Update: Chester engineering faculty faces relocation due to proximity to oil refinery

Article by Amanda Doyle

The Stanlow oil refinery

THE University of Chester is facing the possibility of relocating its science and engineering faculty at Thornton Science Park after the local council refused to grant retrospective planning permission due to the proximity of Stanlow oil refinery.

The site was formerly the Shell Technology Centre, and in 2014 was gifted by Shell to the university, which then developed the Thornton Science Park. The science and engineering faculty has been on the site since then and six of the buildings in the science park are used as teaching space for around 700 students.

Planning permission for change of use was not sought at the time, as the university had sought advice from senior planning officers who said that no change of use application was required. At the suggestion of the council, the university later submitted a local development order (LDO), which would allow for expansion at the site without separate applications being required for each development. During this process, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) raised questions on the existing planning permission, which resulted in the university submitting a retrospective planning application in December 2017.

The planning committee voted by a ruling of seven to four to reject the application to change from an industrial to an educational site. The council acted on advice from the HSE stating that students were classed as members of the public, rather than employees, and that the proximity of the campus to the Stanlow oil refinery poses a hazard to students.

Stuart Reston from the HSE told The Chester Chronicle: “The Thornton Science Park falls wholly within the inner zone where the risk of being exposed to a toxic substance, an explosion overpressure or a thermal hazard is highest. For major accidents involving fire and explosion, HSE has assessed a representative worst case event which, if it were to occur, would lead to a high likelihood of fatality for people outdoors, and people indoors would likely receive a dangerous dose or worse.”

Tim Wheeler, vice-chancellor of the university, told Times Higher Education: “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].”

Wheeler also fears the consequences for technology companies which moved to the park because of the close working relationship with the university. The university intends to appeal the decision but if the appeal is rejected, the university will be forced to move its science and engineering teaching activities to another campus.

The council said in a statement: “Members of the planning committee considered the matter in considerable detail, weighing up the economic benefits delivered by the university faculty wholly being on this site alongside the advice from the HSE of the risk to students. National planning guidance makes it clear that advice from the HSE on planning applications must be treated with the upmost seriousness.”

Paul Vernon, senior executive director of commercial operations and CEO of Thornton Park, told The Chemical Engineer: “Having the faculty of science and engineering here is incredibly important. Thornton has always been set up to bring academia and industry much closer together. What the decision means is that even if we are precluded from teaching on the site – and we are appealing against that – there will still be research on site and we fully anticipate that the research side of the faculty will continue to operate closely with the businesses that we’ve got here.

“All of the businesses [at Thornton] fall into the categories of energy, the environment, advanced manufacturing, and automotive and we chose those because they reflect very closely on the research and education that’s going on in the faculty of science and engineering.

“The companies also get involved with influencing curricula. We have been using industry advice to adapt what we teach the undergraduates to make their degree courses much more industrially relevant. I think what we’ve got going on here is incredibly unusual because by bringing industry so closely in to the academic activity it’s meant that we’re much better placed to fill the skills gaps these companies have got. Losing education here – or even stretching the distance between the education and the companies – will have a detrimental effect.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter

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