A UK university faces being forced to close its engineering teaching facility after the local council refused to grant retrospective planning permission and raised concerns about potential health risks to students.
The University of Chester developed Thornton Science Park on land gifted to the institution by Shell and it has been home to its science and engineering department since 2014. But planning permission for educational use was not sought until afterwards, and Cheshire West and Chester Council has now ruled that the campus’ proximity to Stanlow oil refinery endangers students.
Six of Thornton Science Park’s buildings are used as teaching space for about 500 students and boast nearly 130,000 square feet of laboratories and study spaces.
A report presented to the council’s planning committee – which voted by seven to four to prevent the change from industrial use as a Shell research centre to educational purposes – said that environmental protection officers gave no objection to the site’s development. However, emergency planning teams objected “on the basis of the location of the site within the inner zone of a hazardous installation and due to the increase in the number of persons within the hazardous area put at risk of harm”.
Students could not be sufficiently protected by the university on the grounds that they are classed as members of the public and not “employees”.
A University of Chester spokeswoman confirmed that the reason no planning permission application had been made in advance of the Thornton development was because the university had sought professional advice from senior planning officers at the council, who said that “no change of use was required”.
Tim Wheeler, the university’s vice-chancellor, told Times Higher Education that the campus would “categorically not be closing” until an appeal was made against the council’s decision.
“The verdict is disappointing because it creates uncertainty,” he said. “There is a fair amount of work and resources that will have to go into the appeal…[but] we think we’ve got compelling grounds for it.”
In the event that the appeal is rejected, the university will be forced to move its science and engineering teaching activities to another campus. Losing the right to operate in the science park would, however, “diminish the full potential of working closely between university and industry”, said Professor Wheeler.
“Our location is absolutely aligned and on mission with the government’s industrial strategy. Working with industry is exactly what we should be doing as a country so in that sense it’s frustrating to be told [we’re in the wrong].”
Speaking at the council meeting, Labour councillor Brian Jones referenced an explosion that took place at Flixborough chemical plant in Lincolnshire in 1974, which killed 28 people, the Chester Chronicle reported.
Professor Wheeler said that the interests and well-being of Chester students were “paramount” and stressed there were no student residences on site. Job security would be guaranteed for all those affected, he added.
The blow comes after Chester failed in its bid to win government funding to open a medical school. The university, which had already announced the venture, later admitted that it had been “a little ambitious” in its proposed timeline.