Ancient woodlands under threat

Sites in South Yorkshire and Kent set for development.

Bluebell Wood: housing development plans progress despite opposition petition signed thousands of local people - image: Matthew Hillier
Bluebell Wood: housing development plans progress despite opposition petition signed thousands of local people - image: Matthew Hillier

Moves to build on ancient woodland sites in South Yorkshire and Kent both took steps forward within the past month.

Campaigners lost their bid to have the 12th century Smithy Wood by the M1 motorway near Sheffield, threatened with a service station development, designated a "protected village green". The local Cowley Residents Action Group (CRAG) had applied to Sheffield City Council for the designation, but a meeting of the local authority's sublicensing committee on 26 October rejected the bid on the recommendation of barrister and planning inspector Richard Ground, who concluded that the public's use of the woods, owned by local developer St Paul's, was "trivial".

In his report, Ground said there was "insufficient use to indicate the land was in general use by the local community for informal recreation rather than occasional use by individuals as trespassers"

- a conclusion disputed by CRAG. Chair Jean Howe said: "The only thing we can do is take it to a judicial review. It will cost tens of thousands of pounds and we don't have that sort of money."

Extra Motorway Services chief executive Andrew Long said the proposed service area would "stop people getting killed", claiming: "There is a clear road safety-related need for a service station in this area."

But CRAG has also disputed this, pointing out that there are just 27.5 miles between the Woolley Edge service area on the M1 to the north of the proposed site and the Woodall service area to the south - within the 28-mile maximum distance stipulated by the Department of Transport.

The Woodland Trust has campaigned to have the wood protected, along with more than 500 other ancient woodland sites that it says are currently under threat from development. Lead campaigner Oliver Newham said the Smithy Wood decision was "disappointing", but added: "This isn't the end of the road for Smithy - the consultation period for planning permission has been extended and we expect Sheffield's planning committee to make a decision in January 2016."

Describing the wood as "a rare, centuries-old, irreplaceable habitat and a place of recreation for local people", he said: "To allow a motorway service station to be built on top of it is incomprehensible. Regardless of what mitigation measures the developer is suggesting, the planning committee must do the right thing and insist that an alternative location is found."

More than 60 of the threatened ancient woodland sites identified by the trust lie in Kent, giving it the highest concentration of such sites in the UK. Last month communities secretary Greg Clark MP approved a 500-home development by Croudace Strategic on a site, including the ancient Bluebell Wood, straddling the boundary between Maidstone Borough Council and Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, both of which had earlier rejected the plans.

Clark's decision letter agreed that the majority of the area was correctly designated as ancient woodland and that the site has "medium to high" ecological value. But he also agreed with the inspector that the anticipated absolute loss of 0.03ha of ancient woodland would be "acceptable" and that "the need for,and benefits of the development in this location clearly outweigh the loss".

Maidstone Liberal Democrat councillor James Willis said his group is "extremely concerned" by the decision. "This has trampled over the thousands of local people who signed a petition and campaigned for Bluebell Wood to preserve it for the future generations," he added.

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