Northern Ireland

Exploris aquarium: Councillors recommend closure and sale

One the marine exhibitions at Exploris
Image caption A council committee has recommended the closure and sale of the Exploris aquarium in Portaferry

A top tourist attraction in County Down is facing closure on the recommendation of its local council, after a take-over deal collapsed.

The Exploris aquarium in Portaferry is run by Ards Borough Council but was due to be taken over by a private firm.

The deal fell through due to a failure to agree on staff pension provision.

The council's development committee met on Wednesday night to discuss its next step. It has agreed to recommend the closure and sale of the aquarium.

Councillor Trevor Cummings, who chairs the development committee, said they were proposing the closure with deep regret.

'Financial pressures'

"This is not a recommendation we make lightly, knowing that it will impact directly on our staff, the town of Portaferry and the wider tourism base," he said.

"However, the level of expenditure required is not sustainable in this economic climate when we face so many financial pressures, and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option."

The aquarium, on the shores of Strangford Lough, employs 18 permanent staff and houses a seal sanctuary.

Dr Julia Sigwart, the director of Queens University Belfast marine laboratory in Portaferry, said: "Exploris is possibly the most important asset Ards Borough Council has. It is a world class aquarium that showcases the spectacular and internationally important marine diversity of Strangford Lough.

"We work together on scientific projects and Exploris staff regularly advise our scientists and students on the tricky business of keeping marine animals happy and healthy.

"Our colleagues and visiting scientists from around the world all visit the aquarium and everyone marvels at what a treasure it is for us.

"We regularly take our students to Exploris for teaching, and I cannot count the number of students who were born and raised in Northern Ireland but never realised the amazing marine life we have here, until they came face to face with it in Exploris."

The development committee's closure proposals will be put before a meeting of the full council next week.

If councillors agree to shut the facility and sell it off, they will begin a consultation with staff and trade union representatives, lasting a minimum of two months.

The site would then be placed on the market for sale.

Pension scheme

Ards Borough Council has owned and operated the marine conservation facility since it opened in 1987 and has invested more than £9m in its upkeep over the past 20 years.

It currently costs £600,000 per year to maintain the aquarium and the council had been trying to find ways to "reduce the financial burden on the ratepayer".

It sought interest from the private sector and Livingstone Leisure was the firm that submitted the successful bid to take over and manage Exploris on a 25-year lease.

However, the council said the company "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".

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