The project, which involves building a vast headquarters next to Google’s existing base in King’s Cross, central London, was thrown into doubt by the EU referendum and disagreement about its design.
But Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, said that while the firm has reservations about Brexit, it will not be dissuaded from building an office capable of housing 7,000 staff.
In a speech on Tuesday at Google’s London office, Pichai said: “Here in the UK, it’s clear to me that computer science has a great future with the talent, educational institutions, and passion for innovation we see all around us. We are committed to the UK and excited to continue our investment in our new King’s Cross campus.”
Pichai’s public approval dispels any lingering doubts about a plan, first tabled three years ago, that is slated to create 3,000 new jobs by 2020. But he did warn that the government’s expected crackdown on immigration after the vote to leave the EU runs counter to Google’s ideals.
“In our experience as a company, when we have been able to bring people together and operate in an open and connected way it achieves tremendous impact over time,” he told the BBC. “Those are the values we cherish, and we have been open and public about how we think about these things.
“Increasingly, for the kinds of complex things we do, we need to bring people who are across many disciplines – with many different backgrounds – together to solve problems,” he added. “That’s how you can build newer things, so that is particularly important for us.”
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, welcomed the announcement, and argued that it put paid to fears that Brexit would damage the capital’s position as the leading European technology hub. “This is a vote of confidence in our great city – creating high-skilled jobs, supporting growth and demonstrating that London is open to business, new investment and talent from around the globe.
“London is one of the world’s leading technology hubs and investment into the capital post-Brexit remains robust, so Google’s expansion will further strengthen our city’s reputation as a global leader in digital technology.”
In a nod to Canada, whose immigration website collapsed after the election of Donald Trump, Khan said: “London is open, and our website is not going to crash.” As to whether London will benefit more directly from Trump’s election, he said it depended on how close the prime minister and the president-elect end up being.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, said the confirmation of the Google development was a “big vote of confidence in Britain’s leading position as a global tech-hub and more evidence that leading firms are choosing to invest here”.
The new building, which will be Google’s UK headquarters, was reportedly thrown into turmoil in 2015 when bosses in California rejected the original plans, by London-based architects AHMM, for being “too boring”, and brought in Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the new London bus, the Olympic cauldron and the garden bridge.
The 10-storey “landscraper” will be as long as the Shard is tall, and have a floorspace of 650,000 sq ft (60,400 sq metres). The original plans were for a £1bn building with a climbing wall, rooftop pool and indoor football pitch.
The new building will lie alongside the railway station, in an area currently used by King’s Cross theatre for shows including The Railway Children, In The Heights, and the David Bowie musical Lazarus.
Google will continue to occupy its current building, a 380,000 sq ft office at nearby 6 Pancras Square which has room for 2,500 employees. Construction on a second building that Google will occupy but not own began earlier this year, with Google’s move due in 2018.
In contrast, the new headquarters will be designed and owned by Google, a first outside the US. But it could prove problematic for the company if its tax affairs in the UK are not cleared up in the meantime.
In January this year, Google agreed to pay a £130m settlement to HMRC, but continued to insist that its presence in Britain is minimal, and doesn’t constitute a “permanent establishment”. Instead, under the company’s internal structure, the majority of income from British customers is technically spent in Ireland, where Google’s advertising sales department is based.
With the growth of Google’s DeepMind subsidiary, a pure research AI firm founded in London and currently based in the King’s Cross offices, as well as the company’s decision to own and design the headquarters, those claims could be subject to reassessment, if the firm does not choose to change its affairs first.
Pichai told the BBC: “As a company, we want to be a good citizen in every market we are in and that is true for the UK as well … but I think it is important to remember that we are one company in a global system and it is more important for governments and citizens to sort out the right structure and we are always happy to engage in a thoughtful and constructive manner.”
Heatherwick’s design agency, Heatherwick Studio, has had mixed success in recent years. Its new bus for London was welcomed as a design icon by the then mayor, Boris Johnson, but was criticised by passengers for ineffective air cooling and by environmental campaigners for being less fuel efficient than the buses it replaced.
Heatherwick Studio is working with Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group on the project. In a joint statement they said that the goal with the new building was to “create an interestingness that fits the scale and the community of King’s Cross. The Silicon Valley startup garage meets the London train sheds in a building that couples clarity with eccentricity and anchors innovation with heritage.”
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