Rare wildlife site in Kent saved from theme park development – for now
Plans to build a £3.5bn theme park on wildlife-rich Swanscombe Peninsula have been withdrawn, but environmentalists say the fight is far from over
Developers have temporarily withdrawn their plans to build a theme park on a nationally important site for rare wildlife in North Kent, but campaigners and environmentalists are bracing themselves for further battles.
The proposal to build a 465-hectare theme park, called The London Resort, on the Swanscombe Peninsula – a recently designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – has been withdrawn from the planning application process. However, the developer, London Resort Company Holdings (LRCH), plans to resubmit a revised application later this year. After more than a year of protests and petitions, local campaigners and national wildlife charities are now calling on the Government to save the nationally important wildlife site.
The London Resort development is focused on brownfield land, but its footprint would extend further, crossing the Thames to Tilbury. The proposals were due to be considered by the Planning Inspectorate as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), which gives the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government the final say on whether the development goes ahead. Buglife, RSPB, CPRE Kent, and Kent Wildlife Trust local campaign group, Save Swanscombe Peninsula SSSI, are working together on an application to the Planning Inspectorate to oppose the project’s Nationally Significant Infrastructure (NSIP) status, which they say should only apply to developments such as ports and major roads. However, this recent planning application withdrawal has further delayed the campaigners’ application.
“It is unbelievable that in a period of climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, that this SSSI site, and all the nature and wildlife it supports, is still under threat,” says Nicky Britton-Williams, wilder towns officer at Kent Wildlife Trust. “Until the NSIP status is withdrawn and the site put under the management of responsible wildlife charities, this urban oasis of wildlife remains at risk and we, and our partners, will do all we can to protect it.”
The Swanscombe Peninsula is home to a number of threatened species of plants and animals, including the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider. Over 2,000 species of insects and other invertebrates have been recorded here, and it is an important site for breeding birds in south-east England. Otters, water voles and rare plants, such as the man orchid, also live in the site’s diverse habitats, which include grasslands, coast, scrub and intricate wetlands, much of which is brownfield habitat that has been reclaimed by nature. It was designated a SSSI last year by Natural England, the national body responsible for wildlife.
The London Resort chief executive Pierre-Yves Gerbeau says his company is still fully committed to completing the project and will resubmit the application before the end of 2022. “In the best interests of the London Resort, we are withdrawing the current application, as a result of the classification of Tilbury as a Freeport which has meant revisions are required in moving the ferry terminal from Tilbury to Grays. We are working closely and collaborating with Thurrock Council on that matter,” says Gerbeau.
“This issue, combined with the decision by Natural England to designate a brownfield contaminated site as a SSSI has impacted the project. We in turn have acquired significant land holdings as part of our mitigation strategy combined with our commitment to spend £150m on environmental improvements on the peninsula,” he adds. “These changes are considered material and as such require withdrawal and resubmission. We will continue our engagement with the local community, statutory bodies, landowners and others to make sure we can reach as many agreements as possible before resubmission.”
Director of RSPB England Emma Marsh says Swanscombe Peninsula is simply the wrong place to build a theme park.
“Swanscombe is an incredibly special place, its rich wildlife was recognised by its confirmation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest last year, making it one of the jewels in the crown of UK nature sites,” says Marsh. “We will monitor any updated plans put forward by London Resort and will do all we can to protect this vital space for the local community and the incredible wildlife it supports.”
Local MP Gareth Johnson is also urging LRCH to can the project, saying the developer has already been working on its application for years. “I fail to see what any further delay would add to it. I think they need to walk away from this and let’s use the wildlife habitat that exists there as an asset for local people instead.”
She now lives in Cardiff and takes every opportunity on the weekends to explore the Brecon Beacons National Park and South Glamorgan’s stunning coastline and wooded hillsides with her family, often encouraging her young son’s obsession with discovering woodland fungi.