As outlined in our August update, a period of consultations on the planning application for a new rollercoaster at Thorpe Park Resort, Project Exodus, has seen all potential issues addressed, with the exception of the objections raised by the Environment Agency on the grounds of flood risk. This has delayed a decision being made on the application, creating concern that a 2024 opening may not be achieved if this is not forthcoming soon.

The Environment Agency (EA) raised three specific objections in their letter sent in June. The Resort and their planners therefore submitted information and documents to address these in the following months. An updated response from the EA was then provided at the end of August. This confirmed the withdrawal of one of their objections relating to the development’s nature conservation value, which they deemed to have been satisfactorily addressed by the Construction Environmental Management Plan, Draft Landscape and Ecology Management Plan, and Ecological Impact Assessment that were subsequently submitted. However, they maintained their two other objections. This included the primary objection to the development being within Flood Zone 3b (i.e. the support foundations to be located in Abbey Lake), along with another that related to inadequacies in the flood risk assessment, which still remained after a revised version was submitted.

Atkins, the environmental specialist engaged by Thorpe Park, provided a response earlier this month (with a revised version of this submitted this past week to amend some of the data contained within it). This was focused on addressing the issues around the flood risk assessment (objection 2), whilst noting that they had no further comments to add in respect of the principal objection (objection 1). In respect of objection 2, the issues here primarily revolve around floodplain compensation, i.e. if infilling an area of a flood zone, there is a need to ensure the creation of an equivalent area elsewhere to provide the same overall level of flood storage. Atkins’ response therefore highlighted that the Resort already have an established floodplain compensation scheme in place which is believed to be more than sufficient to also cover Project Exodus.

Alongside Atkins, a planning officer at Runnymede Borough Council (RBC) also responded to the Environment Agency on objection 2, to address the EA’s request for a copy of the legal agreement between Thorpe Park and RBC for the existing floodplain compensation scheme. They noted that no such agreement exists since it has never been a requirement of the EA to provide one, with it stated that the EA have never made such a request either when the scheme was conceived or for subsequent applications. Indeed, they instead note that the Resort’s planning history shows that the EA have consistently agreed the approach to offsetting development against this flood compensation scheme, most recently in respect of the Pizza Pasta extension. Hence, RBC believe it would be unreasonable to refuse permission for Project Exodus solely based on this objection from the EA. If there has been a change in planning policy that means the existing scheme is no longer acceptable and that a formal legal agreement is required, RBC have requested the EA to evidence this.

This response from RBC seemingly followed from discussions that had taken place between them and Lichfields, the Resort’s planning consultants, in respect of the EA’s August letter which are summarised in a briefing note that has also been published this past week. This note focuses specifically on flood risk at the Resort and the long and well-established approach to development involving flood compensation, as well as the Resort’s operation/evacuation plans. It explains the unique nature of the Resort in flooding terms and why, despite the EA’s in principle objection (objection 1), Project Exodus should be granted planning permission. Also highlighted is the need for the investment, that was also outlined in the planning application itself, in order to maintain visitor numbers and assist with the Resort’s post-Covid recovery. Explicitly noted is the importance that the determination of the application is not delayed any further as Merlin needs to commit to construction contracts to ensure that the ride can open for 2024.

Assuming that a decision on the application will be made by committee, given its scale, the next opportunity for RBC to do so will be on Wednesday 5th October, but an agenda for this meeting is yet to be published. Nonetheless, the above gives reassurance that RBC will be minded to approve the development despite the Environment Agency‘s objection, unless they are provided with evidence to indicate the historic precedent set and approach taken is no longer appropriate.

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