The University of Chester will have to dismantle a £120m facility because of the health risk to students associated with being so close to Stanlow oil refinery.
Cheshire West and Chester Council planning committee rejected the retrospective application to allow the learning centre to continue based on advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
But the move is disastrous for the university which has been running the science and engineering department at its Thornton Science Park since 2014.
Members voted by seven votes to four to prevent the facility changing its designation from an industrial to an educational site.
This was down to advice from the HSE who felt students would be at risk if there was a toxic gas release or explosion from the refinery next door.
There will be widespread repercussions not only for students but also technology companies who chose to locate at the science park because of the close working relationship with the university.
The world class facility, a site gifted by Shell, is part of the Cheshire Science Corridor and the government’s Northern Powerhouse vision.
Committee members themselves were split.
He said the test was to treat retrospective applications based on all the evidence as though no operations had commenced.
“Would we have given planning permission to Thornton Research if they had asked for planning permission with the proviso the Health and Safety Executive were against it and I believe the answer would have been no.”
Cllr Houlbrook used to work at Thornton as a clerk and said the site was only separated from Stanlow by ‘a wire fence’.
“I well remember in the afternoon having to shut the windows to keep the foul smells out of the offices,” she said.
“It’s not like the boat museum or the Blue Planet, it’s right next door to a major refinery. Cllr Jones has just referred to Flixborough and I remember that happening and everybody being horrified at what happened there and the same at Buncefield – it happened in an instant.
“No matter how many health and safety regulations you’ve got in place, if something goes wrong and the whole thing goes up, you really don’t have a chance. I now think about the students and their parents who would be attending the university and being put in that position.
“As a councillor I’m fully aware we are looking at bringing business into our borough and stabilising our economy. But it’s really difficult to have a report from the HSE which says people working there will not be safe, we cannot guarantee their safety.”
He said: “It comes down to risk doesn’t it? How do we as individuals judge the risk. In my view I think the HSE are overstating the risk element. With the HSE I’m afraid it’s the nature of the beast that they always look at the worst case scenario.”
He added: “Teaching and research is just so important for the future of our country and I think it would remiss of us if we were to turn down this opportunity.”
He said: “I’m tempted to support the granting of this application because of the benefits I see for the university and for Cheshire.”
Cllr Board described the site a ‘fantastic facility’ and good news when it was set up. “Now four years later we are talking about closing it down, I can’t believe it,” he exclaimed.
There has been confusion about how the site has been able to operate since 2014 without the appropriate planning consent in place.
Council legal officer Pamela Chesterman hinted the authority had felt uncomfortable with the current situation since at least 2016 and had been wanting to regularise matters.
She told members: “If you are minded to refuse this, we will have to consider enforcement action because the longer we allow this to go on, the culpability or the potential for the council to be linked in some way to allowing the use of the university facilities draws us into the causal link.”
But setting out the significant consequences at stake, she said: ”If you are minded to refuse you are not just dealing with a theoretical application and the prospects that you will be disappointing a handful of people or prospective students. It is a major decision that is going to disrupt a lot of people – staff and students – and that is down partly to the applicant.”