Feature: New twist in four-year battle for Smithy Wood

Campaigners fear a plan to build a service station in ancient woods may open the door to similar developments. But their four-year battle has just taken a new twist. Chris Burn reports.

27 March 2017....Liz Ballard, CEO of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, is urging people to back a campaign to stop an ancient woodland off Junc 35 of the M1 being turned into a service area. Picture Scott Merrylees

“If we fail, we fail the country. It just feels like the gates will open. It does feel so important to us.” Wildlife campaigners and developers are locked in a battle over the future of an ancient Yorkshire woodland which objectors fear could open the floodgates to similar sites being bulldozed.

Liz Ballard, chief executive of the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, says she believes a decision on building a motorway service station at Smithy Wood on the outskirts of Sheffield could make other ancient woodland sites more open to potential development.

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“If it goes ahead, it suggests even if you have a site which is a local wildlife site and an ancient woodland which is nationally recognised and protected, if a landowner comes to an agreement with a developer than that is acceptable. It is quite clear in all the national guidance you can’t compensate for the loss of any ancient woodland. We are concerned that if this case does go through, it says you can somehow replace and recreate ancient woodland. It would be a dangerous precedent for other ancient woodland sites.”

27 March 2017....Liz Ballard, CEO of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, is urging people to back a campaign to stop an ancient woodland off Junc 35 of the M1 being turned into a service area. Picture Scott Merrylees

Thousands of people have protested against the plans for Smithy Wood, off Junction 35 of the M1, in a four-year battle with developers. But now they have fresh hope after rival plans for a different service station on the M1 at Junction 33 were put forward and a planning hearing on the Smithy Wood proposals, which had been due to take place this week, was postponed.

The new proposal will now be reviewed before a decision is made on Smithy Wood. To date, Sheffield Council have received 7,114 objections to the Smithy Wood plans, with just 16 letters of support.

The Government says any area that has been wooded continuously since at least the year 1600 qualifies as ancient woodland. National guidance to planning authorities says such areas are ‘irreplaceable’.

Councils are told they should refuse planning permission for developments that would lead to loss of such habitats “unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.

An artist's impression of MSA Extra's plan for junction 35 of the M1.

But officials from the Extra Motorway Service Area (MSA) Group say their plans for a £46m service station using 16 acres of the wood - approximately eight hectares of which is classified as ancient woodland - would generate £1m in annual business rates for Sheffield Council, while 60,000 trees would be planted to outweigh the loss of “low quality” ancient woods.

The company argues there is a “clear need” for such a development, given the drivers coming to the M1 from the M18 in South Yorkshire travel 42 miles between service stations. Highways Agency guidance say there should be motorway stops at least every 28 miles.

Extra says this proves a ‘special need’ for its development, outweighing the rules protecting ancient woodland. The company argues there are three routes that exceed the 28-mile guidance - the M1 Woodall to M1 Woolley Edge Services; A1M Blyth to M1 Woolley Edge Services and M18 Doncaster North to M1 Woolley Edge Services - and Smithy Wood is the only location which can deal with them all.

The proposals were first formally submitted in March 2014 after a pre-application process beginning the previous summer. Sheffield Council was originally due to make a decision in October 2014 but after thousands of objections and a number of revisions to the proposals, a decision has been repeatedly delayed.

Andrew Long, Chief Executive of Extre MSA who want to build a motorway service area at Jcn 35 on the M1 at Smithy Wood Picture Dean Atkins

However, the scheme has attracted support from major companies including Nabarro, Henry Boot and Ronseal, as well as Sheffield University and local chambers of commerce.

In 2015, locals sought to have the land classified as a village green in an attempt to stop the development. But an inspector ruled use of the wood was ‘sporadic’ and ‘not by a significant number’ of people.

If approved, the service station would not be the first development in Smithy Wood, which dates back to medieval times. A railway, a colliery, a coking plant and the M1 motorway have all resulted in the loss of woodland.

But campaigners say this history makes it all the more important to save what remains. Landscape historian Melvyn Jones, a visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam University, says: “The surviving fragment of Smithy Wood was part of a 160-acre coppice wood for many centuries. Such woods have the greatest heritage value.

27 March 2017....Liz Ballard, CEO of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, is urging people to back a campaign to stop an ancient woodland off Junc 35 of the M1 being turned into a service area. Picture Scott Merrylees

“It is the inherited characteristics of ancient coppice woods – their sites, their locations, their shapes, their variety of plant life and the animals that inhabit them, their archaeology and their often long-documented history – that make them so special.

“They take us back to the roots of our history. The fragment of the wood that has survived in the face of merciless abuse over the last century and a half is irreplaceable.”

Fresh impetus has been given to the campaign after rival firm Applegreen announced it hopes to build a separate service station 10 miles to the south of Smithy Wood. Ms Ballard says: “Extra have always said there is nowhere else to put this station. A rival company who clearly understands the industry is saying we think this is a viable alternative - that undermines the message that they have looked and searched for every site and Smithy Wood is the only place.

“There is still a question as to whether there is a need at all for any motorway service area on this stretch of the M1. It is one of the safest stretches of road in the region.”

Ms Ballard strongly believes Smithy Wood is worth saving, pointing to a habitat that is home to rare birds and plants, as well as more than 200 species of funghi and lichen.

“It has been covered by trees for hundreds and hundreds of years and you get this very strong eco-system that develops. It is a really wonderful wildlife site. We have just been amazed by the reaction we have had on the whole from the public who have just been so positive and supportive.

An artist's impression of MSA Extra's plan for junction 35 of the M1.

“We firmly believe it is possible to stop this and the Junction 33 alternative does offer us some hope. It clearly undermines the message that Smithy Wood is the only site for a service station - clearly it isn’t necessarily.”

However, the situation is viewed very differently by Andrew Long, chief executive officer of Extra MSA. He says Extra “rigorously scrutinised” all junctions between Junction 33 and 36 but found only the Smithy Wood suitable to “safely accommodate” a new service station. The company considers the loss of ancient woodland as of “serious concern” to the company and claims it has taken “every reasonable measure” to ensure the smallest possible area will be affected.

A green bio-diverse roof which will create a natural habitat for plants and wildlife is part of the proposed design. Extra intends to create a site called Chapeltown Community Woodlands, spending £200,000 per year on improving and maintaining surrounding woodland.

Mr Long says: “This investment will protect and make available for public use, local woodland that is currently unused and declining in quality due to lack of funding. The new funding will create and maintain an attractive and safe woodland area that can be used and enjoyed by 100,000s of people in Yorkshire. The proposed improvements include new links, footpaths and a ranger service, creating a safer and more accessible outdoor space.”

He says 400 jobs will be created during construction, with 300 permanent roles following its opening, which is currently pencilled in for summer 2019. Mr Long does not believe approval for Extra’s site would pave the way for similar developments on ancient woodland.

“Any planning application is determined on its merits and does not create any precedent for future development. There are no reasons for anyone to be concerned that granting planning permission at M1 J35 is going to create any precedent or encouragement for other forms of development on land that is not already designated for development. Our proposals do raise the bar in delivering a comprehensive strategic benefits plan that will protect, improve and maintain the local woodland areas for at least 99 years.

“The overall Sheffield Services proposals are in our view an excellent example of how to maximise and legally secure wider opportunities provided through development for the benefit of local communities and the surrounding area.”

Decision delayed as rival plan emerges

A decision on the “major and complex” plans for a service station at Smithy Wood has been delayed due to the emergence of rival proposals.

No date has yet been set for a planning hearing on the proposal after a March 28 meeting was cancelled earlier this month.

A Sheffield Council spokesman said: “We are considering the potential implications of the Junction 33 pre-application and haven’t announced a new date for the Smithy Wood meeting yet.

“This is a major and complex development proposal and all parties must consider it with the utmost of care.

“The applicants made significant amendments to its 2014 proposals and there were two further rounds of public consultation on amended proposals in 2015 and 2016. The recent submission of a pre-application enquiry to Rotherham Council about a possible motorway service area at Junction 33 of the M1 has to be given proper consideration by Sheffield City Council when making a decision about Junction 35.”

Andrew Long, Chief Executive of Extre MSA who want to build a motorway service area at Jcn 35 on the M1 at Smithy Wood Picture Dean Atkins