If you think it’s going to be just a big greenhouse, think again: Peel NRE’s ambitious plans for a cannabis facility go way beyond that, encompassing education, research and renewable energy opportunities for the island.

When its planning application describes the proposed £150 million development as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity that is not too far off the mark.

Chris Eves, Isle of Man finance director at Peel Group, says: ‘It’s as much for the island as it is for Peel so we’re very keen for people to feel and understand what we’re doing.

‘I can’t think of too many other projects of this size and scale on the island in recent memory so we don’t want to just operate without consideration for other people’s views on it, we’re very open to listening and making it the best it can be.’

The Isle of Man is looking to medicinal cannabis to be one of our big growth sectors in the coming years but there has been a general perception that we have been slow off the mark and that Jersey has got ahead of us so I ask Chris whether this development would allow the island to catch up.

He says: ‘I would argue that Guernsey are probably, at the moment, the furthest advanced, Jersey not very far behind them. But neither are far enough ahead of the Isle of Man yet to diminish the island’s opportunity.

‘The clock is very much ticking, don’t get me wrong, and if the island wants to play its full part in this global opportunity then it needs to start to move. And I think it is: there’s an awful lot of political support, and public support, for the growth of the industry. I think where we need to catch up is more on the legal and regulatory side of things, just to make sure that laws and procedures and processes are in place to properly regulate and administer the industry generally.’

As he goes on to say, neither Jersey nor Guernsey have anything like the development that Peel NRE is proposing: ‘They’re yet to construct facilities like ours in Guernsey although I do believe that they have greenhouse facilities there for cultivating cannabis.

‘But that’s a rung below the technology level we’re looking at in our development in the Isle of Man. That’s more designed to grow crops to feed the CBD oils and homeopathic style products and industry rather than the higher grade pharmaceutical applications that we’re looking to supply from the Isle of Man.

‘That’s not to say our facility couldn’t accommodate people who wanted to operate in the CBD oils type industry but it’s very much focussed on that high technology, scientific cutting edge of pharmaceutical applications that effectively would only be available on prescription, at some point widely available in the UK, we think, but more immediately globally.’

Integral to the Peel NRE vision is the campus style aspect, which has featured in their other developments in the UK, and is aimed at encouraging existing operators to make their the island their headquarters.

Chris says: ‘That would be a fantastic outcome.

‘What our campus facility does is to facilitate a clustering of a number of operators, some of which will be at the cutting edge of research and development technology while others will be setting up in the industry and actually carrying on the practical production of product in this space.

‘With these campus style developments that we’ve pursued in the UK in other sectors, there’s always an element of trying to twin with academic institutions to make the most of those facilities and the educational opportunities that they inevitably bring with them and, in particular, the Peel NRE team that deal with renewable energy in the UK and environmental management and recycling of waste.

‘There’s an awful lot of technical aspects of that which present educational opportunities for the communities that lie around those developments and this would be no different.

‘That would be our intention to try and facilitate that as best we can for the benefit of the island’s younger population, with the benefit of retaining them on the island.’

The new development has the potential to create 250 jobs and I ask Chris about the type of employment opportunities he can see it offering.

He says: ‘It would be a very broad spectrum.

‘There’ll be logistics opportunities arising, everything from landscapers to personnel security, but principally I think the real opportunity is attraction and the retention of highly skilled personnel on the island.

‘The intention is that the research and development facilities up there, and the cultivation facilities themselves, will provide career opportunities in that space for people to really operate at the cutting edge of some research and development into what is a pretty novel industry with incredible growth potential

I ask Chris why they chose the Isle of Man for this development.

He says: ‘The island definitely has certain USPs [unique selling points], one of which is obviously the tax environment but more important is the regulatory environment and the international reputation that it already has for good governance and oversight of global industries through banking and financial services to egaming.

‘It has a very well established reputation for stability for good regulation, for prosperity and opportunity as well, so hopefully the Gaming Supervision Commission can replicate that in the pharmaceutical cannabis industry as well.’

‘But, aside from that, I think there’s another area that we’re talking to the Isle of Man Government about and that is renewable energy: what the grid infrastructure should look like in the future.

‘Clearly one option to attract inward investment into the cannabis sector in the Isle of Man would be to offer renewable energy generation alongside it because it’s an incredibly energy hungry industry. Any investor that’s going to write a cheque for an operation on the Isle of Man will want to know that they’re sustainably sourcing their energy needs.

‘At the moment the island can’t quite offer that perfectly but we think that there’s an opportunity to see a complementary industry in renewable energy generation that operators in this industry can point to as a USP for the island in terms of facilitating their activities.

‘Politically and publicly the support is there but what I’ve just outlined is an about turn in how you think about your energy infrastructure.’

When I ask whether the fact that Peel NRE has chosen the Isle of Man also suggests that this is a project that Mr Whittaker is taking a personal interest in, Chris says: ‘A hundred per cent yes. John’s been resident on the island for since the early 1980s and has tended to keep his head below the parapet throughout that time.

‘He’s a very private individual who shuns the limelight but he’s had a heavy emphasis and focus on where the core of his asset base is in the north west.

‘And I think very recently we’ve had the pandemic and John has benefitted from the security and safety afforded to him by the Isle of Man.

‘There’s a deep appreciation for that and a genuine willingness to invest here, similar to how he’s invested in other communities in the northwest with a heavy emphasis on trying to improve socioeconomic factors in that locality.

‘It’s not necessarily just a business play, there’s undoubtedly financial returns to be made, but Johns’ modus operandi has always been to reinvest capital and recycle it elsewhere for the benefit of communities which we operate in and this is no different.

‘And the renewable energy aspects, not only at this site but on other projects we’ve got planned for the Isle of Man, is very much driven by improvement in circumstances for the local community.’

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