Working with nature: Sheffield campaign calls for protection of upstream environments
Michael Meredith describes the thought process behind the ‘Ecological Owlthorpe’ project, which starts from the position only by co-operating with nature that we can safely live with nature.
Climate change studies, and indeed the experience of people around the world, suggest that extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and flooding are increasing in frequency, making the question of how best to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of these on people’s lives an urgent one. Many attempts to provide solutions have taken the approach of fighting against nature but this can end up making matters worse. The ‘Ecological Owlthorpe’ project described here takes its place at a different starting point: that it is only by co-operating with nature that we can safely live with nature.
Birley Woods golf course stands approximately 650ft above sea level. Sixty years ago, before the golf course was created, this was an area of mostly farmland and woodland, where children used to play and catch newts in the headwaters of the Ochre Dyke, a stream then lined by flourishing trees. The stream passes through Birley Moor at an elevated position of around 650 feet above sea level. As a result of heavy rain towards the end of 2019, and the deforestation that had taken place to make way for the golf course and the Owlthorpe housing estates, the otherwise harmless stream was turned into a downward-rushing torrent. This caused downstream rivers to flood, overwhelming Beighton and Fishlake.
Birley Woods golf course Image: Michael Meredith
On television, we watched the desperate plight of the Fishlake victims as the emergency services worked to evacuate them. And, as we have seen so often in recent years, when survivors are able to return to their homes after a flood, what they are met with is a scene of complete devastation. Many find it hard to claim compensation, and insurance premiums rise relentlessly, as insurance companies are overwhelmed with claims.
Ironically, it was a previously constructed flood defence in Sheffield that contributed to the problem. Sheffield is a city with a history of damage to property and also loss of life caused by flooding, for example in 2007, when the River Don flooded the Don Valley area of the city, and a 14-year-old boy was swept away in the River Sheaf. To prevent further disasters, a concrete barrier was erected which did save the east of Sheffield from the 2019 winter floods, but instead caused floodwater to be channeled downstream towards Fishlake.
Ecological Owlthorpe: an environmental approach
In contrast to solutions of this kind, Ecological Owlthorpe promotes the preservation and conservation of upstream environments, an approach which is finding some favour in government circles. In an interview with Sophie Ridge in February 2020, George Eustace explained that the government’s approach to UK flood prevention would consist of an extra £4bn spending on flood defences but also in Yorkshire the creation and support of upstream nature-based solutions. In addition, as reported in a government press release on 23 January 2020, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and Natural England have jointly committed to “nature-based solutions to tackle the climate emergency”, to which Ecological Owlthorpe has the potential to make an excellent contribution.
The ‘rural oasis’, as it has been termed, of Owlthorpe, which sits between Mosborough and Hackenthorpe, includes the award-winning Owlthorpe Heritage and Nature Trail, the Moorhole Lane Trail and other environmental and educational improvements which spread from Moor Valley down to Moss Way. Constructed with the help of some 795 local schoolchildren, the oasis was opened on 16 March 2012 by local MP Clive Betts. This is the area we wish to preserve as an upstream nature-based solution to protect the environment.
The interpretation boards on our website show details of the extent of the work carried out under the management of Natural England under their higher level stewardship scheme, for example the creation of a wild orchard.
Detailed invertebrate surveys carried out show the diversity of species living in Owlthorpe, and the natural ecology of the area. Some of the identified invertebrate species are dependent on the rare vegetation growing on Owlthorpe Fields in Ecological Owlthorpe. These in turn are vital to the continued support of the area’s birds, and thus perpetuate the habitat naturally found in the area. During this past summer, it has been a pleasure to watch swifts darting after insects and buzzards hovering as they hunted for prey. The year 2020 has particularly highlighted the crucial need for green spaces such as this to be protected, for our own health and wellbeing and that of future generations.
A further improvement to Ecological Owlthorpe’s capacity to control downstream flooding would be the planting of more trees. It is very much to be hoped that Sheffield local planning authority (LPA) will tap into the national tree strategy and that this will lead to the planting of trees upstream on all of Sheffield’s rivers.
Competing demands on Owlthorpe
Worryingly, Sheffield LPA has made further land in the area available to developers, in seeming contradiction to the statement by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick’s Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government that, “Valued green spaces are to be protected for future generations, with more building on brownfield land”.
Mapping of the proposed construction plans onto our interpretation boards shows their potential impact. Plans for 72 homes at Ochre Dyke (described as Plot E) show two road spurs: one pointing towards Moorthorpe Way and the other towards Moor Valley (Plot F). The main problem to building on (Plot F) has been access. If Moorthorpe Way is opened up, this leads to the potential for developing (Plot F) and, as a result, the complete destruction of our oasis. Hundreds of objections have been lodged by local residents and other interested organisations, and the developers have been refused planning permission on a number of occasions. However, they have now taken their appeal to Robert Jenrick. The inquiry is to be held 12 January 2021.
While many came to the conclusion that the oasis should remain intact, as requested, they produced alternative plans to control the environmental impact, in case permission for the proposed development was granted. One suggestion was that the maximum number of properties on plot E should be not be 72, but 36.
As an alternative to this scheme, and if government pronouncements about preference being given to brownfield sites are serious, housing developments could be built on the disused aerodrome at Norton, which is brownfield land by definition and boasts many derelict buildings in need of redevelopment.
A further consideration is the need for new, environmentally friendly technology to be integrated into any plans. These should, for example, ensure that houses have south-facing aspects to capture the benefits of solar technology, with storage batteries capable of taking advantage of new government legislation that says properties with excess electricity can sell back to the national grid. High-speed charging points must be planned for, for electric cars and bicycles, with perhaps a car scrappage deal for residents moving into new housing and even possibly a ban on combustion engines from new housing estates.
As we say on our website, public opinion is a very strong tool. It is by working together that we can change hearts and minds and curb the over-development of vital green spaces, especially when mature and valuable trees are threatened with the axe. Numbers are important: politicians take notice when they feel a sufficient threat to their re-election.
We all want to live in an environmentally friendly world free from pollution, floods, disease, famine and war. Politicians from all political parties claim to want the same and have signed up to ecological and climate emergency policies. For the sake of Ecological Owlthorpe and all other such fundamentally important environmental initiatives, let’s see if we can hold them to it.
by Michael Meredith.
My involvement with Owlthorpe spreads back about sixty-five years. As a child my cousins and I regularly visited Birley woods, we used to climb trees and visit the header waters of the Ochre Dyke where we found frogs, frog spurn, tadpoles and newts. My aunty gave strict instructions that we were not to visit Birley wood pits down Dent lane as she thought it was too dangerous, with many lorries delivering coal to the power station at Meadowhall. When the pits where open water had to be pumped out into the Ochre Dyke, to stop the miners from drowning. It was the Ochre deposits from the pits that gave the Ochre Dyke its name. The pits closed in the late 1960s but many officials forget the pits that run under Owlthorpe are still in a constant state of flooding.
A big thank you to Louise Houghton for hosting our editorial in Yorkshire Bylines. from 29th December 2020.
21st November 2023 Update to mission statement.
Our project is now under threat from Sheffield City Council (LPA) who wish to build 150 new properties on (plot F) the Grassland & Grazing Project a major component of Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail.
We decided to take action and started a petition 20 February 2023.
Please help our project by signing our petition to Sheffield City Council: https://chng.it/6vXHqcGG4S
A Big thank you to the 1,587 who in such a short period of time have signed.
If you wish to give your reasons for signing the petition you can. About 70 of our supporters have already given their reasons for signing. Please Look under All Reasons for signing. See why other supporters are signing, why this petition is important to them, and share your reasons for signing.
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Please explore our on-line visitors guide to Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail.
Scroll down the page to see points of interest. https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/directionsmaps.htm
If you double click on any of the interpretation board photos you will be able to view a large version, which enables you to read online, the extent of environmental work carried out in creating our oasis.
To support the project, Government funding was provided by Natural England, under their higher-level stewardship agreement.
The google maps show the GPS coordinates, which help if you decide you wish to visit in person.
Many parents bring their children and use the interpretation boards to educate them about the wonderful environment we live in.
Owlthorpe is very steep; some locations show the height above sea level.
Scrolling down the page we have several short videos which you may find interesting.
Please share with Friends & Family.
Thank you for your attention
History of our endeavours.
I have attended and taken part in many Sheffield Council planning meetings where planning permission to build in Owlthorpe has been refused.
I attended the Sheffield City Council Planning Committees Meeting on Tuesday 2nd June 2020. Here is my report: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/EO-18ReviewofPlanningMeeting.pdf The video footage of the meeting had been taken down, but Guy Williams Sheffield City Council Barrister, organised with Lucy Bond, Area Team Manager (City Centre & East Team) Development Management City Growth Department a copy to be made available for my review. (Copies of the video are available on request.)
The planning Solicitor, Kate, explained the procedure and vote was taken with many of the committee citing traffic impact as the reason for rejecting this application. The result was 10 against with 2 abstentions. After the vote was taken Colin Walker Interim Head said “I think there is a significant risk if you throw Highways impact into this as a reason for refusal and that risk is that you effectively neutralise the site in residential terms.”
Dated 5th June 2020 in the refusal document supplied by Howard Baxter Sheffield City Council to allow building to take place on plot E in Owlthorpe. On page 4 under title Notes: Appeals to the Secretary of State: If you are aggrieved by the decision of your Local Planning Authority to refuse permission for the proposed development or to grant it subject to conditions, then you can appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment under Section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
What has been overlooked by Howard Baxter Sheffield (LPA) and Inspector O S Woodwards is the fact I had already requested George Eustace MP Secretary of State for Environment call in the application made by Avant Homes.
I protested to Holly Dutton and Inspector O S Woodwards that before their inquiry they contacted George Eustace MP Secretary of State for Environment so my request could be heard. They both refused and continued with their Inquiry Held on 12-15, 19, and 21 January 2021 Site visit made on 20 January 2021 the inquiry was held by video conferencing. Copies of the meetings are available on request. I also requested that Inspector O S Woodwards view the video footage of Sheffield City Council Planning Committees Meeting on Tuesday 2nd June 2020. He refused. I believe this was a dereliction of his duties as an independent arbitrator in this enquiry. If he had viewed the footage, I believe building on plot E would not have been granted.
Under the freedom of information Act, I have asked many questions of Government departments. Evidence can be seen here: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/letters.htm I have not been satisfied with Inspector O S Woodwards Inquiry. I have made a formal complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. I have also been through the Planning inspectorate’s internal enquiry. They are aware I am still not satisfied. Copies of my complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman have been sent to Clive Betts MP. I also contacted Michael Johnson the Head of Planning, Sheffield City Council to inform him of my communication with the Ombudsman, hear is his reply: “Dear Mr Meredith, I am writing to thank you for sending the below correspondence and to confirm we will respond fully with any Ombudsman enquiry that is forthcoming. Kind regards Michael.”
Research under the freedom of information Act shows that Sheffield City Council have been receiving Government funding: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/InformationRightsTeam31stMarch2022.pdf This is the map, https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/HigherLevelStwardshipAgreementMap.pdf I have been using it shows the areas of maintenance of hedgerows/ ditches/ grassland and wetland of very high environmental value. Although payments have been made Local residents will confirm that the maintenance has not taken place. In the document: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/EO-14NicolaDempsysustainability-11-00360-v2.pdf I provided to Inspector O S Woodwards at the inquiry I have highlighted in yellow, the cutbacks in parks department staff. This may be the reason for the lack of maintenance. But this does not explain what happened to the Government funds?
I attended the Sheffield South East Local Area Committee Meeting held 11 January 2023. I was horrified to see that Sheffield (LPA) have reintroduced plot F into the Sheffield Housing plan. This was done without the notification of residents of Owlthorpe. https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/PlanningObjections12thApril2023.pdf
I attended the South East Local Area Committee (LAC) meeting on Wednesday 23 March 2023. A number of supporters of Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail turned up to use their democratic right and voice their objections to building on plot F.
Karen McGowan shut the complaints down. After the meeting I received this threatening communication from Karen McGowan https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/emailfromKarenMcGowan.pdf Extract from communication “A post you put on Facebook asking people to contact either Jayne Foulds, SE LAC Manager or our MP Clive Betts if residents wanted to comment on the Local Plan. Unfortunately, when this was posted on Facebook the closing date for residents to make comments had already passed.” This is my response: https://www.ecological-owlthorpe.org/ReplytoKarenMcGowan.pdf
Residents of Owlthorpe have not been made aware of any closing date to make comments.
Protocol requires my MP to submit my complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. I have been having problems with MP Clive Betts who up to now has not forwarded my complaint. Please view my open letter to our MP Clive Betts
Residents of Owlthorpe are at a loss to understand why Sheffield City Council wish to destroy our Oasis. Owlthorpe Heritage & Nature Trail should be preserved just like Porter Brook or the Botanical Gardens.
We will be revamping our petition to the Parliamentary Ombudsman
More updates will follow