Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon still considering aquarium intervention request

Watching the fish go by at the Exploris Centre in Portaferry. Picture by Mal McCann.
Ryan McAleer

THE Department for Infrastructure has said Minister Nichola Mallon is still considering a request by Ards and North Down Borough Council to intervene over plans for a new £12 million aquarium in Belfast.

ReefLIVE’s application for the marine attraction next to Titanic Belfast secured planning approval at Belfast City Council’s planning committee on Wednesday night.

The company said it will create 51 full-time equivalent posts with the aim of attracting 300,000 visitors per year.

But Ards and North Down Council has claimed the project will have implications for its Exploris centre in Portaferry.

The Co Down marine attraction was saved from closure six years ago with the help of around £1m of public money from the Executive.

ReefLIVE’s bid has been backed by a fund set up by Invest NI with EU money. Invest NI is now listed as a significant shareholder in the company, meaning it holds at least 25 per cent of shares.

But it said the decision to invest was a commercial decision, taken by Clarendon Fund Managers, which runs the Co-Fund II programme on its behalf.

Co-Fund II was set up with just under £18m from the European Regional Development Fund. Those funds are used to invest in projects alongside private equity investors.

Ards and North Down Council chief executive Stephen Reid wrote to Belfast City Council in August, stating “we have serious concerns in relation to the potential duplication and overlap an additional aquarium may bring to the Northern Ireland market”.

On Wednesday he wrote to Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, urging her to ‘call-in’ the application.

In a report prepared ahead of Wednesday’s planning committee meeting in Belfast, city council officials rejected the suggestion that the application should be deferred to the Department for Infrastructure because of claims it has regional impact.

In relation to concerns over Exploris, the report produced by planners in Belfast said: “Competition between similar tourism operations is not a material planning consideration.”

In a statement, a DfI spokesman said: “The department received a request from Ards and North Down Borough Council on September 2 to call in the aquarium application which it is currently considering and no further comment can therefore be made at this stage.”

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