By Michael Mander
It’s been dubbed the “British Disneyland”. But behind the high-profile headlines and glossy promotional images, the story of the London Resort is marred by delays and scepticism.
Eight years and £55 million after it was first proposed – a shovel has not yet entered the ground.
We’ve followed up on all the high profile headlines from the last 8 years: tracing the history of the project, the investors, the partnerships, the key figures – and how it stands today.
And we’ve spoken to Director of Communications and Strategy at the London Resort Company Holdings, Andy Martin – who has been a part of the project since the start.
Here’s the full story behind the London Resort.
In 2011, the London Resort Company Holdings was first incorporated. In 2012, the project was announced publicly.
The headline act: Paramount Pictures, who had obtained naming rights. London Paramount was born.
The front man: Tony Sefton. With over 25 years leisure experience, Tony was a recognised figure in the attractions industry. He’d worked as a consultant for the National Trust, RSPB, and with major theme parks and resorts like Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Legoland California and more. Tony Sefton was the man with the plan.
The project made national headlines, and Tony Sefton appeared on BBC News suggesting an opening date as soon as 2018.
The first snag came in April 2013, with the discovery of a rare breed of jumping spider on the proposed site. The opening date was pushed back to 2019. It has since been pushed back a further five times.
In 2013, London Resort Company Holdings was purchased by Kuwaiti businessman Abdulla Al-Humaidi.
Dr. Abdulla Al-Humaidi is a Kuwaiti businessman and member of the millionaire Al-Humaidi family. He studied medicine for five years in Dublin, before founding Kuwait European Holdings in 2008.
In May 2013, Abdulla Al-Humaidi purchased Ebbsfleet United, a fifth tier football club. The same year, he purchased London Resort Company Holdings.
At the same time, a leisure project funded by Abdulla Al-Humaidi fell through. A £350 million waterpark in East Sussex – set to be one of the world’s biggest – was deemed to be not economically viable and subsequently scrapped.
The website of Kuwait European Holdings boasts one other large-scale resort. The website lists itself as an investor in Egyptian Saudi Tourism & Real Estate Company – which “owns and operates a 60 acre resort (Aqueous Resort) located on the beach of the Red Sea… The resort includes a hotel, dive centre and 300 villas and apartments.”
But there is limited information about the Aqueous Resort online. Only an Instagram account, not updated since 2016, provides a clue. A post from 2014 shows a map of where the project was set to be built. Satellite imagery of the same location from this year shows nothing there. KEH did not respond to a request for comment.
More recently in 2019, Abdulla al-Humaidi denied allegations of deceiving Ebbsfleet United players, after they claimed their salaries were delayed.
Andy Martin, Director of Communications and Strategy for London Resort Company Holdings, said: “They’re [KEH] intending to stick with the project. There’s a commitment to stability to this project. When the time comes to grow our investment portfolio, then it’ll be after the application has been submitted. But we will have to show that we can obtain funding as part of the application.”
In 2015, it was announced that the London Paramount project would receive an impressive £100 million investment from Chinese investment firm, SinoFortone.
Incorporated in July 2015 in London, the frontman was enigmatic businessman Peter Zhang. Described by the Times as ‘baby-faced’, the tycoon was photographed with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as he committed billions of pounds to UK infrastructure projects.
The investment into London Paramount was used by London Resort Company Holdings to bolster the project’s appeal to other investors and consumers.
But Peter Zhang and SinoFortone did not have the money to back the plans – according to Sir Richard Heygate, co-director of SinoFortone’s UK company.
It was “all bollocks”, Sir Richard said. “Peter is a nice guy but he believed he could create a private vehicle for raising money without having any capital himself, and I just thought it was impossible – a crazy idea.”
Billions of pounds were pledged to UK projects. A biomass power station in Wales, a holiday resort in Cornwall, huge infrastructure projects – and of course London Paramount. All were abandoned, except for the purchase of a single pub in London.
SinoFortone’s website later disappeared.
In October 2018, construction engineering company Keltbray announced their intention to invest £25m into the London Paramount project – by this point called the London Resort.
The London Resort’s chairman said Keltbray would act as a “catalyst for further industry participation and investment.”
However, RideRater has learned that Keltbray are no longer involved with the London Resort project. The company did not comment on when or how the partnership ended.
Keltbray has not been the only partner to jump ship from the London Resort project for undisclosed reasons.
The first to leave London Paramount was … Paramount. In 2017, the deal with Paramount ‘collapsed’ after negotiations broke down over the rights to the studios’ films, according to KentOnline. The project was renamed ‘the London Resort’. Bosses hailed it as a positive move, saying it gave them the freedom to work with more brands.
Two years on, in June 2019, Paramount returned. While the park would not bear their name, it would feature their Intellectual Property (IP).
Other brands have gone and not returned. The British Film Institute (BFI) was brought on as a ‘cultural advisor’. They are no longer involved with the project.
Aardman Animations, creators of Wallace and Gromit, joined in February 2015. They brought a whole host of IP to the park. In May 2019, the agreement expired and was not renewed.
The London Resort Company Holdings announced a deal with InterContinental Hotel Group to operate a series of hotels totalling 4000 rooms at the resort. RideRater has since learned that this deal is no longer in place.
BBC Worldwide and ITV are both still involved in the project.
Director of Communications for the London Resort, Andy Martin, points to a change in leadership. “Quite a lot has changed since PY got involved,” he said, “we do have a different approach to partnerships and Intellectual Property. We’ve been on a lot of journeys with a lot of different partners, there’s a number of people we’ve engaged with over the years. One of the first things PY did when he got back involved with the project was reorganise the IP structures.
“We explored a relationship with the BFI a long time ago. And the relationship with Aardman was a mutual parting of ways. The relationships we have with BBC, Paramount and ITV are still in place – we may add to that list or keep it as it is. It’s under perpetual review.”
The key figures
A number of significant players have left the project behind.
In March 2015, the project’s front man Tony Sefton walked away. Newly appointed Financial Director Fenlon Dunphy told the press: “We want to express our sincere thanks to Tony for the energy, enthusiasm and hard work he has brought to this project.”
A year later, in June 2016, Fenlon was gone. He stepped away from all of Abdulla Al-Humaidi’s businesses “following his decision to further pursue his interests in his own company.”
Another high profile figure in the company was Chris Townsend. He was awarded an OBE in 2013 for his successful work as Commercial Director for London’s 2012 Olympic bid team. After joining London Resort Company Holdings in 2012, Chris Townsend left in 2014 according to LinkedIn.
In 2017, the project’s CEO David Testa walked away shortly after doubts were raised over the SinoFortone investment. He was replaced with immediate effect by Humphrey Percy. In November 2018, Humphrey Percy left the project.
In July 2019, PY Gerbeau was appointed as CEO of the London Resort, and remains so as of 2020.
Director of Communications Andy Martin said: “Having worked with [Gerbeau] since last year, he is a force of nature and he’s just extremely driven to deliver something outstanding.
“It’s the first time in the history of the resort’s senior management team that we have someone with a background as an operator, so he will look at a plan and understand how things need to work. He absolutely has been there and done that over his operational career.”
In May 2014, the coalition government designated the London Resort a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).
It was the first time the designation was used for a commercial project, and allows the project to bypass planning permission, and to include an Order for the Compulsory Acquisition of Land.
The decision raised eyebrows. Other projects named an NSIP included railway stations, solar farms and power stations. And the number of commercial projects that have been granted the NSIP designation is limited.
In fact, by 2017, only one other commercial NSIP had been awarded – to a manufacturing park in Sunderland.
Some campaigners pointed out that the Chairman of the London Paramount project, Steve Norris, was a former MP himself for the Epping Forest constituency – just ten miles from the then Secretary of State, Eric Pickles’ constituency. But Steve Norris responded by denying that the two had communicated about the project, adding that Pickles “isn’t even on his Christmas card list”.
Paul Kelly, the chief executive of British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers & Attractions (BALPPA), the trade association representing theme parks in the UK, wrote to the Planning Inspectorate raising his own concerns about the NSIP designation. At the time, he wrote: “the project is using an unusual planning procedure, usually reserved for infrastructure projects like energy and wastewater. What was the rationale behind this decision, and is there any government money being used to support the project?”
Paul Kelly was advised by the Planning Inspectorate to contact London Resort Company Holdings directly for the enquiry. Speaking to RideRater, Kelly said he did not recall receiving a reply from the LRCH.
Not only is the NSIP designation unusual, it may also be problematic.
In 2015, the Peninsula Management Group was formed to represent the 140 businesses that are located in the proposed area of the London Resort. Employing up to 1,500 people, the group says that many of those jobs will be lost if they are forced to relocate by Compulsory Acquisition orders.
The businesses were not mentioned in the NSIP application, according to the Peninsula Management Group.
And in an email sent to the Planning Inspectorate just last week, the group say they have not had constructive communication with LRCH for two years. The email goes on: “The businesses have suffered blight, impacted trading, trouble raising finance for trading due to the uncertainties and some landowners have lost out on significant business deals which could have created thousands of additional jobs. Other businesses have already left due to the uncertainties.”
The Resort’s Andy Martin said: “The businesses want certainty. We share the frustration that the project hasn’t moved more quickly. However, we have written to the businesses’ agents and make clear what our offer is, and we will be offering an enhanced land value.”
He added that Compulsory Purchase powers are a “backstop”, “we don’t want to use them.”
And in response to claims from the PMG that thousands of jobs could be lost, Andy said: “We are creating many thousands more jobs and careers, the ripple effect of what happens when something of this cale happens to an area is transformative within the industry. The UK doesn’t have a top tier theme park.”
So, what’s going on now?
While CEOs, investors and media partners seem to dissipate, the London Resort has managed to remain in the public consciousness with the promise of a British Disneyland, tickets under £60, and a whole host of high-profile IPs.
Within the industry, doubts have been raised for years over the viability of the project. But the developers are pressing ahead with confidence, and the project’s supporters are vindicated by the recent release of the environmental scoping report.
Andy Martin concluded: “I am 100% confident that this project – if it is given the go-ahead by government – will be built and operational before 2026. You can’t be 100% confident you’ll get planning consent, but I firmly believe that we are setting out the most compelling argument to deliver the most transformation in the theme park industry. The delivery of a top tier resort in the UK, creating thousands of direct jobs and many more thousands of indirect jobs. We have firm evidence of that.”