‘Erroneous’ SSSI designation will not halt ‘UK Disneyland’, developer insists

The developer behind controversial plans to build a Disneyland-style theme park on the Swanscombe Peninsula in Kent has said that Natural England’s “erroneous” decision to designate the location as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) will not deter it from pushing ahead with the scheme.

In a letter to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), sent at the end of last month, London Resort Company Holdings (LRCH) said that the SSSI designation would not “precipitate any material changes to our application”, adding that any design tweaks would be limited to “subtle changes” in the scheme’s green infrastructure strategy.

The letter follows the developer’s unsuccessful attempt to prevent Natural England from designating the site – described by campaigners as a valuable wildlife habitat – as a SSSI.

LRCH had submitted a development consent order (DCO) application to build the theme park and 500 homes on the 465-hectare site at Swanscombe Peninsula last December, but its plans suffered a setback earlier this year when Natural England announced its intention to designate the site as a SSSI.

Natural England’s board finally voted last month in favour of designating the marshland at the peninsula as a SSSI, despite strong objections from the developer. LRCH had objected “on the grounds of the robustness of the evidence base, the lack of reasoned judgements by Natural England as required by the guidelines, and Natural England’s failure to take a reasonable and proportionate approach”.

In its latest letter to PINS, which is responsible for examining the application under the Planning Act 2008 regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects, PY Gerbeau, chief executive of LRCH, described Natural England’s decision as “erroneous” and “not the best means of achieving a balance between the economic and environmental objectives for the site”.

Nevertheless, the letter added that LRHC noted Natural England’s reiteration of its commitment to work with developers and planners to ensure that nature could thrive alongside developments proposed for the area, following the site's designation. 

LRHC would continue to work with the wildlife regulator to “agree how we avoid or mitigate impacts upon the features of the SSSI, and other features of biodiversity interest present, and how we compensate for those impacts which cannot be avoided or mitigated”, the letter added. “We are confident that together ... we will establish a Statement of Common Ground.” it said.

However, the letter went on to say that the regulator’s decision to designate the site as a SSSI will not “precipitate any material changes to our application, nor will the project be ‘materially different’”. 

Changes to the scheme’s design are limited to “subtle changes” in the green infrastructure strategy to preserve a greater area of notified habitat outside the resort, while the offside mitigation strategy is being “reframed” to directly account for SSSI impacts, the letter says.

However, campaigners have queried LRHC’s insistence that the project would go ahead as planned despite the site's protected SSSI status. “The reality is that London Resort has been faced with huge setbacks, and are the furthest they've ever been from getting the green light,” the Save Swanscombe Peninsula SSSI group posted on Facebook.