters high, 70 meters wide, 400 meters long, full of buzzing servers. The municipal council cannot wait, because the municipality, as established in the law and ratified by the national government, can decide on the arrival of the data center.
And so it is that the nineteen-strong city council of Zeewolde (23,000 inhabitants) will have to make a decision in the next two weeks about an investment of millions that will drastically change the appearance of the village, hardly generate any employment and make a huge claim on the Dutch electricity grid. According to a ‘roadmap’ by the Ministry of the Interior, all data centers in the Netherlands will together consume 14 terawatt hours per year by 2030, almost 12 percent of the current national power consumption. And the arrival of Meta to Zeewolde may formally be the responsibility of the city council, but behind the scenes the central government and the province have done their utmost to get the data center in Zeewolde.
The story about the arrival of the data center, which can be read in NRC this weekend, is exemplary of the way in which such large projects have to be provided with political approval in the wrong place. Local politicians are appointed to represent local interests. They always do this part-time, because according to the law the work as a municipal councilor requires less than forty hours a week (in practice it often does) and is certainly not paid full-time. Zeewolde has a budget of approximately 35 million euros, and the debate in the council has so far been, in the words of a council member, about ‘nature, housing, lights on the bridges’. Local issues, where local democracy should get its justification from.
On the other hand, in this case, Meta, a multinational with an annual turnover of more than 76 billion euros and an annual profit of more than 16 billion, almost 500 times the budget of Zeewolde. A company that knows itself supported by the Dutch government, which is happy with such companies that invest in the Netherlands. It employs engineering firms and classy lawyers, which set up private limited companies with obscure names such as Polder Network to keep the activities of the arrival in Zeewolde secret for as long as possible. That local administrators talk to the mouth with beautiful stories about green energy and residual heat.
The task that the council of Zeewolde now faces should not be at that democratic level. However involved, smart and knowledgeable the councilors are, the arrival of such data centers transcends the importance of the local environment. The mere impact these centers will have on the national power supply will require planning and decision making at a higher level.
In recent years, the national government has shifted more and more responsibilities to municipalities. Partly out of opportunism (austerity measures), but also partly out of the often justified conviction that local politics are best equipped to take decisions that are in line with the citizen’s living environment. Major spatial planning issues such as the arrival of data centers are clearly not part of this. Time to turn that back.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 30, 2021