The University of Chester and the local enterprise partnership have targeted the end of 2021 to appoint a delivery partner to progress a stalled redevelopment of the Chester science park, where several buildings have been deemed unfit for purpose.
If delivered, the pledge contained in Cheshire & Warrington LEP’s post-Covid recovery plan this week would resurrect £100m plans to deliver the second phase of the site’s redevelopment.
Thornton Science Park spans 66 acres off Chester’s Pool Lane and accommodates university laboratories and teaching facilities, plus office and research & development space for around 40 companies.
The complex, adjacent to Stanlow oil refinery and Peel’s Protos energy hub in Ellesmere Port, has a focus on developing expertise in the use of hydrogen and green ammonia among sustainability and life sciences-related goals. It is home to the £16m Energy Innovation Centre, part-funded by the LEP, and was previously the site of the Shell Technology, Exploration & Research Centre.
Since taking ownership of the site in 2014, the university has wanted to attract greater external investment into the complex and expand its commercial floorspace. It launched a search towards the end of 2019 for a development partner to add a potential 400,000 sq ft of office and R&D space targeting the energy, automotive and advanced manufacturing industries.
However, that search stalled once the Covid pandemic hit. Also in 2019, the six buildings the university occupies as teaching accommodation for 500 students in its Faculty of Science and Engineering were deemed unsafe by the Health and Safety Executive because of the risk of death or serious harm if there was a “very large-scale accident” at the refinery next door.
When the university first moved in, it believed it did not need to apply for a change in use of the commercial buildings, which previously housed the Shell Research Centre, because it believed students were considered the same type of occupier as employees. It went on to convert the Shell buildings as its first phase of work at Thornton.
Later, the university’s retrospective planning application submitted in 2018 was rejected by Cheshire West & Chester Council based on the HSE’s advice, and the university lost an appeal against the decision last April.
It is now trying to progress plans to relocate the faculty to a new home at the Parkgate Road Campus, without much luck so far.
An alternative use, therefore, needs to be found for the six university buildings, while other upgrades and developments are required across the rest of the park so it remains competitive.
The site provides significant opportunities to expand the Cheshire Science Corridor and emerging clean technology cluster, according to the LEP.
The plans are understood to still be at a very early stage, and the university declined to provide any details. A spokesperson told Place North West: “The strategic development of Thornton Science Park is a key priority for the university in line with the LEP’s 2021/22 economic recovery plan. Further updates will be shared as plans progress.”
The LEP’s Covid recovery strategy states that one of the partnership’s top priorities for 2021/22 is to “work with the University of Chester to secure an investment/development partner for Thornton Science Park before the end of [this] calendar year”.
The pledge supports another of the LEP’s economic recovery objectives to set up a life sciences sector committee this year tasked with establishing Cheshire and Warrington as one of the best locations in the world for medicines discovery, formulation and manufacturing.
Other priorities include the ongoing work with industry consortium Net Zero North West to decarbonise the industrial cluster at Ellesmere Port – in particular, progressing HyNet, a planned hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage facility – and linking up local employment opportunities with the requirements of the Green Industrial Revolution. The LEP is working to accelerate investment in the Cheshire Science Corridor Enterprise Zone using a £30m borrowing facility through its local authority partners.
Clare Hayward, chair of Cheshire and Warrington LEP, said: “Cheshire and Warrington has been a stand-out performer in the UK and we have a strong platform to build on, however we are taking nothing for granted in our efforts to recover lost ground.
“We are working closely with businesses and employees to…come back with a cleaner, healthier and more inclusive growth economy.”