Published: 09:21, 31 December 2020
| Updated: 11:13, 05 January 2021
A planning bid for a theme park project dubbed the UK's answer to Disneyland is to be submitted for review.
It will cover 1,245 acres – a space equivalent to roughly 113 Wembley stadiums – and would be larger than the UK's current largest theme park, Alton Towers.
An eagerly-awaited planning bid will be submitted to the government's planning arm, the Planning Inspectorate for review today.
The application confirms the intent to develop two theme park gates, a water park, conference and convention centre and e-Sports facility.
More than 3,500 hotel rooms will be created and two ferry terminals – one each side of the River Thames – will be built, along with back-of-house facilities, a visitor centre and a new road from the A2. The vast majority of the materials required to construct the resort will be delivered by river.
Theme park bosses hope to begin construction in 2022 with a view to opening in 2024.
If approved, it will be the first European development of its kind to be built from scratch since the opening of Disneyland Paris in 1992.
"This will be so much more than just a theme park," vowed chief executive PY Gerbeau, who helped remaster the Disneyland Paris concept and reimagine the London Millenium Dome.
“I arrived at this project 18 months ago and it has been non-stop ever since," he said. "We have revived, reviewed, and reprogrammed the entire venture."
He added: “We have built excellent relationships with many stakeholders and are working closely with the elected local council leaders.
"This has been an incredibly challenging journey and we look forward to working with the UK government over the next 12 months.”
The cost has been revised over the years as the shape of the project has evolved with the most up-to-date projection £2.5bn. However, developers say the project will make a "significant contribution" to UK tourism providing a visitor attraction of "international status".
This includes plans for £50bn of gross economic activity over an initial 25-year-period and creating more than 6,000 construction jobs initially.
It says there are plans to then expand this offering to 48,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs by 2038 – including 8,700 employees by 2024 rising to over 17,000 by 2038.
The project is aiming to be one of the most sustainable, global destinations in the world and the first operationally carbon neutral theme park.
Developers say it will deliver a net biodiversity gain that will create a green network of amenity areas and parkland to include areas of environmental enhancement and wildlife habitat creation beside the River Thames for local residents and resort guests.
It has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride already for the project which was the first of its kind to be designated a Nationally Significant Infrastrructure Project (NSIP) back in 2012.
Artists' impressions, image rights deals and even the directors tasked with steering forward the vision have all changed during this time.
But work is yet to commence on site despite numerous public consultations and redrawings of the proposals.
The project has also faced opposition from some environmental groups over its proximity to marshes home to thousands of endangered invertebrate species, as well as brownfield sites occupied by local businesses.
Dartford councillor Laura Edie set up the Facebook group Save Swanscombe Peninsula in October to fight the plans.
She said: "As someone who cares deeply about the environment, I felt compelled to start up this local campaign group in the hope that everyone who has reservations with this site could unite to fight against it.
"Not only would giving the go ahead to this development mean the irreversible destruction of a biodiversity oasis; the marshes act as a natural barrier against flooding and also absorb C02.
"Plans to build on the marshes need to be halted and Swanscombe Peninsula must be protected for future generations to enjoy."
Others spoke of the benefits of the wildlife site during lockdown.
Swanscombe resident Karyn Lou said: "This gem of biodiversity is right on my doorstep and has been enjoyed by local families, including my own, for decades.
"It's a local haven for humans too, a great place to escape the stresses of everyday life and has never been more important for both physical and mental wellness than it has in recent times."
But theme park bosses claim they "will showcase the natural features of the site, seamlessly integrating them into the designs" and are in dialogue with interested businesses and landowners over the acquisition of key land.
They explained: "A large proportion of the peninsula landscape will remain undeveloped and will be enhanced, principally for wildlife and biodiversity benefits, with quiet zones for visitors and the public to relax in natural surroundings.
"The designs will integrate local public rights of way and a green network, with improved access to the river for visitors and local communities."
Developers pointed to feedback received from its consultation showing that 73% of people supported this approach which includes enhancing local habitats such as existing sites Black Duck Marsh, Broadness Marsh and Botany Marsh.
Plans came to the fore again this summer after a new largely digital consultation was launched with the new chief executive on board.
During this event the London Resort said it had reached more than 120,000 members of the public and 64% of respondents were in favour of its plans.
To start work developers must secure planning approval from the Planning Inspectorate, known as a development consent order (DCO).
The planning arm will now write to the local authorities and, together, assess the "adequacy" of the consultation and carry out an evaluation of the bid.
Commenting on the submission of a DCO application for London Resort, Cllr John Burden, leader of Gravesham council, said: “London Resort would be a major infrastructure development which would have a significant impact on the economy of Gravesham and north west Kent.
“After seven years in the planning and some uncertainty at times, it is exciting that we have reached this stage.
“If London Resort goes ahead it will have a positive impact on the local economy, not least the fact that it will create many thousands of jobs during both the construction and operational phases.
The council leader said he wanted to see detail on how local people would be prioritised for jobs, which would span cleaning and maintenance staff, IT, management roles and many others.
“At a time when unemployment is growing at a worrying rate in the borough, particularly among our young people, it is an exciting and welcome prospect that if the development is approved, these jobs will be coming on stream in just a few years," he said.
“There will also be knock-on benefits for the surrounding area in terms of increased visitor numbers to our borough and footfall in Gravesend town centre."
But Cllr Burden also urged caution and said "areas of concern" still needed to be addressed.
He said: “Of course, there are areas of concern, not least around the environmental impact of the development, additional traffic on the local road network and the impact of construction works which the applicants need to show are being addressed.
“Having said that, we have been greatly encouraged by London Resort's willingness to work with us. They understand the key concerns that we and our communities have raised and have endeavoured to come up with acceptable solutions, which we expect to see reflected in the DCO.
“As such, we will be examining the DCO thoroughly and carefully drafting our response to the Planning Inspectorate with the long-term interests of our residents and businesses in mind at all times.“
Meanwhile, neighbouring Dartford council reacted to the news with a mix of hope and trepidation, saying the "devil will be in the detail".
"This is undoubtedly an important milestone for a project that could bring many benefits to this region if done well," said Dartford council spokesman Caroline Green.
"However, the devil is in the detail, and the submission of the application gives an opportunity to see how the resort’s backers intend to tackle the issues that we have a duty to raise on behalf of local people.
"That means understanding how traffic will be handled to protect existing communities, how the natural environment will be safeguarded, how small businesses close to the site will be compensated or helped to prosper, and how much local people will benefit from the jobs and leisure opportunities the resort may bring.
"It has been a long journey but the current resort team seem determined to put this project on track and there’s no doubt that they have tried hard to consult with as many people as possible.
"It’s now time for everyone to look at the plans in detail and ask the questions that need to be asked on behalf of the local community."
The government planning arm will now has a period of 28 days to assess the application before deciding whether to accept it for consideration.