Since the early 1970’s, when Canvey grazing marshes were first ear-marked as the potential site of an oil refinery, they have had a turbulent time. There have been many changes in direction and a lot has happened. Below is a timeline of events so far, which we will continue to update as there is progress.
Occidental Petroleum proposed a 6 million ton oil refinery, storage depot and deep-water jetty on 130ha of grazing marshes at Canvey Wick. The local authorities refused planning permission, but a public enquiry subsequently approved the application. The site was prepared for development by covering the marshes with 2-3 metres of river dredging material that included silt, sand, gravel and shell fragments. This provided the base for construction of the oil tanks, a 137m high concrete chimney for the furnaces, a network of access routes and a 1.5km jetty.
1975 – 80 – Global oil crisis saves site from further development
In 1975 the economic conditions changed and a global oil crisis meant that the refinery was no longer financially viable, so all building works stopped. For a number of years Occidental tried to progress smaller, alternative proposals, but all were opposed by Castle Point Council and the local Canvey Island residents. No further works occurred and the site was eventually abandoned, despite Occidental Petroleum spending £55m on the development.
Late 1980s – 1990 – Northwick Village Project
Entrepreneur Peter De Savary took ownership of the site and proposed a village development that built on Canvey Wick and the adjacent land. It would incorporate a marshland nature reserve area that was championed by conservationist David Bellamy. A public planning enquiry took place on Canvey Island in 1990, but despite local support the proposal was rejected by the minister and the site remained derelict. Once again Canvey Wick avoided development and was left to nature.
1996-7 – Industrial structures are removed with celebrity assistance
Demolition works took place at the derelict site and removed the disused tanks and chimney. Celebrity steeplejack (a person who climbs tall structures such as chimneys and steeples in order to carry out repairs), Fred Dibnah, came to Canvey Wick to participate in the chimney demolition, leaving only the tarmac tank foundations, access paths and jetty structure as evidence of the doomed oil refinery.
1998-2000 – Supermarkets and retail development
Safeway supermarkets purchased the land and constructed a store across the road from Canvey Wick. This opened in 1997 and the remaining land, which included the Canvey Wick site, was set aside for future development. However, plans to attract retail and leisure partners to develop the site were not forthcoming. In 2000, they sold 20 hectares to the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) for a potential business park.
2002 – Community support to save Canvey Wick
Following the preparation of the site for an oil refinery and its subsequent abandonment, Canvey Wick had been left, to be reclaimed by nature, for 30 years. The Canvey Wick brownfield had developed a rich mosaic of flower-rich habitats and bare ground, thanks to the free draining, low nutrient dredgings spread across the site in the 1970’s. This provided the perfect opportunity for warmth-loving, burrowing and flower feeding invertebrates and other wildlife to make Canvey their home. The site’s importance for wildlife wasn’t lost on the local community and wildlife experts. After decades of proposed industrial development, Buglife and Canvey Island residents commenced a 3-year campaign to save the site from the latest business park development threat.
2005 – A landmark Site of Special Scientific Interest
Canvey Wick was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England on 11 February 2005 – the first brownfield site to be protected specifically for its invertebrates. The significance of its nationally important assemblage of insects has led to it being lauded as a “brownfield rainforest”. It was also a landmark recognition of the importance that brownfields and post-industrial sites have in supporting some of our rarest wildlife; challenging the preconceptions of what a wildlife haven should be and look like.
In September 2012 the Land Trust take over 19 hectares of land on the eastern end of Canvey Wick from the EEDA, with the RSPB managing it in partnership with Buglife. During 2013 essential site restoration works were undertaken to clear the invading scrub that had begun to establish, threatening the open, wildflower-rich habitats and bare ground that make the site so valuable. The Nature Reserve had its official opening in 2014, attended by Steve Backshall, now Buglife President.
In September, the Land Trust took on a further 130 hectares of land adjoining the Canvey Wick nature reserve from Morrisons, including the remainder of the SSSI, with the aim of improving the whole SSSI for its wildlife interest. There is currently no formal public access to the 93 hectare area of the SSSI.
In spring, the RSPB took on the management responsibility of the remaining 74 hectares of Canvey Wick SSSI with funding from the owners, The Land Trust. This marked the start of a 3 year project in conjunction with Buglife to transform this area of Canvey Wick to complement the invertebrate haven of the existing nature reserve.
A meeting was held with Natural England and The Land Trust in July to agree the habitat restoration works and management plan for the site. The restoration works then commenced in October and focused on scrub clearance, especially Sea Buckthorn removal in compartment 1 and 2. This work has improved around 8 hectares of habitat for the invertebrate populations found at Canvey Wick.
Contractors will be back onsite in the spring for root removal and bare ground creation in the cleared compartments. This will only take place once temperatures have risen sufficiently for any overwintering wildlife to have moved on.
Habitat restoration works have been completed in compartments 1 & 2, with a total of 120 tonnes of scrub material having been shredded and removed from site. This has improved 8 hectares of land and includes the creation of bare ground and sandy mounds to provide a greater variety of interesting habitat features, as part of our work to support more than 2000 species of invertebrates that are found at Canvey Wick.