Hackles rise over lab plan

August 31, 2001

The government has thrown its weight behind Cambridge University's plans for a multimillion-pound animal research laboratory, insisting the primate facility will ensure the United Kingdom becomes a global leader in neuroscience.

But the intervention of ministers at a delicate stage in the planning process has attracted accusations of inappropriate government interference.

It is also feared that the government's backing for the project could taint future stages of the planning process because of a potential conflict of interests between Whitehall departments.

A planning application by Cambridge University to set up the £24 million Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience on the outskirts of the city was rejected by South Cambridgeshire District Council earlier this year.

The council objected to Cambridge's plans to build on the green belt. The application for a site on the Huntingdon Road, two miles outside the city also attracted controversy as police and the proposed site's neighbours, Girton College, warned of the dangers of attracting animal rights protesters and extremists to the area.

Police already have to deal with protests at the nearby Huntingdon Life Sciences animal research laboratory.

Cambridge this month made a modified application for the laboratory on the same Huntingdon Road site, with reduced building on the green belt.

The modified application was supported by a letter from science minister Lord Sainsbury to Cambridge vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers. Lord Sainsbury says that the Department of Trade and Industry "would regard this proposal as nationally important". He outlines the government's determination to make the UK a centre of excellence for world science, which involves "nurturing centres of excellence" such as the proposed neuroscience laboratory.

The letter includes references that helped secure a multimillion-pound grant towards the project from the Joint Infrastructure Fund.

Lord Sainsbury, apparently sensitive to local planning concerns, says in his letter: "I fully recognise that the location of the centre is a matter for the university and the planning authorities."

A spokeswoman for the DTI this week stressed that Lord Sainsbury was not trying to intervene in the planning process. But the letter has prompted criticism.

There is concern that a potential future appeal against a planning rejection would go for consideration to Stephen Byers, secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions, creating a potential conflict between the DTI and Mr Byers's department.

John Reynolds, chairman of the Cambridgeshire Police Authority and a local county councillor who has raised concerns about the plan, said that a conflict of interest could certainly arise in the later stages of the planning process.

A senior planner at the district council acknowledged that there could well be a conflict of interest issue between two different arms of the government.

Other opponents are more concerned that the laboratory has attracted government backing.

Marie-Claire Davies, of the National Anti-vivisection Society, said she was disgusted that Cambridge had re-submitted plans after they had been rejected.

She added that it was "outrageous" that Lord Sainsbury had backed the plans.

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