Road safety and the environment: key questions facing councillors over Smithy Wood plans
When a decision on plans for a service station at junction 35 of the M1 is finally made, it is likely to rest on two factors.
Sheffield councillors must first consider whether the land on which Extra Motorway Service Area Group wants to build is the only suitable site within a 28-mile stretch of motorway, therefore meeting Government safety guidelines.
Extra says junction 35 is the only option for what would be known as Sheffield Services.
But earlier this month rival service station firm Applegreen unveiled its own vision for a smaller site at junction 33, throwing Extra’s argument into question.
Should councillors side with Extra’s view that Applegreen’s proposed site at Catcliffe is unsuitable, they will then have to decide whether the need for a service station is such that it justifies building on an area of ancient woodland known as Smithy Wood.
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’, and are considered important for their wildlife, soils, recreation, cultural value, history and contribution to landscapes.
Councils are told they should ‘refuse planning permission for developments that would lead to loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss’,
Extra’s argument is that a need to meet the national safety guidelines - which recommend a service area every 28 miles or 30 minutes, whichever is lesser - outweigh the potential loss of part of Smithy Wood.
The firm says the service station would still leave 62 per cent of the ancient woodland in that area untouched - in addition to parts of Smithy Wood which lie to the east of the M1 and to the north of Cowley Hill Road.
Furthermore, says Extra, some of the development is not ancient woodland, having previously been affected by the nearby Smithy Wood Colliery. Evidence of bell pits, a spoil heap and an overhead ropeway system can be seen to the south of the site.
Extra says it will mitigate the loss of any ancient woodland by creating and maintaining Chapeltown Community Woodlands, a publicly-accessible natural space that could reach 600 acres.
But many campaigners say the loss of any ancient woodland is unacceptable.
A decision on Extra’s plan was due to be made on Tuesday, but was put back shortly after Applegreen announced its plan.
A 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.”
Neither Extra nor Applegreen will comment on each other’s plans.
But Nick Tovey, a consultant from Wardell Armstrong who has carried out much of the technical work on junction 35, said his team advised Extra to retain ‘as much of the higher quality woodland as possible’.
He added: “I know some people are against the proposals. I respect their opinion.
“I was encouraged when Extra took real steps to minimise the impact of Sheffield Services.
“I have also been impressed by their legal commitment that ensures Sheffield Services will provide funding for nearly 100 years to help create, improve and maintain the Chapeltown Community Woodlands, as it will initially be a minimum of some 200 acres and potentially up to 600 acres.
“This is a real opportunity for the northern area of Sheffield to play its part in The Outdoor City agenda and give the local community a well managed and effective woodland area to enjoy for many years ahead. The funding will help to secure and protect the woodlands for future generations.”
Mr Tovey also highlighted the antisocial behaviour, littering and fly-tipping that blights part of the development site.
Although the land is private, there is nothing to stop access. A visit shows huge ruts caused by off-road vehicles, tyres and debris strewn all over and evidence of fly-tipping and littering from drivers passing on the M1.
This is something local residents have tried to tackle. In September, Sheffield Environmental and the Woodland Trust ran a litter pick. The gathering has carried on monthly since then, with another set for 10am on Sunday.
Volunteers found everything from crisp packets and sweet wrappers to a burned out Vauxhall Frontera and even a cash register.
Dave Dickinson, who helped organise the pick, said the aim was to show the wood was still well-loved and could be maintained by the community - without Extra’s help.
“As a regular attendee of Sheffield Green Spaces Forum meetings I know that our city has more ‘Friends of’ groups helping the local authorities to manage our parkland than most other parts of the UK,” he said.
“So I knew that with a little effort and publicity I’d be able to get a group of people together who wouldn’t just tell Sheffield Council, MSA Extra and (landowner) St Paul’s Developments that we wanted to save Smithy Wood.
“We’d show them that we are capable of doing the work on public land, so that when the opportunity arises for us to officially be able to help manage Smithy Wood, we’ll be available to move in.”
Mr Dickinson said the area was well-used, even though it was private land, and accused the landowner of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the litter.
He said the ruts caused by 4x4s would soon ‘bounce back’ with vegetation if vehicle access was blocked. And he urged the council to provide somewhere for ‘scramble bikers’ to go so they didn’t have to use private land.
“They care for the woodland and want to save it too,” said Mr Dickinson.
“In order to limit the damage that they cause to the soil and vegetation and keep out of peoples’ way, they stick to unmarked trails that they recognise.
“All they want is to be able to access some land, where they won’t come into conflict with other people to pursue their hobby.
“If Sheffield is truly The Outdoor City, we should be able to find somewhere for them.”
Mr Dickinson said the industrial heritage of Smithy Wood added to its value, and the various habitats in the area meant it was a ‘nationally important wildlife habitat’.
And he shares the view of many campaigners, including the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, that there is no good reason for building on ancient woodland.
“I can’t possibly see any positive in destroying any part of it in the name of making it more accessible,” he said.