Five-year Sheffield M1 services saga goes on as woodland charity and developer argue over rules

Controversy over a plan to build a motorway service station on ancient woodland in Sheffield has been reignited – as the wait for a verdict on the scheme reaches four-and-a-half years.

The Woodland Trust has restated its opposition to the prospect of a £46 million services at Smithy Wood, near Chapeltown off junction 35 of the M1, saying changes to national rules mean it should be rejected.

How the service station planned by Extra at Smithy Wood could look.

How the service station planned by Extra at Smithy Wood could look.

But the company behind the application – Extra Motorway Service Area Group – has argued the charity is ‘incorrect’, claiming it is ‘highly unlikely’ a rival plan around 10 miles away for a rest stop at Brinsworth in Rotherham, near junction 33, will be given the go-ahead.

Extra applied in March 2014 to build at Smithy Wood. It says having a facility there would fulfil Highways Agency guidance to have a stop every 28 miles or 30 minutes. Another firm, Applegreen, is behind the bid to open at Brinsworth.

A decision on whether to grant planning permission has yet to be reached on either proposal, and it is understood Sheffield Council is waiting for its neighbour’s initial position before proceeding. The city’s planning department has just extended the time limit for a verdict until December 31.

Oliver Newham, the trust’s lead campaigner for ancient woodland, said recent changes to the national planning policy framework – a set of guidelines for local authorities – meant protection for veteran trees and very old woods had been strengthened. He quoted a passage from the framework that said developments should be refused unless there were ‘wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy’.

“The proposed development clearly does not fit the wholly exceptional criteria outlined by government,” said Mr Newham in a letter to Sheffield planners. “There are, for instance, alternative locations that this proposal could be sited that do not involve the destruction of an irreplaceable habitat. As such, this development should be refused on the grounds it does not comply with national planning policy. 

“We urge Sheffield City Council to bring an end to this long-running planning application that has seen many thousands of local residents express their opposition to this scheme.”

But Chris May, executive director of Pegasus Group which is acting for Extra, said there was a ‘significant safety and welfare need’ for a service station on the M1 in Sheffield.

“The protection of human ‘life and limb’ is a clear public benefit which will accrue from development and as such ‘wholly exceptional reasons’ exist,” he said, adding the trust made ‘no reference’ to a ‘substantial, proactive, favourable and securely funded compensation package’, which includes new planting across 16 hectares. It also promises the ‘favourable management’ of over 48 hectares of ancient woods, rising to 72 hectares if all woodland is taken into account. “This area could however rise further to 237 hectares.”

Mr May said: “There is no proven alternative location on the relevant stretch of the M1. While a planning application is indeed under consideration at junction 33, this confirms only the existence of a significant safety and welfare need and not the existence of a viable and deliverable alternative site. Extra consider it highly unlikely that planning consent will be granted on that site due to its inherent constraints.”

He concluded: “The Woodland Trust argue planning permission should be refused on the grounds of non-compliance with national policy. This is incorrect. There are in fact no new reasons for permission to be refused.”

Andrew Long, Extra’s boss, previously said the benefits outweighed the loss of ‘low quality’ ancient woods.

More than 800 objections to the Smithy Wood scheme have been made on the council’s website, with just 15 expressions of support, and petitions have attracted hundreds of signatures. Ancient woodland is defined by the Government as any area that has been wooded continuously since at least the year 1600.