Thornton Science Park - The Facts

Posted on 6th June 2018

I’ve read that Thornton Science Park is closing because it’s close to Essar's Stanlow oil refinery. What’s happening?

Thornton Science Park remains open for business. Some media headlines have referred to Thornton Science Park being 'dismantled', 'taken down' or 'forced to stop'. This is not the case.

The coverage has come about because 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, which are clearly very different from a University environment. However, the application was considered in that context.

Disappointingly, the application was turned down by Cheshire West and Chester Council on June 6. The University is now appealing to the Secretary of State against Cheshire West and Chester Council's decision. Thornton Science Park tenants, staff and students will continue to be informed of progress.

How did this situation arise?

When the University acquired Thornton Science Park, it received professional advice from Cheshire West and Chester's planning officers 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 Cheshire West and Chester Council, at the suggestion of the Council, 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?

Thornton Science Park is too important for the University, the wider region and national commercial interests to accept the Council’s decision without challenging it. The University is disappointed with the Council's decision but recognises that the planning application is just the beginning of the process and the University is appealing to the Secretary of State to overturn Cheshire West and Chester Council’s decision.

Are jobs safe at Thornton?

The media has mentioned the planning decision as putting 300 jobs under threat and potentially denying the regional economy of £60 million a year. The University has invested many millions in its Faculty of Science and Engineering (the first to be launched in the UK in 20 years) and the professional and support services which underpin that. There are no plans for the University to lose the Faculty.

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. In addition, there are residential properties and a primary school in the vicinity, not to mention major visitor attractions such as Cheshire Oaks and the Blue Planet Aquarium.

The proposal for change of use from business to education (a broader category, which relates to people from nursery age upwards) means that according to current HSE legislation there is a low level risk, associated with being next to the major industrial complex at Essar. Due to a technicality, this low level risk only applies because students are not classified as being employed on the site, not because this risk is any higher for any particular group of individuals at Thornton Science Park.

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 a similar way to 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.

Under current legislation, the Health and Safety Executive has to consider locations designated by the planning authority for educational use very carefully. Educational use is primarily designed to safeguard children and does not take into account the level of health and safety guidance and knowledge available to undergraduate and postgraduate students, staff and tenants at Thornton Science Park. Had the site remained as being zoned for employment use, the issue of low level risk from Essar would not have been raised.

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 at an appropriate teaching facility. It is important to understand that the Faculty, and current academic programmes, will continue regardless of location and that while the legal process is underway, teaching will operate at Thornton Science Park as normal.

What will happen to Thornton Science Park if, in the future, parts of the Faculty are forced to pull out?

Thornton Science Park fulfils a variety of functions, from research to commercial development, in addition to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research, it is an important part of the University's property portfolio. This planning application is just the beginning of the process and the University is appealing to the Secretary of State to overturn Cheshire West and Chester Council's decision.

  • For questions about business-related activities, please contact Paul Vernon, Senior Executive Director of Commercial Operations and Chief Executive of Thornton Science Park – p.vernon@chester.ac.uk
  • For questions about academic programmes or teaching, please contact Garfield Southall, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering – g.southall@chester.ac.uk
  • For general questions about the Thornton Science Park site, or research, please contact Professor Nick Avis, Provost – n.avis@chester.ac.uk