'Serious concerns' raised over huge new housing and shopping development

An artist's impression of the vertical farm proposed for the Heath Park project.
An artist's impression of the vertical farm proposed for the Heath Park project. -Credit:SOG

The Health and Safety Executive has told Halton MP Derek Twigg it has ‘serious concerns’ about plans for a huge new housing development close to the heart of Runcorn’s chemical industry.

It was reported recently that local residents were seeing red over proposals by SOG Ltd for up to 545 homes including 59 senior living apartments, vertical farm, retail, office and leisure space at The Heath Business and Technical Park in Runcorn.

Members of the council’s development management committee meet on Monday where officers have recommended they approve it.

But national regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has advised the council against backing the scheme in ‘the strongest possible terms’ over concerns about its proximity to potential chemical hazards. Even if the committee approves the plan on Monday, the HSE could refer it to the Secretary of State who would then have the final say.

The site is located near what is known as the Runcorn Chemical Complex. It has been in operation since 1833 and is operated primarily by Ineos/Inovyn/Koura who hold hazardous substances consents for several chemicals that are used on site.

Updated concept designs for the proposed eco-redevelopment of Heath Park in Runcorn.
Updated concept designs for the proposed eco-redevelopment of Heath Park in Runcorn. -Credit:SOG

In a letter to the council obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by local campaigners, the HSE said: “The advice is that the risk of harm to people at the proposed development from a major accident is such that there are sufficient reasons on safety grounds, for advising against the granting of planning permission for (the) application.”

It advises that any new housing construction should be prevented from inner zones of major hazard installations apart from ‘very small’ developments of less than three dwellings.

The letter also questioned a report put forward in support of the plans by the applicant with regards potential hazards. The HSE claimed the report ‘omits’ a number of key points and added: “These crucial omissions could have the overall effect of misleading decision makers.”

An aerial concept design for the Heath Park in Runcorn.
An aerial concept design for the Heath Park in Runcorn. -Credit:SOG

Both the HSE and the council has seen that report in full, but not all of it is being made public under government regulations designed to withhold sensitive information which, if disclosed, would adversely affect the ability to protect the public, public buildings and industrial sites from accident or acts of sabotage; and where disclosing information would harm the public’s health and safety.

Similar issues were encountered with an application for the nearby scrapped Pavilions development. In late 2020, the HSE requested the Secretary of State call in that scheme, which included 144 homes and was located within the same inner chemical zone. This led to a public inquiry held in early 2022. The applicant withdrew the application during the inquiry and the HSE were awarded costs. The council also withdrew its support at the same time and costs were awarded against it.

If the committee approves the plans on Monday, the HSE could once again recommend that the Secretary of State intervene.

Their letter added: “As the scale of the proposed development significantly exceeds that of the recently SoS called-in Pavilions development, HSE is mindful of one of the potential outcomes of the planning process should your council be minded to grant planning permission is that this development is called-in by the SoS for their own determination with the associated financial impact on the public purse.”

Halton MP Derek Twigg had written to the HSE on behalf of residents and received a subsequent letter from the organisation’s chief executive Sarah Alban.

In the letter, she said: “We also note that the officers’ report for the application contains statements with which we strongly disagree. We are urgently seeking to address this with HBC to ensure that HSE’s position is clearly and accurately portrayed to the committee.”

But a report by officers due to be considered by the committee on Monday said a ‘balance must be struck’ between sensitively managing populations exposed to risk, and making provision for facilities and amenities to service communities who live in the urban areas surrounding the Runcorn Chemical Complex.

It said: “The council’s concern remains that strictly adhering to the HSE’s advice effectively prevents any new housing in West Runcorn in perpetuity, leading to under investment and decline.

“Changes in household size and demographics in the local area mean that additional housing is needed to support the community in this area.”

The council declined to comment further but a spokesman for SOG Ltd, said: “Independent experts have established that the data used by the HSE to reach their risk assumptions is 30 years out of date.

“SOG has employed internationally renowned specialists in the fields of CFD modelling and risk assessment to undertake a comprehensive and extensive study, using the latest technology and up-to-date data on chemicals production at Weston, which concluded that Heath Park is not at risk from a chlorine leak.

“This report has been presented to and accepted by HBC and the same specialists have presented it to the UK HSE.

“Furthermore, Heath Park fully complies with HBC Planning for Risk Policy which is an essential part of any planning application presented to HBC planning authority.”

The meeting takes place at 6.30pm at Runcorn Town Hall on Monday, May 20.

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