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Victory for intimidation

AGENDA

Montpellier's understandable decision to pull out of Oxford University's animal research centre is a victory for animal liberation extremists and violence, writes David Rogers

ON THE face of it, last week's decision by Montpellier to abandon its involvement in Oxford University's new animal research centre - the very one which has aroused such ire among animal rights campaigners - was a complete capitulation and a stunning victory for the activists.

Ten days ago the company announced to the London Stock Exchange that its building subsidiary, Walter Lilly, and the university had 'agreed by mutual consent to conclude, with immediate effect, the contract'The £18 million centre on the city's South Parks Road is supposed to be completed by the end of next year.

Montpellier declined to add any more. It didn't really need to. Everybody familiar with this project knew exactly why the group had pulled out.

When Construction News first revealed the problems on the job last month, the company that initially appeared most in the firing line was concrete firm RMC. One of its quarries in Warwickshire had been the subject of an attack causing £50,000 worth of damage.The attack was linked to the Oxford project, as was another two weeks earlier at the end of May.

Last week, following Montpellier's withdrawal, RMC, too, upped sticks, saying that 'its obligations to Montpellier were at an end' It declined to say whether it would supply a replacement contractor with materials.But it would be a reasonable guess to say it probably will not.

Montpellier, too, had not escaped the activists'wrath. Directors' cars had been attacked and all the firm's subsidiaries, which include Allenbuild, Bullock and YJL, were listed on various activist websites, where they were deemed 'equally responsible for the construction of Oxford [sic]' It is unthinkable that when Walter Lilly won the contract it did not stop and consider the consequences of building such a centre, which it knew would include testing on monkeys - although the vast majority of experiments are planned to be on rodents. It is, of course, not Montpellier's responsibility what sort of animal experiments are carried out there.

The university says the lab is vital for finding cures for debilitating and lifethreatening conditions such as leukaemia and other cancers, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.

But Montpellier was wrong-footed when the subject transferred east from Oxford to the Square Mile and the City of London.

On June 21, letters, purporting to be from a senior director in Montpellier, were sent to Montpellier shareholders warning of 'prompt activity by the animal rights movement' unless they sold their stock.

At the close of trading on that Monday, which involved nearly 1.3 million shares swapping hands, Montpellier's share price had tumbled nearly 23 per cent on the same figure at the end of the previous day's trading on the Friday.Two days later even more shares - close to 1.8 million - were traded.

In the days after the announcement that Montpellier was pulling out of Oxford the shares began to rise.

Now the pattern is obvious.Good news and the share price rises, bad news and off it drops.

Throw in a 32 per cent collapse in shares in May when the group warned of disappointing interim results, which saw Montpellier plunge over £20 million into the red on publication of the figures at the beginning of June, and the bean-counters began to panic. No wonder. Between that trading statement on May 20 and the day of the animal rights letter the share price had lost roughly half its value in around a month.

Clearly a line had been crossed and the firm was not going to make enough money on the lab that had helped its share price to collapse. It seemed madness to continue, a storm impossible to ride out.

But was the share price the only reason why, presumably, Montpellier executive chairman Roy Harrison made the decision to throw in the towel?

Probably not.

At the end of last month John Biles, a non-executive director, resigned after less than a month in the job.He is understood to have gone because Montpellier failed to brief him on the situation facing the business, including not telling him the threats facing company staff and directors.

The decision taken by Montpellier is almost unprecedented in the UK. A victory, then, for those who use intimidation and violence.That is the only way to dress it up.

The university claims it already has another contractor on board. It would be a surprise if the firm was Stock Exchange listed.Why on earth would anybody want to do this job? To show a group of animal activists that it can take them on, that it is not scared?

Consider the awful position a director of another Montpellier subsidiary found himself in.

The 58-year-old, who has no criminal conviction, had to write an open letter to all of his neighbours in the Gloucester area after anti-vivisectionists threatened to tell people that he had a history of sexual offences.

Under a letter headed 'A serious warning from Animal Rights Activists' the authors threatened to send a forged criminal record to hundreds of his neighbours showing 'a string of sexual offences committed' It added: 'You reap what you sow and there will be PERMANENT consequences for you PERSONALLY if this project continues with the involvement of your family.

'We are being reasonable here and giving you a choice.This really is a choice over the future life of yourself and your family.Do not think that once the lab is built you can retire or resign and absolve yourself from any responsibility? it is a decision that will either liberate or haunt you for the rest of your life.'

Now, when faced with this level of intimidation, what company is really going to stick around and build something where margins will be tight and the job plagued by months and months of security woe?

Home secretary David Blunkett has also stepped into the row, telling the House of Commons last week that he was 'deeply sorry that those who have been involved with the programme in Oxford have felt, for a whole variety of reasons, their viability was threatened' The university has vowed to press on with the project but, for them, where does the campaign against this lab end? Following its withdrawal, animal rights pressure group Speak said in a statement: 'We applaud the decision by Montpellier to withdraw from the building project and hope that it will encourage other companies currently involved in the building of this new research centre to reconsider their decision.'

Whether the Oxford lab gets built is not Montpellier's problem any more.

But contractors have rights too.And if those rights become violated to the extent they were in the past few weeks, then others will do exactly what the firm did and walk away.No job - let alone an £18 million laboratory - is worth that much.

How the story unfolded

May 20: Montpellier issues trading statement warning of a 'significant operating loss'Shares drop by over 30 per cent at close of day's trading.

Late May/early June: Two quarries owned by Oxford concrete supplier RMC are attacked by activists.

June 3: Group announces interim results, showing operating loss of £20.7 million.

June 21: Letter claiming to be from one of Montpellier's directors sent to shareholders warning of 'prompt activity by the animal rights movement' unless they sold their stock. 1.3 million shares traded.

June 23: A further 1.7 million shares traded. Price nudges up a penny.

June 25: John Biles resigns from Montpellier board for 'personal reasons' July 19: Montpellier tells the Stock Exchange it is pulling out of the laboratory.