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What’s happening?

The University submitted a retrospective planning application for approval of parts of its Thornton Science Park site for D1 classification (non-residential education and training, the only appropriate planning use which approaches a description of the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s work there).

Thornton Science Park is situated next to Essar’s Stanlow oil refinery, which is classified as a Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) site. As such, any planning applications are legally required to involve consultation with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The planning application is for D1 Non-Residential Use, a broad category which covers community buildings ranging from clinics to crèches.

The application was turned down by Cheshire West and Chester Council on June 5, 2018 and is now subject to further consideration through a planning appeal, which is ongoing.

How did this situation arise?

When the University acquired Thornton Science Park, it was advised by Cheshire West and Chester Council that it would not require planning permission for change of use. This was because the previous owners, Shell, had been granted a special kind of planning permission which recognised the unique, or ‘sui generis,’ nature of the site, catering for research and development alongside industry.

This situation has arisen as result of the University and the Council, at the Council’s suggestion, working together to put in place a Local Development Order (LDO) at Thornton.  An LDO would permit specified types of development at the Thornton site without separate applications for planning consent being needed.

As Thornton is within the ‘inner zone’ of a site (Stanlow Oil Refinery), regulated by COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) legislation, in cases of planning consent, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a statutory consultee and must therefore be asked to comment.  During this process the HSE raised questions of the existing planning consents and the University decided to apply to change the designated use of the buildings occupied by the Faculty of Science and Engineering to D1 to answer those questions.

The University’s proposal relates to six of the 60 buildings on site, including the library, laboratories, lecture theatres and workshops.

What happens next?

The University was disappointed with the Council’s decision but recognises that the planning application is just the beginning of the process. The University is now awaiting the outcome of an appeal against the Council’s decision. Thornton Science Park tenants, staff and students will continue to be informed of progress. The timing of the result being announced has been complicated by the General Election taking place in December, but is expected to be during the second quarter of 2020.

Is it safe to study at Thornton Science Park?

Academic activities have taken place at this site since the 1940s, when it was used as ‘Shell’s university’ and there is a training facility operated by a private provider nearby.

The proposal for change of use from business to education means that according to current legislation there is a residual risk, associated with it being situated in the ‘inner zone’ of a major industrial complex – in this case Essar’s Stanlow oil refinery.

Security at Thornton Science Park is tight, public access is restricted and all site users are subject to rigorous health and safety training procedures for their personal welfare. This means that Thornton students are treated in the same way as employees, in that they are instructed in taking a professional approach to working on an industrial site from the outset, as part of the University’s commitment to preparing them in the safest and most practical ways for the work environment.

Is it safe to work at Thornton Science Park?

The industrial area at Thornton has been designated for employment use in Cheshire West and Chester Council’s Local Plan and is home to a number of companies, at which thousands of employees are based.

The health and safety training procedures provided as part of the induction to the site mean that from the outset, staff at Thornton Science Park are given the same instructions relating to their welfare as any professionals working on an industrial site.

If the outcome of the legal process means that eventually teaching must stop at Thornton Science Park, where will the Faculty of Science and Engineering operate from?

Should there be a need to relocate any of the Faculty’s activities in the future, suitable arrangements will be made to do so, with academic programmes continuing regardless of location. While the legal process is underway, teaching will operate at Thornton Science Park as normal.