Future of woodland in hands of public inquiry

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A PUBLIC INQUIRY which could see ancient woodland in South Yorkshire afforded protection from developers begins next week.

An application for Smithy Wood to become designated ‘village green’ will be heard by a council-appointed inspector at Sheffield Town Hall from Tuesday.

Under local government legislation, Cowley Residents Action Group (CRAG) must prove that the area has been used for leisure for more than 20 years and the group has spent over a year gathering evidence from local people to support their cause.

The inquiry was ordered last September after Axis 1 Limited, a subsidiary of St Paul’s Development which owns most of the site, objected to the village green application amid fears such a status had the potential to kill off controversial plans to build a motorway service station on the 12th century site.

CRAG chairwoman Jean Howe, who will stand as a witness at the four-day hearing, said: “Asking people to come forward and tell us how they have used the woodland has brought to my attention just how much it is valued.

“I think the owners thought that we wouldn’t carry on if they objected, but we will keep fighting as long as we can.

“I cannot see how they can deny that we have used it for leisure and recreation for more than 20 years.”

The high-profile campaign to make Smithy Wood, near Chapeltown, a village green has won the support of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and national charity the Woodland Trust.

While the Extra Motorway Services’ proposals to build service station, complete with an 80-bedroom hotel, restaurants and shops on the site at junction 35 of the M1 are being treated as a separate issue, the outcome of the inquiry is likely to have a significant impact upon Sheffield Council’s planning committee ability to approve it.

The planning application has been held up as an example of ‘biodiversity offsetting’, where developers promise to mitigate the impact of the loss of ancient habitat with restoration and tree-planting programmes. Conservationists argue that centuries-old land is ‘irreplaceable’, and warn a green light for the Smithy Wood development would set a precedent which would pave the way for further destruction.

Government guidelines currently make it a criminal offence to ‘undertake any act which interrupts the use or enjoyment of a village green’.

Smithy Wood is thought to pre-date most of this country’s woodland.

Part of the original wood was once home to a colliery, the site of which is now occupied by Smithy Wood Business Park. The green space was further diminished in the 1960s when the M1 cut a swathe through part of the land.

“What remains is an ancient woodland with a long history, one that cannot be replaced and that is much valued by local people,” said a spokesman for Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust.