Even if the factory is eventually given the green light, the 11th-hour announcement is likely to delay production for at least 12 months and possibly two years.
Prescotts intervention was the culmination of a sustained campaign by Rockware, a rival bottler owned by the Irish group Ardagh Glass, which argued that the market was already saturated. It warned MPs in Yorkshire, where its factory is based, that 1,000 jobs there could be lost if the Quinn plant, which is expected to employ 550 staff, was allowed to go ahead.
Prescott has been criticised for the timing of his decision, which has been attributed by many quarters to political expediency in the countdown to a general election expected on May 5. Andrew Miller, a Cheshire Labour MP, accused the government of political cowardice because it could not countenance the prospect of job losses in northern England during an election year.
Prescott did not detail the exact reason for his decision beyond saying it was based on important wider implications. This is understood to be a reference to Rockwares complaint that the factory would breach European Union emission limits.
His (Prescotts) policy is to be very selective about calling in planning applications, states the notice of the ministers decision to Chester city council. Having regard to this policy, the secretary of state (Prescott) is of the opinion that the application is one that he ought to decide himself.
The decision to locate the 205-acre plant in Cheshire had been regarded as an economic coup for the area. The Northwest Development Agency gave grant aid of £4.9m and the Department of Trade and Industry provided regional incentives.
The council initially granted planning permission in October 2003. Quinn Glass submitted a subsequent application to increase the size of its proposed plant by 25%, build more production lines and change the furnace. Although this meant the company was forced by the High Court to make a fresh application, it used the previous planning permission granted for the smaller plant to continue building work in the interim.
Throughout the process, the local council has remained fully committed to the project.
We are surprised that the government has decided to intervene in what is essentially a local planning matter, said Simon Hughes, the head of the planning department at Chester city council.
Hughes said Prescotts office had eight months to consider the matter and expressed his frustration that the minister had taken so long to reach this conclusion.