The prospect of a £40 million motorway service station being built on 16 acres of ancient woodland in Sheffield is edging closer.
Campaigners had lodged an application to have Smithy Wood, at Chapeltown, registered as a village green after it was earmarked as the site for the huge services, at junction 35 of the M1.
The bid was the subject of a public inquiry which heard evidence earlier this year.
But now the inspector for the inquiry has recommended that the application should be refused at a Sheffield Council licensing meeting next week, on the basis the wood does not meet the necessary criteria.
The inspector’s recommendation will come as a blow to protesters, who had hoped the proposed M1 stop would be put in jeopardy if Smithy Wood – believed to date from the 12th century – was declared a green.
However, the scheme still has to clear the hurdle of planning permission. A decision by councillors was recently delayed until next year while applicant Extra Motorway Services consulted on a series of further ‘mitigation measures’.
To become a village green, it will need to be proved that a significant number of local people have been able to use the land without permission for at least 20 years.
In his report to the meeting on Tuesday, the inspector, London barrister Richard Ground, said the use of the wood was ‘trivial’, ‘sporadic’ and ‘not by a significant number’ of people.
“There was insufficient use to indicate that the land was in general use by the local community for informal recreation rather than occasional use by individuals as trespassers,” he said. “The number of people who have evidence of using the land directly is small.”
Mr Ground said the view that village green status could save the wood from development may - ‘whether consciously or subconsciously’ - have led to ‘some overstatement of the frequency and consistency of visits’.
“I recommend that the registration authority refuse this application for a village green.”
The development is being viewed as a test case for the principal of ‘biodiversity offsetting’ - where a developer promises to plant trees elsewhere as compensation for the loss of greenery and wildlife habitats.
Extra is offering to merge four woods - Smith, Parkin, Hesley and Thorncliffe - and manage them as a 600-acre community woodland over 50 years.
Earlier this month the company’s boss, Andrew Long, said the benefits of the scheme, set to feature an 80-bedroom hotel, food court and filling station, outweighed the loss of ‘low-quality’ ancient woods, and that the services were required under rules governing the distance between motorway stops.