Councillors approve plans for £150m rare earth refinery on banks of the Humber

Plans for a £150m rare earth refinery at Saltend Chemicals Park near Hull, which aim to chip away at the UK’s reliance on critical mineral imports from China, have been approved by East Riding councillors.

Developer Pensana wants to refine rare earths, which are used for magnets in wind turbines and electric vehicles, on a site across the road from Saltend Chemicals Work to the east of Hull.

There have been local objections to the plant, which was originally earmarked for a site on the park itself, but will now be on 35 acres of farmland close to the A1033 and just 125m from homes on Glencoe Villas.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Ward councillor John Dennis told a planning meeting at East Riding Council’s Beverley headquarters on Thursday that the 216,000 sq ft facility - 10 times larger than the local Sainsbury’s -and right on peoples’ doorsteps was not acceptable.

The facility is earmarked for 35 acres of farmland adjacent to Saltend Chemicals Park, and east of Paull Road. The land is allocated for industrial development

He said there were concerns over the impact on health of using “thousands of tonnes of hazardous acids” in the process as well as the use of raw materials “with a dubious reputation of radioactivity” which could pollute the underground aquifer.

The new refinery comes on top of plans for Equinor’s hydrogen production plant at Saltend as well as massive industrial developments on surrounding farmland, Yorkshire Energy Park and the 4.5 million sq ft Humber International Enterprise Park.

The meeting heard there were no objections from statutory consultees including the Health and Safety Executive.

A representative from Pensana told councillors that they would operate to “COMAH” regulations which aim to mitigate the effects of major accidents involving dangerous substances.

The sun setting behind Saltend Chemicals Park, in Hull Picture: James Hardisty

He said currently 90 per cent of the world’s magnets were produced in China, and their near monopoly meant they could dictate prices and limit exports.

Electric cars need roughly a kilogram of magnet, while a 260m wind turbine can use some seven tonnes.

Coun Geraldine Mathieson said she couldn’t see any planning reason for refusing the application, adding: “I believe public concerns will be dealt with in another forum...I’d rather have it here in our highly regulated environment rather than it going somewhere else where it might be more hazardous to process these particular materials.”

And Coun John Whittle said the world had changed since the application was put in, adding: “If this is going to enhance the robustness of our country it must be supported.”

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced on Sunday that £4m of taxpayers’ money from the £1bn Automotive Transformation Fund would be granted to the project. It was reported that this should help unlock the private investment needed to fund the plant, which could create 125 jobs.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “We are investing heavily to ensure the UK remains one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing. Through our £850m Automotive Transformation Fund, we are dedicated to securing a globally competitive automotive sector in Yorkshire and across the UK.

"Developing secure supply chains in critical minerals and battery components is central to this.”