Kings Chambers has successfully acted in a very major planning inquiry relating to unauthorised development at Thornton Science Park in Ellesmere Port. For many years, the site had been known as the Thornton Research Centre, operated by Shell as an international research and development location. After an unsuccessful attempt to operate it as a business park, Shell sold the site to the University of Chester in 2014. Since then, it has been operated as a Science Park and as the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, with about 400 undergraduate and postgraduate students studying at the site. There are also over 40 commercial tenants working in the science sector, present on the site.
After acquiring the site and having already started to operate the Faculty, the University sought retrospective planning permission for a material change of use for the Faculty buildings on site. The Science Park is within the Inner Zone of Stanlow Oil Refinery, an Upper Tier COMAH site, and the second biggest refinery in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive provided a strongly worded consultation response, advising against the grant of permission on public safety grounds. The Council accepted the advice and the application was refused.
The University also later sought confirmation that their use of the site was lawful, through making an application for a Lawful Development Certificate, arguing that the introduction of the faculty was not a material change of use of the site. The Council certified that the lawful use was, broadly, the R&D use, and refused to include education and workplace training.
The Council also took enforcement action in respect of the breach of planning control.
The University appealed in respect of the enforcement action, the refusal of planning permission and the partial refusal of the certificate. An inquiry was held between November 2019 and January 2020. Martin Carter acted for the local planning authority and Giles Cannock QC (Instructed by Peter Nesbit of Eversheds-Sutherland) acted for Essar, the operator of the refinery. The HSE were also present, represented by Leading Counsel.
The Inspector’s decisions were issued on 12th March 2020. In a lengthy and complex decision letter, the University’s appeals were rejected. The Inspector found that there had been a material change of use when the Faculty commenced operations as part of the mixed use on site and that the proposal was unacceptable because of the conflict with the Development Plan and also as a result of the major hazards facing the students by reason of their proximity to Stanlow. The University was given one year to remove the faculty use from the site.
The Inspector concluded that the University had behaved unreasonably as regards certain aspects of its case, and made partial awards of costs in favour of the local planning authority and the HSE.
Copies of the decision letter and costs decisions can be found below.
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