Cowley Residents Action Group (CRAG) acted under the right of commons to achieve village green status for Smithy Wood after the deterioration of the wood by the unlawful access of 4x4s over the last three years and the increasing numbers partaking in this unlawful activity.
CRAG and local councillors had approached the land owner, (St Pauls), about this activity in an attempt to have some cooperative action to limit and stop this access to the wood and the damage it was producing.
A meeting was arranged but St Pauls chose not to attend and consequently without the land owner’s involvement little could be done to protect the woodland.
It therefore became necessary to find alternative mechanisms to try and protect this irreplaceable ancient woodland and so an application for Village Green status was made in November 2013, and not as Neil Tovey asserts in his letter, “out of concerns over the loss of some woodland by the proposed MSA development”.
The application proceeded with the local authority and a date for a determination hearing before the council’s Licensing Committee was set and both parties attended.
At the hearing the land owner had instructed a barrister to act on their behalf and his opening statement was that the local authority must move the process to a full inquiry rather than allow the authority to make the decision.
The public inquiry was held and a number of points were accepted by the inspector including that the woodland has been in community usage, it is of local importance and that certain incidents of underground fires, and restricted access during reclamation work were not as significant in reducing access to the woodland as to make it impossible to use and enjoy the woodland.
The only point that was not agreed by the inspector was on a “significant number” of users, however, this is not a finite proportion or percentage and is left to the opinion of the inspector in each case.
Mr Tovey also seeks to suggest that the experience was “distressing for those involved”.
I can only assume that he is speaking for the land owner and their witnesses.
Those involved from the applicant’s side found the experience to be rewarding and valuable as they were empowered to put their views and values forward to the inquiry and I would maintain that most, if not all, would willingly repeat their actions in support of this local woodland.
Mr Tovey continues to paint a picture of a woodland of little or no value that is beyond recovery and that development of the site is the only way forward as this will secure investment in other woodland areas by Extra once the MSA is operational.
He fails to mention that approximately one third of this woodland is already being managed and improved by other local groups without the support of Extra Group, a second third is actual controlled by RecyCoal and The Scouts with the larger area owned by RecyCoal whose reclamation scheme, given planning approval in 2013, has now been put on hold indefinitely and so the promised country park is not likely to ever happen.
The last third is owned by St Pauls and will be purchased by Extra should the planning application be successful.
He finally talks about significant other benefits to the area which may or may not come from the development of the motorway services.
I would challenge these benefits, as most are theoretical determinations of benefits and do not take into account the strategic benefits the area has by retaining the green environment and ancient woodland and not developing more traffic-related infrastructure.
All Smithy Wood needs is the land owner to work with the local community and other groups to manage the woodland and return it to its natural state.
I do believe that this irreplaceable habitat is of little or no importance to the developers as they reduce everything to entries on a balance sheet with a monetary value that can be accounted for . So long as income is greater than the expenditure shareholders will be happy. In the case of Extra this will be the management company Evergreen and its shareholders.
Deputy Chair CRAG