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28 July, 2006 - 09:38 By Staff Reporter

Major Bedfordshire projects on a knife edge

Bedfordshire business leaders are on a knife-edge as two multi-million pound projects carrying hundreds of new jobs stand on the verge of collapse.

While a fighting fund has been set up to try to rescue the proposed £4m Nirah aquatics R & D hub there are huge financial hurdles to overcome.

And there is no certainty that bosses at Center Parcs will fight a decision by Mid Bedfordshire District Council to refuse consent for a new development at Ampthill.

A spokesman confirmed to Business Weekly that an appeal was still very much in the balance as local business leaders fumed at the council's stance.

The Nirah project looked to have received a golden start when a £4 million development loan was agreed two years ago, split between Bedfordshire County Council and the East of England Development Agency to enable the National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats project board to develop its business plan and pursue outline planning permission for the giant research facility.

Patrick Hall, MP for Bedford, has criticised the county council for "reneging" on a deal to continue to support Nirah - a pledge he witnessed when it was made in the House of Commons in May.

Hall said: "I just cannot believe what is going on. Some of the conditions attached to the county council¹s offer to Nirah are totally unreasonable."

Two years ago the county council and EEDA, with the support of the Secretary of State, agreed to loan Nirah £4m to get to planning on a brickworks site at Stewartby.

EEDA has completed its contribution but the council has refused to make the final £1m available. A deal was done for just £300,000 of the last £1m in May in the Commons, which was to be matched by private investors, but the council has since failed to deliver. Hall is taking up the issue with Government ministers.

In an emergency move, Nirah has launched an appeal to raise £600,000 to complete the planning application, retain key management driving the scheme and "ensure that this unique project remains in Bedfordshire."

But that would be just the start and another £360m will need to be raised from the private sector to bring the plans to fruition.

Nirah needs outline planning consent to complete a deal with Hanson to buy the brick pit, which is being phased out.

Owning the site would give Nirah crucial collateral in its bid to raise around £20 million of additional seed capital - taking the scheme to the pre-construction phase.

Following this, it is proposed that Nirah raise substantial further funding of approximately £360 million from the private sector, to develop the commercial core of the project. But without initial planning consent, the plug will be pulled and Nirah will try outside of Bedfordshire.

Nirah research would benefit the planet as it would be dedicated to the preservation of freshwater habitats worldwide.

It will constitute the world¹s largest aquarium, stocked with tropical trees and plants and populated by thousands of species of freshwater fish, amphibians and reptiles.

The idea is to halt the decline of shared biodiversity and safeguard, in terms of health and number, the fish, amphibians and reptile species that inhabit freshwater - habitats and species essential for human survival.

The team also expects to direct its efforts to develop therapeutic drugs from the bioactive secretions gathered non-invasively from some of the rare species and build a substantial library of intellectual property rights. Once open, it is expected that ongoing funding would be provided by the world¹s scientific community and visitor revenue.

Business leaders in the county have meanwhile slammed Mid Bedfordshire District Council's refusal for a new Center Parcs at Ampthill.

Bedfordshire and Luton Economic Development Partnership said the decision was "a backward step." CEO Chris Barnes added: "It potentially sends out the wrong message that Bedfordshire is not serious about attracting new investment to the county.

"After decades of slow decline, the Bedfordshire economy needs the boost these jobs would bring. The district council has previously supported our target of 50,000 new jobs by 2021.

"Councillors who believe there is no need for these jobs are being very complacent. There are nearly 64,000 working residents of Mid Beds, but only about 45,000 jobs available in the district. The gap causes much of the congestion on local roads.

"It is a false argument to suggest that Center Parcs provides the wrong sort of jobs; we need a range of jobs to suit all skill levels. This is exactly what Center Parcs would bring.

"Center Parcs is the ideal developer for this site. The development will increase the tree cover on it, not reduce it. It would enhance the Green Belt, not detract from it. The company has an excellent track record environmentally as well as being a progressive employer.

"BLEDP has supported the application since it was first mooted two years ago. We hope that Center Parcs will appeal against this decision and will give the company our full support if they do."

A Center Parcs spokesman didn't sound too sure about the likelihood of a fight.

He said: "We are still considering our options at the moment and cannot really say more at this stage."


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