A1M Kirby Hill service station: How villagers' 25-year fight against development was defeated at fourth time of asking

Campaigners who have fought against a controversial motorway service station for 25 years say they have been let down by planning system changes. Chris Burn reports.

A group of residents from Kirby Hill, near Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, have been involved in a 25-year battle against a motorway service station being built in their area have been dealt a blow after a planning inspector ruled the scheme (which has been rejected multiple times before) can go ahead. Pictured Residents from Kirby Hill and members of RAMS - Residents Against Motorway Services action group (left to right) Geoff Craggs, Wendy Wilby, Judith Owens, Pam Thirkell, Andrea Cope, Jayne and Steve Cove, Cllr Robert Windass, and Gareth Owens. Picture: James Hardisty.

For the past 25 years, villagers living in Kirby Hill in North Yorkshire have been fighting – and winning – a battle against plans to build a motorway service station dubbed ‘the most controversial in Britain’ a few hundred yards from their homes. But after succeeding in having the project refused at three past inquiries, this month their luck ran out after a Government planning inspector gave the go-ahead for the scheme intended to serve motorists using the A1(M) at the fourth time of asking.

While planning inspector David Rose said in his ruling that the proposals put forward by developer Applegreen, which owns Welcome Break, were “materially different” to past plans, the Kirby Hill Residents Against Motorway Services (RAMS) say they believe the most significant changes are not to the scheme itself but the way in which the planning system has been altered to further favour developers over local communities.

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Gareth Owens, chair of Kirby Hill RAMS, says: “We feel the thing that has changed here is the planning system, not the facts. After 25 years of playing the game and having it refused, you have to ask the question; what has changed?”

An aerial picture of the intended site (shown in black outline) with Kirby Hill to the right.

The objections of local residents have not altered over the past 25 years since the first application was submitted back in 1996 – they believe that having a development close to the size of their own village nearby will harm the rural area in which they live. That those concerns have foundation was accepted in part by Mr Rose’s decision, which “acknowledged that the proposed development would cause some harm to the character, appearance, and visual amenity of the area”.

Government rules state there should be no more than 28 miles between what are known as ‘Motorway Service Areas’ – or MSAs. On this particular stretch of road, there is a gap of more than 60 miles between services stations in Wetherby and Durham.

The recent planning hearing considered the Kirby Hill site, which is 13 miles to the north of the Wetherby services and officially known as the Vale of York MSA, against a rival proposal from Moto called the Ripon MSA a further five miles to north. Both sites had previously been refused planning permission by Harrogate Borough Council, with each developer’s separate appeal leading to the joint hearing.

While planning permission was granted in 2012 for a service station at Leeming Bar 28 miles to the north of Wetherby as part of a decision which rejected plans for Kirby Hill, Mr Rose said that location currently only has “limited poor quality facilities”, requires substantial investment and therefore cannot be considered an MSA.

Residents from Kirby Hill and members of RAMS - Residents Against Motorway Services action group (left to right) Pam Thirkell, Steve and Jayne Cove, Gareth, and Judith Owens. Picture: James Hardisty

A request was made that the latest inquiry should also include consideration of another proposed MSA on the same stretch of road at Catterick 37 miles from the Wetherby site but this idea was rejected in October 2020 by Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick on the grounds that “the proposals are not considered give rise to issues of more than local significance”.

Mr Owens says that is a decision residents dispute given the planned Catterick site – which is yet to be determined by Richmondshire District Council – is in a different Parliamentary constituency (that of Chancellor Rishi Sunak) and a different council area but is directly relevant to the suitability of the Kirby Hill scheme.

“At the previous three inquiries they have called in all the competing solutions and looked at them in the round,” he says. “Robert Jenrick was asked to do that this time and he declined to do so. His reasoning was he considered it to be a local matter. A 60-mile gap with three competing sites in two different constituencies is not a local matter.”

Mr Owens says its inclusion in the hearing could well have made a difference to the outcome.

“The presence of an MSA at Catterick would reduce the need for an MSA at Kirby Hill,” he says. “In 2012, the then Secretary of State considered four competing schemes in the same 60-mile gap and only granted permission for one, at Leeming Bar, but this was never built out. It’s reasonable to assume that if all three sites were considered at the inquiry this time, only one would have been granted permission.”

Meanwhile, the site in question is shown as open countryside in Harrogate Council’s Local Plan, which was adopted in 2020 following six years of consultation, and was not earmarked as development land. The Local Plan did not include any references to a new motorway service station within the district – and is supposed to be policy framework until 2035.

Mr Rose’s ruling noted “the local community has endured some 25 years of collective trauma arising from MSA repeated applications at Kirby Hill and concerns about the loss of community identity in an open rural landscape” but said “significant weight” had to be given to the need for a new MSA while the proposals do accord with the Local Plan’s policy for protecting the landscape character of the district. The inspector’s ruling noted the site is not within nine ‘Special Landscape Areas’ identified for their high value in the Local Plan and deemed the plans put forward by Applegreen were “sympathetic” to the local area.

He added: “Kirby Hill RAMS drew on the empowerment afforded by the Localism Act 2011 in shaping and influencing development in their local area. Although the opportunity to produce a neighbourhood plan has not been fulfilled, the local community has spoken ‘as one’ in opposing the proposed development.

“Nevertheless, opposition by itself, however strong, does not determine the outcome of an application unless it is based on sound planning grounds. My analysis of the main issues, and other matters raised, demonstrates that a number of the concerns raised locally are not borne out following consideration of all of the evidence before me.”

Mr Owens says the community disagrees that the new application is more acceptable than previous iterations.

“Basically it is the same size as the previous site - in terms of overall encroachment it is still 19 hectares. Although it doesn’t have services on both sides of the network, because it doesn’t it includes a new motorway junction. That on its own has a landscape impact that wasn’t there before. They have to move the track road across into some fields closer to the village. Our view is that it is no less harmful. The site is almost as big as the village and about 500m away.

“The problem Applegreen are going to have is most northbound traffic will have an opportunity to stop at Wetherby. It is going to be a very expensive MSA to build and the question is are they going to get the traffic in to make it commercially viable?"

But in addition to these local factors, Mr Owens says wider changes in the national planning system have also conspired against communities like Kirby Hill when it comes to opposing contentious developments on their doorsteps.

He says the first factor is the impact of changes to planning appeal inquiries following a review by Baroness Rosewell which aimed to slash the amount of time to make decisions in such cases from an average of 47 weeks to around 26 weeks.

The Government said the intention of the reforms was to cut costs for all parties and reduce uncertainty for communities but Mr Owens says one consequence has been stacking the odds in favour of developers over communities.

“We always felt the system was stacked against us but planning is becoming a professional circus. Those representing the developers are paid and work full-time on it. We are not and do it in our spare time.

“The Rosewell review has cut the timeline right down so we have far fewer evenings and weekends to prepare and research.”

He says another big factor is the impact of Covid resulting in such planning inquiries being held virtually rather than in the communities where contentious applications are based.

“There is now no need to come and face objectors. We all know that when you are in a room there is social accountability which is part of human interaction. Sometimes on a screen you don’t have that same accountability. Inquiries are about public scrutiny of the evidence.”

While the community have the option of a challenging the inspector’s decision in the High Court – an option which RAMS is exploring – doing so carries the risk of facing huge legal costs if they lost.

Mr Owens, now a retired IT manager, moved to the village in 2001 just ahead of the second public inquiry and has played a key role in opposition to the plans in the 20 years since.

“It has been coming round every five or six years for the last 20 years. It has been a strategy on their part of trying to wear us down.

“This matters to us – it is about our community and our identity and its future. For the professionals, it is just a game for which they get very well paid. We have to get lucky every time and they just have to once. It is a perfect storm. Rosewell introduced time targets and then Covid came along and they had to run virtual inquiries.”

The fight is not over yet given this decision only covers outline planning permission, while residents hope rival MSA developer Moto may submit a High Court appeal of their own against the decision.

But Mr Owens admits the inspector’s decision has been tough to take.

“This is the fourth inquiry we have been through. It is feeling very raw at the moment.”

Inspectors 'remain focused on fair and impartial decisions'

The Planning Inspectorate says neither the Rosewell Review changes or the introduction of virtual hearing have affected its focus on delivering fair decisions.

“Inspectors place great importance on making fair and impartial decisions, including providing the opportunity for anyone interested to give their views and submit evidence," a spokesperson said.

"The Rosewell Review recommendations recognise the importance of local communities in inquiries and include steps to increase certainty over timings, improve understanding of the process and help ensure communities can engage early and fully if they wish.

“Virtual events have enabled us to keep case work moving in line with Government guidance and ensuring the safety of our Inspectors and all parties involved in the appeal process. They have provided greater opportunities for people to be involved in the appeal process via the internet or telephone. Inspectors will always ensure that all parties have equal opportunity to submit evidence and participate in proceedings fairly.”

The spokesperson said it is possible in-person hearings may be able to restart later this year depending on Covid restrictions.

“We can’t be sure at this moment what the situation will be after social contact restrictions are lifted or what measures might still need to be in place to keep people safe. We’ll consider re-starting in-person hearings and inquiries when we are confident attendees will be safe and the meetings can happen reliably. This will not be immediately following June 21 due to the lead time needed to arrange these events. There may be some in-person events arranged later this year.”

Applegreen did not respond to request for comment.

Moto said no decision has yet been made on whether there will be a legal challenge to the decision.

"We are bitterly disappointed that our appeal over plans to build a new motorway service area at Junction 50 of the A1M, near Ripon, has been rejected by the planning inquiry inspector," a spokesperson said.

"The proposed site would have had a significant positive impact on the local economy, representing an investment of £30 million and bringing with it 200

permanent jobs as well as opportunities to boost local businesses and tourism."

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