Deal agreed with Treasury to get Lady Isabella turning once again

MNH says it has agreed a financial plan with the Treasury to get the Laxey Wheel running again at the earliest opportunity.

The new partnership agreement provides funding for the emergency repairs to the mechanism of the wheel which will allow it to turn again and also brings forward maintenance which was planned for future years. The works will be now be combined into one substantial programme so that there should only be one period of closure. This will mean that the Laxey Wheel should be ready to welcome visitors to the Island early in the 2022 tourism season if all goes well.

The funding agreement is a 50:50 split for all the work between the Treasury and MNH. MNH Trustees will allocate funds from the sale of a property bequeathed to the Trust by the late John Donald (Donny) Collister to this project. 

Using reserves is always a “one-off” position and not a long-term solution to funding issues.  MNH is an “arms-length” charity which is supported financially by the Government in order to carry out its statutory duties.  These include maintaining properties and assets such as the Laxey Wheel, which were placed in the Trust’s care by Government and the community. 

However, the Trustees recognise the challenges that currently face the Isle of Man economy and community and its obligation to play its part in responding positively, where it can, to those challenges. There has been no change in policy but Trustees and the Treasury accept that difficult financial decisions are needed in these times which present unique challenges. 

Jonathan Hall, Chairman of Trustees said: “We are very grateful that the Treasury Minister has given this his personal attention. The Laxey Wheel is an iconic symbol of the Island and Trustees are very keen to see it running again at the earliest opportunity. We fully accepted that it was not an “emergency” by comparison with other issues facing the Island but felt that it was hugely important in terms of morale and pride in our Island. In such circumstances, the Trustees accepted that a more innovative solution needed to be found.

MNH has been fortunate in recent years to have had a small number of significant bequests, including a property belonging to the late Donny Collister. Trustees felt that using this specific bequest on this occasion to match Treasury funding was a fitting tribute and would be supported by our wider community in these most difficult of times.”

Alfred Cannan, Minister for the Treasury said: “I am pleased that we have been able to develop a pragmatic solution to this matter. The Treasury had been clear that only emergency bids were to be put forward in this budget round to maintain a balance of expenditure on our Island’s critical operating infrastructure whilst reflecting the impact that the pandemic has had on available funding.  Clearly the Laxey Wheel is no longer critical operating infrastructure but it is iconic and a cornerstone of our visitor experience.  With this in mind I am pleased that we have identified this joint funding solution to ensure that the wheel turns again as we hopefully come out of the challenges of the COVID pandemic.”

Background to the issues at the Laxey Wheel

1.   Routine cyclical maintenance

The Laxey Wheel is more machine than monument. The masonry structures of the wheel case and the rod-duct are ‘massive’ and static structures which are stable, and all other things being equal, can be expected to require only periodic attention to pointing, asphalting, the integrity of the timber superstructure of the publically accessible gallery and painted ideally no longer than every seven years.

This work was last done in 2015 by local company Stewart Clague Services at a cost of over £300k. The specialist paintwork applied to the wheel is for protective purposes not cosmetic and inevitably starts to look a little shabby towards the end of the cycle but it still performs its protective functions. 

The masonry structures of the rod-duct require far less intervention but it is decades since they were last repointed and painted.

2.   Structural repairs

The Wheel is of course checked on a daily, weekly and annual basis by the site team and a very competent team of DoI Engineers.

Two recent structural failures and an engineering survey have highlighted the urgent need for repair work to the Wheel mechanism and rod duct system. The wheel and the rod system which really define the Laxey Wheel are timber and iron components of a functioning machine which extends up the valley between the wheel case and the T-rocker. Although not a fast moving machine its component parts, whether iron or timber, are individually substantial and the entire system is susceptible to mechanical wear and either continually saturated by the water which drives it or exposed to the elements.

Comprehensive repairs and reconstruction of the rod system were last undertaken in the mid 1980’s and are now beginning to fail. Reinforcement works at the T-rocker and to some areas of the rods have been undertaken previously in efforts to extend the life of the system and, following an engineering evaluation of the rods in 2019, a strategy was in the process of being developed to address the issues on a phased basis. This is no longer an option following an unexpected failure of the connection between the least accessible final rod and the T-rocker which has rendered it inadvisable to operate the wheel.

Natural timber (as opposed to modern engineered timber, i.e. glulam) is over time prone to shaking (splitting along its grain) and potentially deforming regardless of how well selected or treated it is and, together with holes drilled for bolts and sockets these areas become pockets attracting water and ultimately promote rot. All that can achieved by a careful maintenance regime is to delay this process.

3.   Logistics and public access

It is now necessary to undertake a systematic repair and replacement of the timbers making up the rod system, including the T-rocker itself. Although this work does not require particular specialist skills it will require a high standard of joinery and a high degree of technical competency because the difficulties of access for such large sections of timber and iron makes it a logistically challenging project to undertake.

The cyclical maintenance of the wheel requires a massive scaffolding structure which stands independent of the Wheel so that the wheel is not put under stress. The use of cranes and other specialist equipment requires that the public be excluded from the area during key operations. As the Island’s borders look to be restricted for large parts of the current year this offers an opportunity to undertake the work later in 2021 and early 2022 with only minimal disturbance to the Visitor Economy. Work on the rod duct will also be logistically difficult and indeed the use of helicopters has been suggested to ferry equipment to the site. Again, closure of this iconic site to the public is inevitable and we want to minimise this.

4.   Costs and timescales

It is difficult to estimate costs precisely without clarity on the logistics and methodology. However, we estimate that a figure of about £450,000 will be required for the repairs to the Wheel and rod duct mechanism. We further estimate that some £300,000 will be required to repeat the painting, pointing and minor repairs which was done in 2015. 

5.   Access to the site during 2021 season

In 2020 MNH lost over 90% of visitors because of lockdown and border restrictions, and we forecast a significant loss of income for the coming year on the current predictions. Our budget assumes that we will not take on seasonal staff at all this year.

MNH has been a consistent supporter of the Visitor Economy in the Island and the Laxey area in particular. We are still working hard with our commercial Travel Trade customers in the UK and the demand for holidays on the Island is strong.

At the moment we plan to organise a programme of tours and programmed events to the Wheel this year which will not just allow local people to visit but which will encourage them to see it from a different perspective. We will keep our plans under constant review and if the borders and budgets allow we will increase availability.

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