Published: 20:00, 30 August 2021
| Updated: 14:38, 31 August 2021
More than 100 "hidden" businesses fear they could be turfed out of their current home with nowhere to go if proposals for a multi-billion pound theme park are approved.
Businesses in Swanscombe are fearful for their future
The theme park and its hotels would cover 1,245 acres – a space equivalent to roughly 113 Wembley stadiums – and based on current industry trajectories would rank as the largest in Europe, ahead of Disneyland Paris.
If given the green light by planners, developers claim it will create 48,000 jobs by 2038.
But dozens of firms in the area say existing jobs and livelihoods are at risk if the park – which advanced to the next stage of the planning process review earlier this year – goes ahead.
Many say they feel they are being "squeezed out" of the area with fierce competition for suitable alternative sites – many of which are being earmarked for new housing developments, it is claimed.
Others fear they may even be forced to shut up shop entirely, leading to lengthy and costly compensation claims.
Michael Bristow runs Michael's Bridal Fabrics, a family-run business based on the Northfleet Industrial Estate, supplying fabrics, edgings and motifs to the wedding industry.
The 65-year-old owns the freehold of his own premises which he bought in 2012, just a day before official plans for the London Resort were first unveiled.
"I tell my staff I have three elephants in my office: Brexit, Covid and LRCH," he said. "It is like being on death row. You know it is going to happen at some time but nobody tells us when."
Like many others on the trading estate, Mr Bristow will need to find a new home for his business should plans for the Resort get the green light.
He fears he may lose workers as a result, with staff based in Dartford potentially facing longer journeys to and from work.
"If you have to move far away those people might not find it viable to get to work," he said.
But by far the biggest demand Mr Bristow says he has faced is time. He estimates he has received and responded to 3,000 emails from representatives contracted to hold talks with developers on behalf of local businesses.
"The time is one of the biggest impacts it has on you," he said. "It is absolutely a substantial amount of time because there is a small group of us that we set up to look after the general interests of everyone here."
Mr Bristow has scheduled his business trips around such meetings, which he says could last anything up to a couple of hours a time.
But he says all communication abruptly came to a halt several years ago.
"We got nothing, absolutely nothing at all," he added. "The problem with all of this is things are often slanted from the information that they give out and not everything is completely fact checked."
Mr Bristow believes LRCH's description of the site as a largely "disused brownfield site" is misleading and claims no serious approaches have been made to secure the land.
"It is a bit like someone buying a house and choosing the curtains when they have not even got the foundations yet," he explained.
"It all seems back to front. They are not prepared to do anything at all unless they get these compulsory purchase powers, even though they say they don't want to do that."
Despite this Mr Bristow says he and many others have always invited a resolution with the developers.
"A lot of people are happy to consider moving if the right things are put in place," he added.
But for others, moving will be no mean feat. Blazon Fabrications, a small firm employing just under 30 people across two sites, also operates from the Northfleet Industrial Estate.
The business fabricates components used for duct running and saw a huge demand for its services in hospitals during the pandemic.
It moved to its current premises in 2009 and describes itself as a "noisy" business, having invested hundreds of thousands of pounds to soundproof its workshop.
Denise Lee, office manager, said: "This has been hanging over our heads for several years.
"We can't operate on a daily basis thinking we are going to be moved on."
She added that many of their suppliers are based locally and if they are forced to move elsewhere this could have a huge impact on trade.
On the other side of the train tracks, businesses operating on the Manor Way Business Park in Swanscombe say they feel "squeezed out".
Martin Povey has helped run his father's haulage firm which employs seven drivers on the block since 1998.
"Since all this kicked off we have had a small business with a couple of vehicles," he said. "You can't run anything long term because the landlords will only give you two years because they don't want a tenant there if the theme park goes ahead."
He added: "How can you build a business knowing you are only going to be around for two years?"
Mr Povey said a large group of the businesses clubbed together to attempt to lease the former Blue Circle cement plant works, now owned by LaFarge in Northfleet, but these plans fell through.
"Nobody knows we are down here," he explained. "Being a dirty industry, people don't want you on their doorstep. People want us to survive but we are being squeezed so far out."
Resort bosses say three public consultations have reached out to more than 120,000 people across Gravesham, Dartford and Thurrock.
Spokesman Daniel Cohen explained they had courted feedback and engagement throughout the entire process.
"The inspectorate reviewed our application and more than 50 additional documents were provided by interested parties, including those relating to boundary disputes and site misrepresentations," he said.
"Having reviewed everything, the Planning Inspectorate concluded that our application met the standards required to be accepted for examination.
"We would suggest that any and all complaints or queries about the process of the application be made to the Planning Inspectorate."
London Resort says it wants to avoid having to "rely on compulsory acquisition".
Mr Cohen added: "Unlike other schemes, LRCH is going further still by offering an additional sum in order to cover areas of loss which are more difficult to evidence and in recognition of the situation faced by potential claimants.
"The enhanced offer proposed by LRCH, which offers a 30% premium, is intended to preclude LRCH having to rely on compulsory acquisition powers and is the result of meaningful engagement with affected parties since the 2015 public consultation.”
In April, LRCH released new details of one of the park's areas with a dinosaur themed section including Europe's fastest rollercoaster.
But plans hit the buffers after Natural England, the government's nature adviser, confirmed protected status for the earmarked land known as the Swanscombe Marshes.
Theme park bosses were granted a four-month delay to address the marshland's new-found “ecological status” but have since rejected this assessment.
The Planning Inspectorate will now conduct a further site visit next month.
A six-month formal examination period is due to commence two months after that.