It promises to be one of Britain’s most unusual planning battles. On one side is an array of endangered wildlife that includes a species of jumping spider. On the other are backers of a theme park that they claim will rival Disneyland in its size and ambition.
The park, called the London Resort, would be built on the Swanscombe peninsula on the Thames, near Gravesend, where it would cover land equivalent to 136 Wembley stadiums and would include themed rides, a water park, conference venues, hotels and a shopping centre.
However, the project is highly controversial – as will be revealed this week when preliminary hearings are held. Crucially, the theme park is being proposed as a “nationally significant infrastructure project” (NSIP) – a designation usually reserved for major roads, power plants or airports.
NSIPs are finally approved or rejected by the government, not by local authorities, which has raised fears that the decision over the fate of the London Resort is being moved away from community politicians and handed to ministers. “It is a real concern,” said Donna Zimmer, of the Save Swanscombe Peninsula campaign.
In addition, a large chunk of the peninsula has recently been designated a “site of special scientific interest” (SSSI) because of its wide range of rare plants and wildlife.
These include marsh harriers, spoonbills, otters, a wide variety of orchids, and more than 1,700 invertebrate species, including a quarter of the UK’s water beetle species and more than 200 species that are considered of conservation importance.
For good measure, the peninsula is one of only two places in the UK where the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider – Attulus distinguendus – has its home. The distinguished jumping spider is tiny (about 1cm long) and does not spin webs to catch prey but uses its excellent eyesight and an ability to leap distances of more than 10 times its own length to bring down its quarry.
The prospect of a theme park being built on one of only two sites in the UK where Attulus distinguendus is found, and which also supports many other key species, has outraged conservationists. Evan Bowen-Jones, chief executive of Kent Wildlife Trust, said that if built, the theme park would represent one of the single biggest losses of protected land in the UK. “We would lose an urban oasis – home to species that range from jumping spiders to marsh harriers – for plastic dinosaurs, fairground rides, and yet more gridlock and pollution at a time when the importance of nature to human wellbeing has never been clearer,” he said last week.
The London Resort was originally proposed in 2014 and has been subject to widespread delays since then, hold-ups that have infuriated the project’s opponents as well as local MP Gareth Johnson, who initially backed the scheme but is now opposed to it.
“Many of us were excited when this proposal was made public,” said Johnson, the Conservative MP for Dartford. “There could have been huge benefits to the area, if the project was approached in the right way. Instead, we have seen endless delays and uncertainty for local residents and businesses in the area. Enough is enough. Dartford can do better than this theme park,” he said.
Other groups that were initially involved with the project have also withdrawn involvement. These include the BBC and ITV, whose shows would have provided themes for some resort’ rides. One remaining group, Paramount Entertainment, is still linked to the project and is the focus of a campaign by local people who want it to quit as well.
For its part, the company says that the resort would generate 6,000 direct and many more indirect jobs within its first year. But this claim was countered by Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts. “The resort would not only wipe out the SSSI here, it would also destroy the local industrial park where about 3,000 people work. Most of these individuals have skilled jobs. These would be lost and replaced with low-skilled, seasonal jobs at the theme park.”
A London Resort spokesman denied the project would cause ecological damage. “Huge parts of the land are contaminated. It is largely a brownfield, former industrial site which has been unmanaged, with zero investment for improvement, for decades,” he said, adding that London Resort was committed to investing over £150m to enhance the habitat and would be creating the world’s only carbon neutral theme parks. He also said the project was supported by most local residents and businesses.
London Resort added that it had formally objected to the designation of the peninsula SSSI status and said that the BBC and ITV had not pulled out the project but had merely ended commercial agreements for use of their Intellectual Property.
It is expected that at this week’s planning meeting, the London Resort company will seek to have further delays made to the planning process, while opponents will vigorously oppose such a move.
“If further delays are blocked, then we will get a final decision about the project far sooner and, hopefully, one that will block the building of the resort,” said Chris Rose, a campaign consultant who has been involved in coordinating opposition to the project.
The issue for the government is straightforward, added Nicky Britton-Williams, wilder towns officer for Kent Wildlife Trust. “If the government follows through on all of the commitments that ministers have made to the need to protect nature and tackle the climate emergency and put the necessary policies and plans in place, I cannot see how this project could possibly get consent.”
She added: “However, stranger things have happened in politics.”