The University of Chester’s science and engineering campus at Thornton Science Park could be forced to close after Cheshire West & Chester’s planning committee rejected a retrospective application for the site, citing health and safety concerns.
The University opened its campus at the site, adjoining the Stanlow oil refinery to the north, in 2014 and it is currently home to around 500 students studying science and engineering.
The campus stretches over six buildings and includes nearly 130,000 sq ft of laboratories, lecture theatres, workshops, conference rooms, library space, and offices. The buildings formerly housed the Shell Research Centre before being acquired by the university.
A retrospective planning application was lodged by the university for a change of use of the buildings, but this was rejected by Cheshire West & Chester’s planning committee earlier this week, with councillors voting seven to four to refuse the application.
The rejection of the application hinged on advice from the Health & Safety Executive, which argued there was a risk to students using the site due its proximity to the nearby oil refinery, pictured below.
Under HSE guidelines, students are classed as members of the public, but the University had argued that for planning purposes, students should be classed as employees due to the safety procedures already in place on the site.
However, planning officers said there was “nothing unusual about the nature and range of educational facilities to suggest a wholly bespoke approach [to planning] should be taken”.
“There is no reason to consider the resident population as anything other than the public,” said the planners’ report. “The University argues that they should be treated as employees, given that they are subject to a special induction process and health and safety regime. However, the HSE rejects this approach and considers that there is no reason to class the population outside its normal methodology”.
The HSE counts as a specialist statutory consultee on the planning process, but it does not count as a decision-maker in the planning process, with the responsibility for the decision making process falling to the council.
Planning officers said the HSE’s advice on the site “must be given very great weight and that the University’s argument about the validity of the advice, without clear, satisfactory reasoning, should be discounted”.
In a statement to Place North West, vice-chancellor Tim Wheeler said the university was “surprised and disappointed” at the council’s decision.
“Thornton Science Park is a unique site, bringing an additional £60 million into Cheshire West & Chester each year in employment and educational and economic benefits. It is too important for the University, the wider region and national commercial interests to accept this decision without challenging it.
“This is just the beginning of the process and we will be appealing to the Secretary of State.”
The wider 66-acre Thornton Science Park is also home to a number of businesses and start-ups, which are unaffected by the council’s planning decision.