Ellesmere Port & Neston MP, Justin Madders is calling for an independent inquiry to be established, in order to examine the circumstances leading to retrospective planning permission being refused for the University of Chester’s Thornton campus.
The Thornton Science Park has been home to Chester’s engineering and science faculty since 2014 and incorporates laboratories, workshops and lecture theatres for 700 students. However, it has emerged that it had been operating throughout this time without having secured “change of use” planning permission, to enable the facility to be used for educational purposes.
After it finally applied for permission, four years later, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advised that given the site’s proximity to the Stanlow Oil Refinery, classified as a “hazardous institution,” it is therefore covered by major accident hazards regulations. On this basis it can be used as a site for industry and employment but it cannot be used for education.
Cheshire West and Chester Council’s planning committee were asked to consider the retrospective application in exactly the same way that they would have done if no operations had commenced. They subsequently voted by a majority to follow the advice of the HSE and the Council’s planning officers and reject the application.
Critics are arguing that the University of Chester have been guilty of a serious oversight by investing significant sums in the site, before obtain the relevant planning consent. It has also been pointed out that HSE guidance on hazardous institutions has not changed during this time. Cheshire West and Chester Council have claimed that the authority had felt uncomfortable with the current situation since at least 2016 and had been wanting to regularise matters.
In response, the University of Chester have claimed that they received professional advice from Cheshire West and Chester’s planning officers in 2014 that they would not require planning permission for change of use. It is unclear whether that advice was provided in writing, or indeed who offered it and to date no record has been produced by the University.
Commenting, Justin Madders MP said:
“I’m absolutely astonished that we have reached a point where the University is being asked to potentially dismantle a £120m facility because of something as fundamental as planning permission.
“Most of us wouldn’t consider putting up a conservatory without first checking whether we needed planning consent but it is obvious somewhere along the line the University felt it had the assurances needed to proceed. I am appalled that vast sums of public money have been expended on a site which it is now claimed is unsuitable for the purpose of education.
“It’s time that someone completely independent looked at how this fiasco arose and who is responsible for the ludicrous situation we are now in. If we can establish exactly what has happened then we can hopefully make sure we are never in this situation again and people will be able to invest with confidence and certainty.
“I will be writing to both the University and the Council in these terms and also urging them in the meantime to sit down face to face with the HSE to try and find a resolution so that students can continue their courses”.