Wednesday 22 February 2017 10:02:11 PM

Consultation On Potential Closure Of Portaferry Aquarium To Begin
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A lack of response from the Northern Ireland Executive to its business case and request for funding to secure and improve the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has meant that Ards Borough Council has at a council meeting on Wednesday 28 May agreed to commence a formal consultation process and equality impact assessment on the potential closure of the facility. 

In making its decision the Council has called on the Department of Environment Minister and the wider Executive to formally respond to its bid for financial support.

Since September last year, the Council has delayed its decision to close the aquarium to give the Executive time to make firm offers of a funding package, to include revenue for the Seal Sanctuary from the Department of the Environment, together with a substantial one-off capital grant of approximately £900,000.

The Exploris Aquarium

The Exploris Aquarium has not yet had the backing from Stormont to keep it open.

As outlined in a business case submitted to the Executive by Ards Borough Council this funding would have made the facility a sustainable operation, reducing running costs of the facility to an acceptable burden for the ratepayer from around £500,000 each year to £200,000.

Expressing disappointment and frustration that no financial package had been forthcoming from the Executive, the Deputy Mayor of Ards, Councillor Philip Smith commented: “This proposal is not the Council giving up on Exploris, but it must have the financial support of the Executive.  Without the actions proposed we will expose rate payers to greater financial risk, and continued indecision is unfair to our staff and other stakeholders.

“The Council has done its bit and it is now up to the DoE Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive to step up to the mark.  Should an offer of funding from the Executive be forthcoming the Council will review this decision”.

“An equality impact assessment will now begin, and is estimated to take four months.  Exploris remains open.”

Ards Borough Council has owned and operated the aquarium since 1987. It began life as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse marine life that exists around Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea. The Council extended and re-opened the aquarium, known as Exploris, in 1994. Prince Charles performed the opening ceremony. The Seal Sanctuary, which provides for the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, orphaned and injured seal pups, was opened in 1999.  Since 1992, the Council has invested £10.8M (net).

A Red Gurnyard at the Portaferry Exploris aquarium.

Wondering what lies ahead: A Red Gurnyard at the Portaferry Exploris aquarium.

Currently the Ards Borough Council employs 18 permanent staff, equating to approximately 15 Full-Time Equivalents and a number of casual workers

There ha sbeen much concern by environmentalists about teh welfare of the fish and the  process of re-homing the fish and animal stock will also be investigated.

Down News understands that an equality impact assessment on the potential closure of Exploris Aquarium will be conducted by an independent agency.  This process is anticipated to take a minimum of four months and means no firm timescale for any closure can be given at this point.

Decision timeline to date:

*  September 2013, the Council agreed that a decision to close Exploris would be stayed for two months, to allow for firm proposals for alternative funding to come from central government departments – Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Environment (DoE) and Education (DE). This followed news that the company which was to manage the facility, Livingstone Leisure, withdrew from the process, after confirming that, under the rules which apply in Northern Ireland, it was unable to put in place the broadly comparable pension scheme required for existing staff.

*  November 2013, in light of the potential funding from Central Government – the Environment Minister had offered a one-off grant to upgrade the facility, subject to an appropriate business plan, and had also made a commitment to fund the seal sanctuary – the Council agreed to extend the stay of execution on the decision about Exploris to the end of January 2014 to allow officers to produce a business plan.

* January 2014, the Council agreed a business plan to keep Exploris open, subject to confirmation of funding from the NI Executive.

*  In February 2014, Environment Minister, stated that he was unable to make any firm offer of funding in time for the Council’s February meeting, as the Council’s business case had not yet been approved by his Department’s economist, and that approval was now also required from the Department for Finance and Personnel (DFP). The Minister also asked that the North Down and Ards Statutory Transition Committee approve the business case before he took a final case before the Executive in March.

*  March 2014 the Council agreed to extend the stay on closure for a further 2 months, expressing disappointment and concern that no financial package had been forthcoming from the Executive, after the Council submitted its business case.