Published: 05:00, 15 January 2022
| Updated: 10:33, 17 January 2022
Campaigners have raised more than £20,000 in just 48 hours to fight plans to build a Disneyland-style theme park on a wildlife site.
Nature groups are working together to secure the future of the Swanscombe Peninsula, which has been earmarked by developers for the £2.5 billion London Resort.
Jamie Robins, programmes manager at Buglife, discusses the crowdfunding campaign
If built, the proposals could see more than 100 hectares of marshland – equivalent to 140 football pitches – concreted over with rides, hotels, bars and other event spaces.
The developers behind the plans say it will boost the local economy and deliver thousands of new jobs whilst protecting its eco credentials.
But a coalition of campaign groups have dismissed these claims and have vowed to protect the "much-loved green lung".
Buglife, Kent Wildlife Trust, CPRE Kent and the Save Swanscombe Peninsula SSSI campaign group recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover legal costs to fight the proposals.
The crowdfunder exceeded its initial £10,000 target in under 36 hours and it has since been extended. At the time of writing more than £20,000 had been raised.
Jamie Robins, programmes manager at Buglife, said: "We really want to make sure we go into this with as much legal advice as we can.
"This is almost a precedent-setting examination. The Swanscombe Peninsula is a site of special scientific interest and has been notified by Natural England.
"We want to make sure we are putting in everything we can to defend our triple SSSI networks, our jewel in the crown wildlife sites. They should be sacrosanct and kept away from development."
All funds raised will be used to cover the costs of specialist barristers and expert advisers who can review specialist documents and planning considerations.
The site was declared an SSSI due to its importance for a number of scarce plants, birds and insects, including the critically-endangered jumping spider.
But even with this added layer of protection it does not preclude future development from occurring on-site.
Jamie added: "There are lots of examples where planning applications and big developments have impacted on SSSIs.
"Both with building right through them or right next to these protected sites and impacting on them in various ways."
But he says there are "key differences" with the London Resort proposals.
"What we have got here is the bizarre situation of one of our best wildlife sites being potentially lost to a theme park," he added.
"That's not for some arguably greater good other than for some jobs which equally could be created elsewhere."
Last week the developers behind the bid announced the opening date had been pushed back again to 2025 amid "substantial and rising" concerns.
Delays were granted at the Resort's request to address transport concerns and the area's new-found protected environmental status.
But there is now growing pressure from the Planning Inspectorate – the body tasked with deciding the fate of the first commercial venture to be awarded "nationally significant infrastructure project" status – to justify continuing delays.
'The applicant has been given every opportunity to address the weaknesses and outstanding issues in the current submitted application.'
Criticisms have been repeatedly levelled at the developers for missing deadlines and "failing to engage" with local authorities and businesses.
Companies subject to controversial compulsory purchase powers on the surrounding business estates claim the development had "paralysed" their futures and likened it to "being on death row".
Dan Bramwell of the Peninsula Management Group, which represents more than 100 businesses and landowners on Swanscombe Peninsula, says there have been "major failings" in the engagement process with the last meetings taking place four years ago.
He said: "The applicant has been given every opportunity to address the weaknesses and outstanding issues in the current submitted application.
"In the interests of all parties – and to save further additional expenditure by all parties – the existing application should proceed to examination immediately."
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson has also written to levelling-up minister Michael Gove asking for increased certainty over the timescales involved.
This week, PY Gerbeau, the London Resort chief executive apologised to the Inspectorate, explaining that the project had been "bedevilled" by changing circumstances and "unknown unknowns".
He claimed Covid-19 and the SSSI designation had "materially impacted" on their ability to supply information in a "timely fashion".
However, the French entrepreneur, who masterminded the 02 in Greenwich, remained convinced the wait was justified.
The resort boss added: "We firmly believe that a final delay in the commencement of the examination of the application until June or July 2022 is both justified in the public interest and appropriate.
"As outlined above, there are a wealth of justifications for the project.
"These include the significant role the project could play in the vision to 'Build Back Better', our plan for growth, our role as a catalyst for the continued success of the Thames Estuary Growth Board and recognition that will be instrumental in delivering at least £50bn of economic growth by 2039."
Mr Gerbeau added a decision to proceed to examination despite the incomplete nature of the bid would be "deeply unfortunate".