Manchester Zoo mystery deepens

A project to create a 100-acre zoo near Hopwood Hall in Rochdale has hit the buffers because the man behind the plans, Johnpaul Houston, cannot be tracked down. 

“It is a shame,” said Dan Mitchell, director at planning consultancy Barton Willmore, which was advising Houston on planning matters. “The business case was there and early discussions with the council had been encouraging.

“It was all knitting together nicely. It is a missed opportunity.”

Barton Willmore claims it was unable to contact Houston for over a year, and subsequently filed a winding-up petition against Manchester Zoo Commercial – the vehicle set up to deliver the project and of which Houston is named as the sole director – over money owed.

The company is still active, according to Companies House, although there is “an active proposal to strike [it] off”. In July 2019, a compulsory strike-off action was “discontinued”, documents state, while at the end of December 2020, a strike-off action was “suspended”. 

Place North West has made attempts to contact Houston and had yet to receive a response at the time of publication. 

Houston established Manchester Zoo Commercial in 2017 with a view to creating a zoo funded by £14m of family money.

The attraction would have “focused on creating an immersive experience, supporting important conservation projects and conducting research to benefit animals both at home and abroad,” according to the Manchester Zoo website, which is still live. 

The plans also proposed educational tie-ins with nearby Hopwood Hall College and a transport interchange at Slattocks.

A former zookeeper, Houston had been looking at sites around Trafford before striking up discussions with Rochdale. 

Manchester Zoo Commercial held talks with Rochdale Council about building the zoo across four parcels of council-owned land at Hopwood Hall College’s Middleton campus. The council was supportive of the project, according to documents from a discussion about the zoo at a cabinet meeting last February.

At the time, Rochdale Council leader Allen Brett confirmed the authority was in talks with Houston’s company but that no decisions had been made regarding the transfer of land.

A planning application for the project was expected before the end of 2020, Brett said last year, but shortly after the cabinet meeting Houston became uncontactable, according to Barton Willmore.

Rochdale Council declined to comment. Law firm DLA Piper was assisting Houston in the land acquisition process and declined to comment when contacted by Place North West.

Other consultants involved in the scheme were Agency Roger Hannah, which was representing the council, and Simon Mann, a specialist at project management firm Prosurv, who is a former development director at Chester Zoo.

If it had been delivered, the zoo would have been the first in Manchester since Belle Vue Zoological Gardens closed in 1977.

After the publication of this article, Manchester Zoo posted an update to its Facebook page.

The statement said: “We would like to take the opportunity to thank all of our supporters, both in and outside of the industry, for the kind words and well-wishes last week.

“Covid-19, and to a lesser extent Brexit, has affected all of us and we have been so sad to see so many colleagues at other collections facing difficult times or situations.

“In order to prevent the same situation, in a pivotal time during these early stages, we took decisions to safeguard the future of the project and leaned on the generous support of locals, friends and partners.

“In doing this, we have not managed to so far achieve our expectations during this global pandemic, but tried to strive to have an impact nevertheless.”

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