A controversial scheme to build hundreds of homes near a Runcorn chemical complex have hit a major roadblock after safety chiefs referred it to the secretary of state.

In May, Halton Council’s development management committee approved plans by SOG Ltd for The Heath in Runcorn, which included 545 new homes close to major chemical sites.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had objected but its concerns were dismissed by Halton planning bosses, with some accusing the HSE of ’stoking fears' and using old data to model potential dangers.

But even after the plans were approved by the council it remained in the HSE’s power to refer the plans to the secretary of state to decide whether they wanted to ‘call in’ the scheme and have the final say. The HSE has now done so.

In a statement provided to Derek Twigg, Labour candidate for Widnes and Helsby in his former role of Halton MP, it said: “HSE has decided to request the SoS to call in this application for their own determination as we have concluded that this is a case of exceptional concern.

"The development is at a very high risk in the event of major accident and exceeds a number of HSE’s call in factors."

They said the  Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities National Planning Casework Unit had also agreed to HSE’s request for an Article 31 direction (stop notice) due to its 'concerns about public safety'.

The spokesman added: "This will prevent Halton Borough Council from granting this application and allow time for the call-in process to be concluded."

The plans for 545 homes included 59 senior living apartments, vertical farm, retail, office and leisure space and have been described by backers as a 'modern day Port Sunlight'.

But it had proven highly controversial with 700 objections being received and more than 150 residents attending the planning meeting where it was approved at Runcorn Town Hall. Local councillors Margaret Ratcliffe and Norman Plumpton-Walsh had also spoken out.

Matt Morris of opposition campaign group Heath and Weston Community Voice, said: “We are over the moon to hear of the decision. It demonstrates that our concerns are genuine and the views shared by some councillors in the development control meeting are wrong and very far from the truth. We look forward to hearing the decision and we will carry on campaigning."

A spokesman for SOG said: “Halton Borough Council's development management committee  voted unanimously to approve the outline planning application, and we are therefore naturally disappointed that the HSE are now pressing for the secretary of state to call in our application.

“SOG concur with statements made by councillors at the committee meeting who raised their own deep concerns about the risk assessment presented by the HSE, which is based on data that is 30 years out of date. We have also written to the HSE’s chief executive Sarah Albon to register our concerns regarding the conduct of her officials and their risk assessment process."