Published: 14:37, 20 January 2021
| Updated: 15:14, 20 January 2021
A long-mooted multi-billion-pound theme park faces a new and unlikely foe - a rare jumping spider.
It is one of hundreds of at risk species whose habitat is threatened by London Resort, set to be open by 2024 on the Swanscombe Peninsula, between Dartford and Gravesend - and now conservationists have lodged an application with the government to protect the site.
The £2.5bn project was first designated as a “Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project” (NSIP) in 2012 and has now formally lodged a planning application, known as a development consent order, with the government’s planning arm.
But it may yet face extra obstacles on its path to approval after a separate application was submitted to Natural England to designate the marshland site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
This formal designation describes an area with "special features" of particular interest to science that due to its rare natural species needs to be protected – with breaches punishable by law.
A spokesman for the government-based environment agency said: “Natural England is aware of the wildlife importance of land on the Swanscombe Peninsula.
“It is considering whether land on the Swanscombe Peninsula should be proposed for notification as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
“It expects to complete its assessment and make a decision on whether the Swanscombe Peninsula should be notified as a SSSI in early 2021.”
This was formally acknowledged by the developers in a meeting note with the Planning Inspectorate published last month in which theme park bosses said they were in “ongoing discussions”.
Bosses added the timing and assessment process would not prevent them from submitting their bid as intended.
It follows a campaign by environment group Buglife which says the marshes are an insect hotspot home to thousands of invertebrate species and more than 250 that are "of conservation concern".
Among these is the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider, which only exists in one other part of the UK.
According to Buglife: "It is home to Nightingales, Cuckoos, Marsh harriers and a thriving population of Common lizards, thanks to its array of rich habitats.
"As well as abundant bees, butterflies and beetles"
Last month Buglife projects manager Jamie Robins said: "This site does of course remain an outstanding wildlife site of the highest quality and appears to be the best site for invertebrates within the whole suite of nationally important Thames Estuary sites for bugs."
But developers claim their proposals will enhance the site and 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.
They explained their plans "will showcase the natural features of the site, seamlessly integrating them into the designs".
The eagerly awaited planning bid was submitted on New Years’ Eve, confirming their intent to develop two theme park gates, a water park, conference and convention centre and e-Sports facility.
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.
Meanwhile, notices for interested land owners near the project areas have appeared in Swanscombe requesting those with relevant interests in land to come forward.
But bosses from around 140 firms affected by the plans on the nearby Northfleet industrial estate say they continue to have no meaningful dialogue with the developers five and a half years on.
Nick Dunigan, director of Kent Kraft Estates, said: “Over this period the London Resort developer has shown, and continues to show, little respect for the 140+ thriving businesses on the Swanscombe Peninsula, calling the local area a 'Largely brownfield former industrial site', knowing full well this is not the case.”
The director believes designating a theme park project as an NSIP is “flawed” and cited the plight of other parks during the pandemic including Drayton Manor which entered administration last year.
But London Resort bosses say they are in continuous dialogue with interested businesses and landowners over the acquisition of key land.
They also remain upbeat about their prospects, adding they have "revived, reviewed, and reprogrammed” their bid to make a "significant contribution" to UK tourism and jobs, providing a visitor attraction of "international status".
And while they admit it has been an “incredibly challenging journey” they have previously said they have “no desire” to use compulsory purchase powers.
The Planning Inspectorate formally acknowledged the DCO bid on its planning portal on January 4. It has 28 days from this date to decide whether or not to accept it for review.