Since the disastrous fire that destroyed Fair Isle Bird Observatory in March 2019, the directors of Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust have been making huge efforts to design, fund and build a new Observatory for the next generation.
Now, following the completion of the tender process, we can summarise the current outcome, the consequences, and the next steps we need to take to ensure the future of the Trust. After the fire, we consulted many interested parties and worked with a professional project team to design a new Observatory that would enhance our ornithological work, guest experience and our economic role within Fair Isle, and hence fulfil our mission into the future.
Following our professional team’s advice and recommendations, the building was designed using a panellised building system, with the chosen design costed at approximately £7.4 million. All design steps were formally evaluated to ensure transparency, value for money and compliance with criteria of potential funders. Our planning application was duly approved and the project was put out to tender in August 2020.
Building on Fair Isle is immensely challenging at the best of times, and the COVID pandemic and Brexit have exacerbated these challenges. Only one company submitted a tender, which was several million pounds over the projected budget. We were unable to significantly reduce that price through subsequent discussions. Consequently, we have been unable, so far, to secure a builder for the planned new Observatory.
The directors (who are all unpaid for the work they do for the Trust) are now undertaking a comprehensive review of building options. This will necessitate some re-design of the planned Observatory and a further tendering process, and hence will take several months to complete. Consequently, we are now working towards a rebuild in 2022 and re-opening in 2023 (subject to ongoing constraints).
The fire and its aftermath inevitably imposed major financial challenges on the Trust. The Observatory building was our main source of income, which allowed us to employ staff and carry out our ornithological work. Following the fire, we did not take the decision, as many businesses would likely have done, to immediately close our doors, make all our staff redundant, and reopen once we have a new Observatory. Rather, despite the reduced workload, we continued to employ our staff and carry out our ornithological work as far as feasible, calculating that we could withstand resulting short-term financial losses.
Now, the unsuccessful tender and resulting major delay in re-opening obliges us to urgently review our operational and financial situation. We ran a £80,000 deficit in 2020, primarily reflecting ongoing staff costs and minimal Observatory income, which is clearly unsustainable. We are no different to any other organisation or charity in that, without income, we cannot survive.
While we aim to maintain our core mission, we are now forced to make changes in how we operate in the short-term.
Regrettably, in what has been an extremely difficult decision which has not been taken lightly or without considerable discussion, we will have to make our Warden (David Parnaby) and Administrator (Susannah Parnaby) redundant. Furthermore, we will not have any paid staff after 31st July 2021 for the foreseeable future. Despite considerable efforts, we have been unable to find alternative solutions that would ensure our solvency and survival as a Trust.
Douglas Barr, Chairman of Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust, commented “For our Warden and Administrator, David and Susannah Parnaby, who have worked for us for ten years, we fully appreciate the pain and difficulties these circumstances and our decisions will present. We thank them for all their hard work on behalf of FIBOT, which has underpinned our successful operation on Fair Isle, and integration into the community, over the last decade”.
David and Susannah Parnaby commented “Fair Isle is a very special place; we’ve met so many lovely people through working at the Obs and it’s been a privilege to contribute to the significant ornithological work carried out on Fair Isle. The work of the Observatory is very important; we hope to see that work continue, we want to see a positive future for the Isle, and we support the ambition that FIBO will be part of that. We also feel it is important to point out that the directors are all volunteers who have taken on a huge commitment with the rebuild project”.
The Trust remains fully committed to building a new Observatory on Fair Isle and we have no doubt that we will succeed. We hugely appreciate all contributions to our Public Appeal to date. The appeal remains open and active, and all donations are ring-fenced for rebuilding the Observatory as specified in the appeal criteria, with zero expenditure from this fund to date.
Meanwhile, we will endeavour to continue our core ornithological work on Fair Isle as far as circumstances permit until we can fully re-open. We look forward to the continued support of all our long-standing friends through these extremely difficult times to help us ensure the next decades of ornithology, visitors and investment on Fair Isle.
Douglas Barr, Chairman of FIBOT on behalf of the Board of Directors
12th February 2021