A potential clash between one of Britain's biggest regeneration projects and the re-opening of fuel terminals alongside the Manchester Ship Canal came under the High Court spotlight as landowners argued that they were being kept in the dark about issues which could have a major impact on their development plans and public safety.
Peel Investments (North) Limited, The Manchester Ship Canal Company Limited and Peel Media Limited – all members of the Peel Group of companies - own tracts of prime development land in Salford and Trafford and have ambitious plans for large-scale residential, commercial and leisure developments in the area.
However, in the midst of their land-holdings stand the Manchester Fuel Terminals (MFT) which were operated by American oil company, Esso, until their closure in 2010. Valero Energy Limited has applied for permission to reopen the MFT and that has caused anxiety on the part of the landowners in respect of any 'risks and dangers' that could entail and the potential impact on their regeneration plans.
Valero's proposals are under consideration by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency (EA). The landowners asked the court to direct public disclosure of a safety report prepared by Valero and other information which it was argued that they needed so that they can understand the potential impact of the MFT re-opening and have a meaningful input into the decision-making process.
However, refusing to intervene and dismissing the landowners’ judicial review challenge, Mr Justice Underhill said that the Valero safety report had recently been disclosed, although only in redacted form to preserve commercially sensitive information. The judge emphasised that the contents of the safety report were, by necessity, highly technical and complex and its examination by the HSE and the EA was an expert process requiring detailed analysis of public safety issues.
Expressing doubt as to the utility of public consultation at this stage of the process, the judge said: "The difficulties for any member of the public prepared to pay for an expert consultant to be able to contribute and give an opinion on the consequences of a safety report are greater still because of the entitlement of the operator to redact what is sensitive information. The very information which is likely to be redacted, for reasons of industrial confidentiality or public security, will also be the information most likely to be necessary for a thorough analysis of the report."
Also noting that a process of public consultation would inevitably cause substantial delay, the judge concluded: "In truth, I believe that this application for judicial review has no prospect of success. I will accordingly refuse permission."