There was anger in the public gallery as councillors waved through controversial development plans for The Heath in Runcorn – despite strong objections from the national health and safety watchdog.

There was a chaotic start to last night's meeting of Halton's Development Management Committee at Runcorn Town Hall. Although more than 150 objectors turned up there was only room for around 50. They then had to choose among themselves to see who could enter the meeting chamber, resulting in it starting 10 minutes' late.

In the run-up to last night's meeting, some local residents had been up in arms over plans 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, with more than 700 objections being submitted.

Runcorn and Widnes World: Objectors had to wait in the main council chamber as there was not enough space in the meeting room. Submitted imageObjectors had to wait in the main council chamber as there was not enough space in the meeting room. Submitted image (Image: Submitted)

And national regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had advised the council against backing the scheme in ‘the strongest possible terms’ over concerns about its proximity to potential hazards at the nearby Runcorn Chemical Complex.

But at the meeting, a number of members accused the HSE of stoking 'fears' and claiming that the modelling it was working from was 30 years' old.

Speaking at the meeting, objector and local resident Matt Morrison disputed claims that the chemical risk data the HSE was working from was out of date, stating that anyone who manages a Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) site - industrial areas which hold dangerous substances - must keep their information updated.

He told the meeting: "This report is reliant on unsubstantiated, unquantified assertions with regards to historical changes on the Runcorn site chemical complex, as stated by the HSE in a letter to Halton Borough Council. A COMAH operator is required by law to update their data every five years, so the claims of out of date information is misleading or not factual."

The committee also heard from two councillors opposed to the plans - Lib Dem Margaret Ratcliffe, and Labour’s Norman Plumpton-Walsh.

Cllr Ratcliffe said: "This application first came to light in October, 2021 with no public consultation between the public and the applicant before this stage. In pre-application discussions, the applicant was advised good communication with local residents and councillors is encouraged to avoid unnecessary concerns/objections - this consultation with residents did not happen."

The meeting was largely good natured but frustrations occasionally boiled over in what was now a crowded public gallery, with some claiming they could not hear what was being said, or speaking up to refute claims being made by speakers.

At one point, committee chairman Cllr Stan Hill said he would have the room cleared if there were any further interruptions.

One objector replied: "There are hundreds of people downstairs ladies and gentlemen and the lack of organisation to allow these people their democratic right to be here at this committee is deeply disappointing."

When Cllr Hill replied that the location of the meeting was printed on the meeting document, another objector asked how they were supposed to know how big the meeting room was, but Cllr Hill reiterated that he would clear the room if there were any more interruptions.

Speaking on behalf of the applicant, Andy Teage, a  director at WSP Planning Consultancy, said the plans had won a national award, was a Liverpool City Region bacon project and was supported by the Department for Business and Trade. He said: "The core objective of this application is to secure and sustainable future science and technology employment sites with the added and symbiotic benefits of building sustainable residential community around it."

Cllr Tom McInerney also read out a letter of support for the plans from Professor Rachel Cooper OBE, distinguished professor of design management and policy at Lancaster University.

Recommending approval, council officers had argued that 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 concerns were that strictly adhering to the HSE’s advice effectively prevented any new housing in West Runcorn in perpetuity, leading to 'under investment and decline'.

Committee member Cllr Chris Loftus said the HSE had ‘created fear’ over the application.

He said: “These national bodies - civil servants - make decisions a long way away from where the decisions are, and people live, and think that's the end of it. Well, on this occasion, the council has a statutory duty o make decisions on the evidence provided."

Cllr Dave Thompson also accused the HSE of ‘hiding in the audience’, due to the fact it had sent a representative to the meeting but that they did not address the committee.

He said: "The HSE’s risk modelling of that site is 30 years' old - that is appalling. There are risks, we know that. And those risks, of course will change over those 30 years."

The application was then backed by all members in a vote, with the exception of Cllrs Chris Carlin and Chris Rowe who did not vote as they had declared an interest.