Infrastructure Minister declines request to intervene over plan for new Belfast aquarium

The Exploris aquarium in Portaferry.
The Exploris aquarium in Portaferry.

THE Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has said it will not ‘call in’ a decision to grant planning permission for a £12 million aquarium in Belfast.

The chief executive of Ards and North Down Borough Council Stephen Reid urged Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon to intervene last month, expressing “serious concerns” that the new tourism venture will have implications for the future viability of the Exploris centre in Portaferry.

The council-owned Exploris centre was saved from closure six years ago with the help of around £1m of public money from the Executive.

ReefLIVE Ltd’s proposal for the marine attraction next to Titanic Belfast secured planning approval at the start of September. The bid has been financed by private equity and a fund set up by Invest NI with European money.

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

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

Declining Mr Reid’s request, DfI said ‘call in’ powers are only used in “exceptional circumstances”.

A spokesperson said: “Commercial competition between facilities is not a consideration that can be taken into account in a planning decision, regardless of which planning authority is responsible for determining the application.”

Ards and North Down council said it was disappointed, but would respect the decision.

In a statement, it said: “Exploris plays a key role in supporting around 40 direct jobs within the local community, and many more as part of the wider tourism offering within the Ards Peninsula and Strangford Lough Area.

“The aquarium generates several million pounds of additional revenue into the local area and it also, critically, provides Northern Ireland’s only Sanctuary for the rescue and rehabilitation of seals.

“Although council, local businesses and residents are concerned by any potential negative impact that a second aquarium operating in Northern Ireland may have on Exploris, Portaferry and the wider region, we are confident of the unique tourism, educational and environmental offering Exploris provides and look forward to continuing to welcome visitors in the months and years ahead.”