The Nirah freshwater aquarium will provide vital scientific research and – at four times the size of the Eden Project – is set to be a huge tourism boost for Bedford. So why has it had to endure an almighty struggle to get planning consent?
A quavering voice piped up from the back of Bedford’s corn exchange: “I’ll donate £50. I want to ensure that Nirah is here for my grandchildren.” The four hundred people in the hall stopped chatting and slowly turned to look at the elderly lady who had spoken, before breaking into applause.
Frank Branston, the elected mayor of Bedford, beamed with delight at the audience from the platform he was sharing with an investment banker, a school teacher, some local politicians and a world-renowned scientist. “Bedford is not a place where people get easily excited,” he said later, “but they were very excited by Nirah. It galvanized the public incredibly.”
The enthusiasm of the mayor and people of Bedford that hot night in June last year, and the oddness of the collection of speakers, reflects the uniqueness of the subject they were considering: the £400m National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats. If built, it will be the largest freshwater aquarium in existence.
As with the Eden Project, the site for the aquarium-to-be is an immense clay pit. But Nirah will be on an altogether grander scale. Glass tunnels will lead visitors through freshwater habitats from the Amazon rainforest, to the Great Rift Valley and the Mekong Delta, under a 130ft tall biome stretching the length of three football pitches. The entire site will cover 250 acres, four times larger than the Eden Project.
The centrepiece will be two 1.5 million gallon tanks that will be home to some of the most unusual fish, reptiles and amphibians on the planet. These will include the world’s largest freshwater fish, the Mekong giant catfish, and a 15ft black caiman alligator, which is on the brink of extinction. Above them, rare poisonous tree frogs will spangle the tropical forests like living jewels.
Just three months from now, on 19 October, this scheme should secure planning permission. But it has been an almighty battle to get to this point. All major schemes have problems reaching fruition, but Nirah has had a particularly exotic array of woes to contend with. Animal rights activists have stormed council offices; politicians have accused the scheme of being a money-grubbing front for housing developments; local government funding has been granted, rescinded, unrescinded and then cut once and for all; and members of the project team have been stressed to breaking point.
The concept for Nirah was formed in the late nineties by a team of prominent scientists with an interest in freshwater environments, including Chris Shaw at Queen’s University, Belfast, and David Theakston at Liverpool University. The first person they approached was Ronnie Murning, Eden’s project manager, who proceeded to put together the same design team that delivered that scheme, namely Grimshaw Architects, Arup Associates, Grant Associates, Anthony Hunt Associates and Davis Langdon.
In 2003, the scientists contacted Peter May, chairman of London-based financial adviser MacArthur & Co. They asked him to chair Nirah Holdings, the company that would raise the necessary funding. With May’s help, the company put together a business concept and tentatively took the idea to market.
By early 2004, three sites had been shortlisted, in Liverpool, Bedfordshire and south Wales. Within a year, Bedfordshire received the happy news that Nirah was theirs. It had scooped the prestigious project on the strength of its financial package, political support and transport links.
Wayne Dyer, a planning associate at Arup, helped to assess the candidate sites. “Bedfordshire has an amazing catchment area,” he says. “There are 28 million people within two hours’ travel time. It’s also easily accessible on the London-Midland train line, the east coast line, as well as the M1 and A1.”
During the bidding process, the Nirah team met with each of the candidate areas, but the encounter with the Bedfordshire group had stood out in May’s mind.
This meeting was held at Portcullis House in Westminster, and the great and the good from Bedfordshire, including the county’s three MPs, had been summoned to try to strike a funding deal. The atmosphere at the meeting was charged. Senior figures from Grimshaw and Arup gave stirring speeches on their vision for the project and the Bedford team worked up its pitch. “There was a tremendous fervour in that room,” May recalls. “It was almost Pentecostal.”
The terms were agreed: the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) and Bedfordshire council would loan Nirah Holdings £4m in instalments to take the project up to outline planning. Once it had got planning permission, May would raise the private finance needed to build it.
The drugs companies almost laughed at me when I asked if it would be useful to them
Nadine Dorries MP
Not everyone in Bedfordshire was pleased that Nirah was coming to town. Despite its strong public support – about 14,000 people signed a petition in favour of the scheme – Nirah had, and still has, powerful enemies.
One of the first to spring into action was a coalition of animal rights activists, horrified by what they saw as the abduction of animals from the wild, and the proposal to build a laboratory where researchers would experiment on them. The activists claim that Nirah will carry out research on aquatic or semi-aquatic animals, to investigate the biomedical potential hidden in the toxins, venoms and secretions they produce.
The group established a Say No to Nirah campaign. Their first action was a rally in Bedford town centre in 2005, attended by 200 people from around the UK. In May the following year, 75 campaigners brought traffic to a standstill, marching through the town. Most remarkably, in November last year, a dozen activists took their protest to Bedford council’s offices – reaching the reception before being thrown out.
The professors and scientists behind the scheme deny the activists’ claims. Queen’s University’s Shaw, who is professor of drug discovery, says Nirah will not conduct
invasive experiments on its animals: “There are species becoming extinct each year,” he says. “A captive breeding programme will stop wild specimens being taken.”
May adds that the company has set up an animal rights policy. “There will be no vivisection and no invasive research,” he says. “There will be an ethics committee chaired by Peter Scott, a vet employed by the government to grant zoo licences. We are not going to have the problem that Huntingdon Life Sciences had.”
More importantly, the political support Nirah had secured started to fall apart. Commercial realities meant that the emphasis of the plan gradually shifted from science and research to attracting paying customers. Space will now have to be found for a water park, a spa, a “4D” cinema, conference hall and three hotels. The aim is to boost visitor numbers to 1.6 million.
Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, is one of the local power brokers troubled by this. She is not against Nirah per se, but she says she “has issues” with the use of public money to fund an increasingly commercial scheme.
“Taxpayers’ money has been spent,” she says, “and I for one am not happy with where it’s gone.” She cites an investigation by the BBC’s Look East in September last year, which probed the financial dealings and connections behind Nirah, focusing on MacArthur & Co.
However, that investigation did not find any wrongdoing, and Nirah’s supporters have reacted angrily to it. In his blog, mayor Branston wrote: “The reality of Nirah is this: it was invented by academics who were concerned at the difficulty of obtaining specimens for non-invasive research. They set up Nirah, but didn’t have the finance to pursue it. MacArthur & Co works in the City to facilitate ventures like this. They are not venture capitalists nor bankers.”
But Dorries has further concerns. She says she has spoken to some of the largest pharmaceutical companies about whether they would use it. “It is being sold as research and development,” she says. “But the drugs companies almost laughed at me when I asked if it would be useful to them. They told me they wouldn’t go to Bedford for a tank – they can build their own.”
Dorries also questions what the final development will contain. “They have to be upfront about where the money is going,” she says. “Is Nirah going to be a Trojan horse for a housing development?”
Branston says he has not heard about any proposals for housing but could not say for certain there would not be a residential element in the final plans. “At the moment they have an option for the pit and no other land but I can’t say one way or another. So what if there is housing?” he says.
For 15 months after the decision to take Nirah to Bedford, the project team beavered away on the plans with the local authority, coming close to the point where it could be submitted to the council for planning.
The public meeting was a very poignant, defining moment. I was shocked at how much they all cared
Peter May, Nirah Holdings
Then disaster struck. Without warning, Bedfordshire council decided to withhold the final £1m of the £4m loan needed to complete the designs. The reason was Nirah’s perceived change of focus from science to recreation. The council’s original legal advice was that loaning money to Nirah was within its powers, but the addition of leisure facilities might turn science funding into state aid to the leisure industry, which would be against the EU’s competition law.
Once again, the key players were summoned to Portcullis House. This time, the council was sufficiently convinced of the scheme’s focus on research to agree to pay £300,000 of the last £1m, an amount that was to be matched by private investors. However, this grant was subject to a number of conditions set by council advisers. The Nirah team rejected the offer, claiming the terms were deliberately unworkable to prevent the project moving forward.
In the midst of this tussle, it was revealed that EEDA had paid £70,000 to consultant Pricewaterhouse Coopers to scrutinise Nirah’s business plan. The final report was withheld from the project team, although it got to see part of it after kicking up a fuss.
Outraged, May and Branston called the emergency public meeting with which this article opened. The aim was to demonstrate public support and raise some money. As a result of the meeting, the Nirah Fund Appeal was set up in July, where the public could “buy a brick” for £50-1,000.
“It was a very poignant, defining moment,” says May, then chair of Nirah Holdings. “I was quite shocked at how much they all cared.”
By last September, the fund had raised £25,000, which was then trebled by a donation from Branston.
But the high drama and local politicking had by now taken its toll on the project team. Nirah suffered its most brutal blow when project director Murning announced that he was going to quit, just days after the public meeting. His reason was that Nirah was just not deliverable.
In an emotional late-night email, fired off to about 40 people, Murning wrote that he had “had enough” after plummeting “to the depths we have on the project”. The email also made some uncomplimentary references to the local politicians who had publicly disagreed with the proposals.
May tried to limit the damage by hurriedly issuing an apology, disassociating Nirah Holdings from the email. Murning, who in the end did not quit, also apologised via email.
The stand-off finally ended in October, after a meeting between May and Richard Stay, the deputy leader of Bedfordshire council. The council agreed to release £200,000, one-fifth of its initial commitment, to Nirah Holdings.
This was subsequently enhanced by a £250,000 investment by developer O&H Properties, which has significant land holdings in the area. The company also plans to inject £38m of first-stage funding once planning has been granted.
In December 2006, Nirah finally submitted its 2,000-page proposal to the council, six months later than it had planned to. Despite the struggle to get to this stage, the team’s expert advisers are confident that they will avoid a lengthy public inquiry. “It ticks all the boxes,” says May, pointing to its focus on conservation and education, the fact that it would be built on a brownfield site, and that it is environment-friendly.
And Nirah is ready to play it tough with its opponents. The team has announced that Keith Edelman, Arsenal FC’s no-nonsense managing director, and the man who acted as client on the club’s Emirates stadium, will become chairman on receipt of planning.
And if the evidence so far is anything to go by, tough it is going to get.