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The vanishing zoo of Rochdale
Out of nowhere, a persuasive zoologist turned up promising to fund a Manchester Zoo with millions of pounds of family money. Then he disappeared
By Jack Dulhanty
Johnpaul Houston was a dreamer. In 2016, after about a decade working as a zoologist and zookeeper across the UK, he decided he would start his own zoo, at the age of 30, in Greater Manchester.
Originally from Ormskirk in Lancashire, Houston appears in interviews as measured and persuasive. He is slight with dark hair and blue eyes and doesn’t give off the zaniness you’d expect from someone with ideas like children sharing treetop classrooms with lemurs just off the M60.
It didn’t take long for Houston’s project to attract media attention. There hadn’t been a zoo here for nearly 40 years, since the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens shut in 1977 because of financial problems. By 2018 Houston was in talks with Trafford Council and was looking at land in Carrington. He contracted architects and consultants to draw up plans, and fostered a partnership with a research centre in the Tsitongambarika forest in South East Madagascar.
He envisioned an evolving panorama of landscapes dotted with species from all over the world. “We want people to feel like they are living where the animals do,” he told the Manchester Evening News. “From herds of reindeer in the fir trees, to camels and endangered antelope in the sand, and flamingo in lagoons.”
Houston was keen to stress his zoo would be a far cry from the zoos of old like Belle Vue — school kids riding elephants and chimpanzees riding bicycles. It would be focussed on conservation and education. In fact, he thought it would be more than that: the zoo would be a “moral beacon within the community of Greater Manchester,” and Houston wanted to “harness the energy of bio-inspiration” to change lives with leading educational facilities for everyone, from school kids to over-60s to veterans.
“Classrooms in the treetops,” Houston said, “is the dream.” He said he planned to open the zoo’s first phase in the summer of 2020.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to contact Houston for this story. Many people, including his ex-landlord, are struggling to contact him nowadays. By the summer of 2021, the planning consultants who had drawn up master plans for Houston to present to local councils filed a winding up petition against the company he set up to deliver the zoo, because he owed them money.
Manchester Zoo Commercial Ltd, of which Houston was the sole director, was dissolved that August, and talk of the zoo has died down. So what happened?
At first, Houston wanted the zoo to be in Trafford. He had high-level discussions with the council there, and identified two parcels of land, one of which was 90 and the other 250 acres according to a BBC report. A few days later, in a planning meeting, Trafford Council said there had only been discussion around one site, and that no particular support was offered to Houston beyond advice on the planning process.
It was reported the zoo would cost at least £8m. You would be hard pressed to find a council willing to stump up that kind of cash, or even a portion of it, to open a zoo. But Houston didn’t seem to have that problem. He was funding it himself, with money he said would be coming in from family. Someone involved in the project thinks Houston’s family is in California and that the zoologist said there would be £14m to spend.
Researchgate — a kind of social media for academics to share their papers — lists Houston as part of the University of Salford’s Ecosystems and Environment Research Centre. Sources say his connections at Salford were touted in the business plan for the zoo, the one he presented to councils.
While talks in Trafford were positive, there wasn’t much action, and Houston was advised to take his project further north to Rochdale. There he would have access to both the West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester markets, plus an attraction of the zoo’s scale would tie in nicely with the mayoral strategy to develop the north of GM. When the idea reached Allen Brett, then the leader of Rochdale Council, he wasn’t going to look a gift-horse — or perhaps a gift-zebra — in the mouth.
From Rochdale’s perspective, the zoo looked like ideal inward investment. It would boost tourism, help justify a new train station nearby, provide jobs, and tie in with Hopwood Hall College, a local vocational college teaching animal husbandry and zoology courses. Best of all, “it wouldn’t cost the local authority any money,” Brett, now retired from the council, told me recently. “We were going to be supporting with the land and in terms of infrastructure.”
The land that Houston was looking at was some 150 acres around Hopwood Hall College. There was ancient protected woodland to think about, plus a small core of local farmers who have been on the land for generations — “you hit one, you hit us all'' was the general sentiment given to me by the chair of a local woodland protection group. There was also Hopwood Hall itself, a sprawling 60-room manor house dating back to the 14th century, gone to ruin and shrouded in the woodland it once commanded.
The hall is currently undergoing renovation by an American film producer called Hopwood Depree, who claims ancestral ownership of the estate. A New York Times story from last year covers how Depree discovered his link to Hopwood Hall after trawling an ancestry website, and is funding the restoration with royalties from his memoir Downton Shabby. Mostly he is relying on grants from Heritage England, the Lottery Heritage Fund and Rochdale Council.
The Hopwood Hall restoration is vast and complex. Depree has even decamped from Los Angeles to Middleton to immerse himself in the project, which he now documents on his YouTube channel. Sources suggested that the zoo may have encroached on the grounds of Hopwood Hall, but when I asked Depree’s team to speak to him about the zoo I received no reply.
What draws these dreamers with their multimillion pound plans to the hills of Rochdale? Depree is said to be spending £11m in order to restore his centuries old manor house, a building that will eat up £800,000 in annual operating cost upon completion. Houston’s plans, equally ambitious, were nevertheless presented in a way that didn’t seem crazy to local officials, I’m told.
It was a staged approach and he would focus on protecting the woodlands and local wildlife. It wouldn’t just be lions and elephants out of nowhere, he wanted the zoo to be a 20-year project. “He was really impressive, he clearly knew his stuff,” says Sara Rowbotham, Brett’s deputy on the council at the time.
Houston seemed unphased by the questions surrounding whether zoos have a place in the modern world, citing their role in the protection of animals at risk of extinction. “It had an incredible educational message and a tourism attraction message,” said one person closely involved with the development of the Manchester Zoo plans.
The question often raised around the building of zoos is whether we still actually need them. Animal rights groups make comparisons to prisons, and after news broke in 2021 that the Manchester Zoo project stalled, it was celebrated by the director of Freedom for Animals: “I sincerely hope that this news does mark the end for this absurd plan to incarcerate wild animals in Greater Manchester.”
It’s also the case that other zoos are fairly easy to access for people in Greater Manchester. There’s Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park, both less than two hours away by car or public transport from the centre. But planning insiders maintain that Houston was on to something commercially. Knowsley and Chester have more of a national catchment, and the idea of a local zoo was compelling. “The business case was there,” one planner told the property website Place North West. “It was all knitting together nicely. It is a missed opportunity.”
Rochdale Council clearly sensed that too, and were willing to help the project along, even in the face of opposition from the land’s farmers: “They were tenants of the council,” Brett says. “And certainly work went ahead to make sure that couldn't be a holdup if it went to the planning stage.”
But it never did. Around the beginning of 2020 and the start of the pandemic, it became harder and harder to get a hold of Houston. His own planners, the consultancy Barton Willmore, said in May 2021 that they hadn’t heard from him in over a year. “It started to go to ground a bit,” one source tells me. And, eventually it became clear why: “The funding never arrived, nothing ever happened with the funding, so effectively everybody downed tools and the project stalled.”
‘I wouldn’t want to be unkind’
There were signs that funding plans weren’t as watertight as they had once seemed even before the pandemic. In October 2019, Manchester Zoo announced a public fundraiser on YouTube, saying that those who donated would get early access to parts of the zoo before it was fully realised as Houston had dreamt, a world where “you can go down the M62 and you can see giraffe, and rhino and otter and lemurs.”
“Although we’re in a very lucky position with our funding and that it is secured, we think the people of Manchester deserve to see us in our initial phases,” says Harry Giles, the former zoological co-ordinator of Manchester Zoo, in the announcement video. They raised just £470 over 56 days.
In his most recent interview in 2021, Houston said the opening of the zoo was merely delayed by “Brexit, Covid-19 and multiple personal and family issues.” When I contacted Giles recently, he said he didn’t believe the project was still going ahead.
He said he was too far removed from the plans to comment and was only involved in the very beginning. I contacted Houston on his mobile and via his work email, and also contacted the zoo’s general contact. I haven’t heard anything back.
“The last I heard he was guest-lecturing at the college,” one source tells me. That Houston is now working at Hopwood Hall College, the college he had hoped to build his zoo around, is true. Or, at least it was as of last year. Facebook posts show him planting trees at the college for the late Queen’s jubilee.
In a final attempt to make contact with Houston for this story, I went to the address listed on Companies House, where he is still registered director of the dissolved Manchester Zoo Commercial Ltd. It’s a large gated home overlooking Worsley Golf Club. I found its owner with his hands in his pockets watching workmen go in and out of the house.
When I asked about Houston he rolled his eyes and told me he hadn’t seen him in years, and that he had been trying to get the address off Companies House. Houston was his tenant, he didn’t know much about the zoo project, but said he has been trying to get a hold of Houston too. He wouldn’t say why. “I wouldn’t want to be unkind.”
Additional reporting by Charlie Smith