Council expresses 'serious concerns' over potential impact of new Belfast aquarium on Exploris

There are concerns that a new aquarium in Belfast could place the Exploris attraction in Portaferry back in jeopardy.
Ryan McAleer

ARDS and North Down Borough Council has expressed serious concerns that a £12 million aquarium in Belfast backed by Invest NI will damage the tourism potential of the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry.

The marine attraction on the Ards Peninsula, which includes the north’s only seal rehabilitation centre, was saved from closure in 2014 after the Executive stepped in with £900,000. It subsequently underwent a £1.5 million refurbishment in 2016.

But there are concerns that a new aquarium next to Titanic Belfast will compete rather than complement the Portaferry centre.

Initially set up by private investors based in England, ReefLIVE Ltd’s bid last year received the backing of Invest NI’s Co-Fund programme.

Despite Invest NI now being listed by Companies House as a significant shareholder in ReefLIVE, it said the decision to invest in the aquarium was a commercial decision made by Clarendon Fund Managers, which operates the Co-Fund programme on Invest NI’s behalf.

The stated aim of the fund is “to ensure that businesses with growth aspirations can access equity finance to reach their potential”.

The current programme, Co-Fund II, was given £17.7m by Invest NI via the European Regional Development Fund. Clarendon Fund Managers use the pot to invest alongside private equity funds and investors.

In a statement, Clarendon Fund Managers said: “Co-Fund NI ensures that businesses with growth aspirations in Northern Ireland can access equity finance to reach their potential. The decision to invest in ReefLIVE was a commercial investment decision made using the same process Co-Fund NI has used successfully for the past nine years to support growing businesses. Co-Fund NI invests alongside pre-qualified private investors such as business angels.”

Belfast-based private equity firm Cordovan Capital Partners is also listed as a key investor in the aquarium.

ReefLIVE has said the venture will create 51 full-time equivalent jobs, with the aim of attracting 300,000 visitors each year.

Planning officials in Belfast City Council have already recommended approving the project, but the decision was deferred last month and will be reconsidered by the planning committee on Wednesday evening.

The deferral was linked to issues around road infrastructure rather than concerns over Exploris. However, the report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting revealed that a dozen more objections have been received, most focused on the impact on Exploris.

One of the strongest objectors is Ards and North Down Borough Council, which owns Exploris. The attraction is operated by Aquarium Exploris Ltd (AEL) on its behalf.

Council chief executive Stephen Reid said the local authority does not share ReefLIVE’s view that the aquariums will complement rather than compete with each other.

“Having reviewed the planning application, we have serious concerns in relation to the potential duplication and overlap an additional aquarium may bring to the Northern Ireland market,” he wrote.

The project has also divided the DUP, with East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson backing it, while Strangford MP Jim Shannon has lodged his objection.

Despite the concerns, planning officials in Belfast responded that: “Competition between similar tourism operations is not a material planning consideration.”

They also rejected a claim that the application has a regional impact and therefore should have been ‘called in’ by the Department for Infrastructure.

The application is expected to be formally approved by Wednesday’s meeting of the planning committee.

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