A reflection by Dr Nicky Rivers MCIEEM, Living Landscape Development Manager.
Sandra Fretwell-Smith from Owlthorpe Fields Action Group (OAG) first contacted the Trust in March 2019. She was concerned that the greenspace by their housing estate, known locally as Owlthorpe Fields were up for sale for development. The fields used to be arable fields but were bought by Sheffield City Council in the 1970’s for housing and allocated as such in the Sheffield Unitary Development Plan in 1998. The fields were split into 5 sites A-E and housing was built in sites A&B in 1999. Sites C,D and E had been left and had effectively rewilded over a 20-year period and were now a mixture of grassland, scrub and trees. There had been a ‘Planning Design Brief’ for the remaining sites a few years previous and now SCC were looking for housing developers to buy the sites.
Sandra sent me a report on the wildlife that she and her daughter Lydia had written, based on the observations they had made over the previous year or two. Sandra had submitted it to Sheffield City Council (SCC) and the Council’s response to Sandra was that the report had no ecological value as it had not been written by a professional ecologist and did not refer to legislation or protected/priority species and habitats.
Sandra said: “I would be grateful for any advice you have to offer in terms of ensuring the diverse wildlife in the three areas does not suffer adversely. Currently, the outlook is bleak as the area will be decimated and the habitat and territories will be drastically reduced. Please take a look at my report if you have the time as it gives a good overview of the area and you will see how much would be lost with the development.”
I read the report, which was moving actually and looked into the case. I had actually seen the Planning Design Brief but Sandra and Lydia’s report brought the site to life. I visited the site and met Sandra and some other members of OAG. At the time, I advised them that as the sites were allocated for housing and were not designated as wildlife sites, it would be difficult to save them from development. However, OAG were determined to do their best to try. I therefore put them in touch with my colleagues to help direct them on how to best continue to collect and log the species on the site through the SRWT More Data for Nature Project and the Nature Counts database. This feeds into the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas which is shared by ecologists across the country and used to inform national policy decisions about nature and the environment.
Site E was sold to Avant Homes who submitted a planning application and I submitted three objections on behalf of SRWT and supported OAG with their objections. This involved having an understanding of the planning system and how to influence it. This was alongside OAG’s incredible campaigning efforts to galvanise support from their local community and decision makers. At one point I was invited at the last minute to attend a meeting with OAG, our friends at CPRE South Yorkshire and “the council” and which turned out to be with very senior officers, cabinet members and the local MP Clive Betts! OAG really appreciated my professional support backing up their passion with facts and knowledge.
When the planning case finally reached committee, I was gutted not to be able to speak as I was on furlough, but fortunately our CEO Liz Ballard was able to step in and make our case, based on the three submissions I wrote. OAG spoke as well of course, as did CPRE and Avant Homes also made their case. SCC’s Planning Committee actually refused the application which we were delighted about. However, this was short lived as Avant then took it to the Planning Inspectorate to appeal the decision.
This is when the really hard work began. Neither SRWT nor OAG had been involved in a Planning Inquiry before, so it was a very steep learning curve, although we had fantastic support from CPRE SY. The case was primarily between Avant Homes and SCC, but because ecology was not an explicit reason for refusal, OAG decided to register as a ‘Rule6 party’ to have a proper ‘seat at the table’ which meant they could have a Planning Advocate, a Barrister, and an Ecology Expert Witness. OAG got very busy crowdfunding for legal fees and asking local people and politicians to submit statements and speak at the Inquiry. They were also still collecting vital biological data including evidence to register ancient trees. I was ringing round to try and find OAG an available and affordable Expert Ecology Witness.
Meanwhile, as I sit on the Sheffield Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) Panel and have an understanding of LWS designation, Liz Ballard and I decided it would be a good idea to assess sites C, D and E against the Sheffield LWS criteria as the site was clearly full of wildlife and was being undervalued by a snapshot ecology survey undertaken for Avant Homes. I commissioned Senior Ecologist Julie Riley from the SRWT Consultancy Wildscapes to undertake the assessment using her own survey (commissioned by OAG) plus all available data – including that collected by OAG. SRWT decided it was worth investing our time and money in this assessment.
I was unable to find an Ecology Expert who had experience of speaking at Planning Inquiries and in the end we came to the conclusion that Claire Baker (Chair of OAG) had suggested in the first place – that I should do it! I had been involved in the case for two years by now and am a full member of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Ecological Managers (CIEEM) which added weight to my ‘credibility’. OAG’s fundraising contributed towards some of the time I spent on the case.
I had a crash course in the Inquiry process and my role by Andrew Wood, OAG’s Planning Advocate, who ended up also taking on a bigger role as OAG’s Barrister had to withdraw due to catching Covid! With Andrew’s help I prepared a ‘Statement of Case’ and then a ‘Proof of Evidence’, including bringing in the fact that the LWS assessment revealed that sites C,D&E did meet the criteria for designation. The Proof of Evidence was it is says – evidence – and really brought home the importance of data and evidence, backed up by expert opinion. For example we asked Julie Riley to verify OAG’s botanical biological records.
The Inquiry itself was challenging. I had never even watched one before. It was online and was during the Covid-19 lockdown of January 2021 – my children were off school and my husband had just started a new job. Not an ideal time to spend an additional 115 hours of work on a case! It was a huge amount of work, working evenings and weekend, especially during the Inquiry itself when we had to respond immediately or as soon as possible to Avant’s barrister. There were multiple forms of communication going on simultaneously – email, WhatsApp, phone calls etc between our small team – Avant clearly had a bigger support team! OAG members did loads of work and were brilliant.
In the end, unfortunately, the Planning Inspector sided with Avant Homes and the planning application was granted, although as a result of the appeal there had been several ‘improvements’ to the proposals. We ‘won’ some concessions, including moving the development boundary further away from the adjacent ancient woodland (and reducing the number of housing units in the meantime) and increasing the amount of biodiversity net gain compensation funds offered to SCC.
I had submitted the LWS evidence to the Sheffield LWS Panel for consideration before the Inquiry, but they had not met due to Covid-19. After the Inquiry I took all the site E evidence out of the evidence, added new evidence collected by OAG and resubmitted it to the panel.
After months of myself and Liz Ballard badgering SCC to organise a LWS Panel meeting, they finally did and in August 2022, the panel supported the designation of Sites C&D of Owlthorpe Fields as Local Wildlife Sites. This is fantastic news! Local Wildlife Sites are protected by planning policies so we are waiting to see what policies will protect LWS from development in the new Sheffield Local Plan. We will of course be advocating for no development on LWS. I am quietly confident SCC will do the right thing and Sites C&D will remain as rewilded sites – now Local Wildlife Sites and part of a nature recovery network in South East Sheffield. We will keep you posted.
So what did SRWT bring? Knowledge of the planning system; knowledge of site designation, ecological knowledge, knowledge about recording and monitoring, credibility as ecology professionals (‘experts’) and support for OAG.
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