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Huawei set to unveil huge UK tech hub just as security fears grow

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
A CGI of Huawei's planned research facility in Sawston, near Cambridge. Photo: Huawei

The timing could probably not be worse for Huawei as it prepares to unveil its blueprint for a major new UK tech research hub.

The Chinese firm has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. US spying fears have pressured the British government to reconsider its role in the 5G network, and Google to restrict its new phones' access to their Android operating system.

Documents seen by Yahoo Finance UK show the firm is set to publish detailed construction plans within a fortnight for a huge new UK facility, researching and developing new chip technology that it hopes could drive up internet speeds worldwide.

A historic former paper mill site by Sawston village, just south of Cambridge, could even ultimately become Huawei's flagship hub for all its UK-based research into next-generation internet and telecoms in years to come.

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The transformation will see 45,000 sq m of floorspace built on an area of unused shrubland by the derelict factories of the 550-acre Spicers Site, which Huawei bought for £37.5m last year.

The new facility, which includes a small-scale manufacturing centre to build prototype chips, is expected to create up to 400 jobs.

But the firm will first have to win consent from local planning officials and councillors and consult residents at a time of heightened controversy over possible links to the Chinese government. Its own timetable shows it is due to formally apply for permission to build the site in “late May” 2019.

The company itself appears to be committed to the UK, where it has 1,400 staff, recently promised £3bn of investment and procurement by 2022 and has partnerships with 10 universities including Cambridge.

Huawei hopes to expand near Cambridge. Photo: Richard B. Levine / Press Association

The proposed facility also shows its attraction to Cambridge, which has been dubbed “Silicon Fen” because of the boom in technology firms clustered around the city in the Fens region.

Huawei would be looking to benefit from proximity to more than 5,000 'knowledge-intensive' firms based within 20 miles of Cambridge, including IT, telecoms, high-tech manufacturing, life sciences and healthcare companies.

Such companies have a combined turnover of £15.5bn, employ more than 60,000 staff and include the UK's biggest tech firm ARM Holdings, according to the Cambridge Cluster website. Huawei is thought to be keen to close to the chip design company, which was bought by Japan's SoftBank in 2016.

The new Huawei facility would become the company's third in Cambridge, expanding on the team of around 100 research and development (R&D) staff it already has nearby after buying the British 'internet of things' firm Neul in 2014.

Neul Ltd has since formally become Huawei Technologies Research & Technologies (UK) Ltd, and this arm of the Chinese firm is now leading plans for the Sawston facility.

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Around 100 more R&D staff work on 5G and ultra-fast connections at another site in Martlesham, near Ipswich. Huawei said earlier this year it was “still committed to our facilities and employees in Martlesham at this time.”

The company expects construction to take up to 18 months. It can only begin when South Cambridgeshire's district council makes its final decision, which the company expects by the summer.

But Huawei will only get the green light if its construction and design get through the many rules, checks and hurdles involved in the British planning system.

Residents typically raise concerns with such large developments about how far local roads, schools, other facilities and the natural environment will cope. But the FT suggests firm representatives have told locals to effectively “name their price” for support.

A local engineer has already warned of potential challenges with drainage if construction goes ahead on the site in the Fens, a flat, low-lying region once entirely swamped by water.

Huawei will be hoping such issues can be easily overcome, or else they may regret not choosing sunny Silicon Valley over the aptly named Silicon Fen.