THE HOPES of campaigners in a South Yorkshire community hinge on a hearing which could guarantee protection for ancient woodland under threat from proposals to build a motorway service station.
Councillors in Sheffield are set to decide on an application grant 12th-century Smithy Wood village green status, which has the power to block Extra MSA Group’s £40million plan for the site at junction 35 of the M1.
The application was submitted by Cowley Residents’ Action Group in response to the controversial proposals, which include an 80-bedroom hotel, food court and filling station.
In order to secure the status, they must provide evidence which shows the green space has been used for recreational purposes by local people for at least 20 years.
Evidence which will be presented to the panel include photographs and memories which have been collected by the group with the support of organisations including Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and national conservation charity the Woodland Trust.
According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), legislation “rules out new development on land other than in very special circumstances”. on registered greens. The Commons Act also protects them from damage and interruption to their use or enjoyment.
The panel will hear from Cowley residents and those who have objected to their bid at a hearing at Sheffield Town Hall beginning on September 25.
“We know that this method has worked before - approximately 30 acres of ancient woodland was saved from development at Coombe Wood in Thundersley, South East Essex, after local residents applied for the area to be designated as a village green, so we’re really hopeful that Smithy Wood can be saved in this way too,” said Oliver Newham, a lead campaigner at the Woodland Trust.
“Evidence of regular use by locals over 20 years is what’s needed to ensure this application for Smithy to be a village green is approved and we have supported the community to gather this.
“We have collected many memories from residents past and present s of their time at Smithy Wood. Even the smallest of memories could make all the difference.”
The application for the motorway service station, which ESA says will create 250 jobs, has been held up as an example of ‘biodiversity offsetting’ which, if approved, paves the way for further development on the UK’s ancient woodland.
The planning loophole allows developers to build on centuries-old land if it compensatory woodland will be created or restored somewhere else. Extra MSA Group has promised to compensate for the loss of historic habitat at Smithy Wood by creating a 39-acre woodland with 60,000 new trees.
Jean Howe, chairman of Cowley Residents’ Action Group, said: “To lose so much of Smithy Wood would leave a huge hole in our local environment. It’s just not something we’re willing to let happen without a fight.”
The hearing is scheduled to run for two days and a decision is expected in October.
Extra MSA Group told The Yorkshire Post it did not wish to comment while the planning process is ongoing.