University loses battle over Thornton Science Park buildings

The University of Chester has been given one year to close down six buildings at Thornton Science Park in Ince, after a failed appeal against a decision by Cheshire West & Chester Council and the Health & Safety Executive.

The University opened its campus at the site, adjoining the Stanlow oil refinery to the north, in 2014 and it is 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 for its Faculty of Science & Engineering. The buildings formerly housed the Shell Research Centre before being acquired by the university.

The university believed it did not need to apply for a change in the use of the buildings, as it argued students were the same as employees.

When a retrospective planning application was submitted in 2018, it was knocked back by Cheshire West & Chester Council, based on advice from the Health & Safety Executive.

The HSE argued there was a risk to students using the site due to its proximity to the nearby oil refinery, should an accident such as a fire occur. Meanwhile under HSE guidelines, students are classed as members of the public, not staff.

The university launched a planning appeal following the refusal, arguing the site would not be reached by a fire, and maintaining students should be classed as employees for planning purposes. An inquiry was held over 10 days in November.

The six buildings sit within the wider 66-acre Thornton Science Park, which is also home to a number of businesses and start-ups, which are unaffected by the planning decision.

In rejecting the university’s appeal, the planning inspector wrote: “History has shown that even the best risk control measures occasionally fail and that major accidents occur. The council and the HSE make a very simple but effective and persuasive submission.

“Public safety is a priority and is a compelling and overriding consideration against the FSE educational development at Thornton.”

Last year, the university’s legal team accused HSE of “wholly unacceptable and unreasonable behaviour”. In the appeal, HSE said the university’s evidence was “misconceived and seriously misleading”, and was awarded full costs.

A University of Chester spokesperson said: “The university has received the outcome of the Thornton planning appeal. We will consider the decision and its implications and take further advice.”

Barristers from Landmark Chambers advised on each side.

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