Published: 06:00, 16 July 2020
| Updated: 09:33, 17 July 2020
A quiet stretch of Kent marshland on the edge of the Thames may seem a world away from a multi-billion entertainment resort but if all goes to plan that's exactly what it will be transformed in to.
Sean Delaney takes a look at the UK's much-anticipated and oft-delayed answer to Disneyland and finds out why such a secluded spot was picked for the ambitious project in the first place.
If built, the £5 billion theme park and entertainment resort 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.
And although no planning application has been submitted, the project is once again in the spotlight following the announcement of a largely digital public consultation.
London Resort communications director, Andy Martin, remained tight-lipped about the full prospects of the park but said some exciting announcements were on the way.
He said: "What we are creating is a first for the UK – we want to raise the bar. It has changed from what it was in 2015 and is now a very different prospect."
Artists' impressions, image rights deals and even the directors tasked with steering forward the vision have all changed during this time but its location on the Swanscombe Peninsula has remained the same - but this was not always the case.
A 300-plus page environmental scoping report sets out the heritage, flooding, noise, transport and economic considerations of the project.
It also revealed how developers looked at 10 other alternative locations before settling on the north Kent marshlands.
Bosses had originally considered Olympic Games legacy sites and three locations north of the Thames in Essex before switching their attention to Kent.
Ashford and Cliffe on the Hoo Peninsula were among those touted as potential candidates before developers opted for Swanscombe.
The report documents how a major driving factor behind its selection was its close proximity to London, with it being felt the resort should be located within 100km of the capital.
In addition, planners looked at current land availability and use, environmental constraints and transport connections – including the ability to travel by means other than car.
Bosses believe the entertainment resort will have a "transformative effect on the local economy through direct investment in the development, its operation and the attraction of visitors".
They found the Swanscombe site provided the best location based on its "strategic highway routes", including the A2 and the M25 orbital motorway.
However, concerns have been raised by some residents as the site is close to the Dartford Crossing which regularly suffers from a host of traffic problems, with roads gridlocked most days.
The £6.6bn Lower Thames Crossing has been proposed nearby in Gravesend,which those in favour say will ease some of the congestion near the bridge – but not everyone is convinced.
"What we are creating is a first for the UK – we want to raise the bar..."
In fact, when considering Swanscombe this was identified as a potential stumbling block.
London Resort bosses say they will propose a number of substantial improvements to address this as part of the consultation stage.
Infrastructure upgrades will include a dedicated transport link between Ebbsfleet International Station, the resort and a passenger ferry terminal beyond.
A new direct road connection from the A2 will also be forged with a coach station and passenger ferry facilities.
This will link up passengers arriving by boat along the River Thames from central London and an area in Port of Tilbury in Essex.
Tourism in Britain is estimated to be worth £127 billion a year to the economy and until lockdown, spending by overseas visitors was predicted to reach a record £26.6 billion in 2020.
The developers say the project will make a "significant contribution" to UK tourism providing a visitor attraction of "international status", open throughout the year in an area "that is not currently a premier tourism and leisure destination".
It also sought to set itself apart from the competition adding a major difference between itself and existing UK theme parks – such as Thorpe Park, Legoland and Chessington World of Adventures – is that they cater primarily for daytrippers.
In its latest report, developers say they will accommodate overnight stays and have already struck a deal with Radisson Hotels to build a luxury 430-room hotel within the resort.
They also intend to build four hotels in addition to the theme parks, totalling approximately 3,550 rooms.
Plans were also revealed for a proposed 3,000-seat convention/conference centre, an eSports arena and a number of indoor and outdoor theatres.
In addition, London Resort plans to build up to 500 new homes on the site and has ringfenced land in an abandoned chalk pit, known as Craylands Lane Pit, for these purposes.
It says this housing would be reserved exclusively for use by those staff members working at the entertainment resort, including young and seasonal employees.
The report said: "This is intended to allow for smooth operation of the resort, assist recruitment, reduce the need to commute and reduce pressure on local housing rental markets."
It has already been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for the project which was the first "business or commercial project" to be earmarked as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).
Such major projects hold special status which allows them to bypass local planning requirements but they must obtain a development consent order (DCO) from the government to commence work.
Since then, the developer has undertaken considerable site and environmental survey work and four rounds of public consultation have taken place including a round of statutory consultation in 2015.
Despite this, a brick is yet to be laid on the site and submission of plans for approval have been repeatedly delayed.
In March the planning application was pushed back from its original spring date until at least October.
"This is a significant step in transforming an amazing and ambitious dream into reality..."
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 businesses based on the Swanscombe Peninsula estate say they are operating with a "blight over them" ahead of any option to purchase the land they are on.
London Resort bosses reserve the ability to issue a compulsory purchase order but have repeatedly said this will only be used as a last resort.
Repeat delays to the application led Dartford MP Gareth Johnson to say theme park bosses were now drinking "in the last chance saloon" amid fears the project is now endangering jobs.
Mr Martin has consistently maintained things are still on course, adding delays were not uncommon for a complex project of this size.
He said theme park bosses were holding Zoom calls with all concerned parties and fine-tuning their master plans.
This included working with the relevant community liaison group to help share information about the project and contacting advisers of affected local businesses, setting out terms for the acquisition of land including an additional premium.
In another twist, the resort's chief executive PY Gerbeau announced he had been handling the project from his bedside after contracting coronavirus.
The French entrepreneur credited with saving the panned Millennium Dome project, now the O2 in Greenwich, has since recovered as bosses reaffirmed their pledge to deliver the project in April.
Mr Gerbeau said: “The team have been immense, working incredibly hard during these awful times. I joined just under a year ago and we are always being asked to hurry up.
"Well, I am happy to tell you we have made strong progress and these reports are hugely important.
"This is a significant step in transforming an amazing and ambitious dream into reality."
The full application is now expected to be submitted in autumn.
There will then be 28 days for the Planning Inspectorate to review the application and decide whether or not to accept it for examination.
More by this authorSean Delaney
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