How we did it: Securing consent for motorway services

A decade after plans were first discussed, an environmentally friendly service station is finally open on the M5 in Gloucestershire. Jim Dunton reports.

Key players on motorway project: Stroud District Council principal planning officer Holly Simkiss and Pegasus Group managing director Tony Bateman
Key players on motorway project: Stroud District Council principal planning officer Holly Simkiss and Pegasus Group managing director Tony Bateman

Project: Gloucester Services Motorway Service Area

Organisations involved: Westmorland Ltd, Pegasus Group, Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, Stroud District Council, Glenn Howells Architects

Last May saw the completion of a new service station on the M5 near Gloucester. With its turf-covered roof and eco-friendly contemporary design, Gloucester Services is not your average refuelling stop, and it also has a radically different operating model. However, sitting on the edge of the highly protected Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the project faced some big planning challenges.

Spanning 25 hectares, Gloucester Services has two turf-roofed 3,278 square metre services buildings either side of the motorway. Designed to blend into the landscape, the buildings have dry-stone facings and timber-framed windows, with timber used in exterior lighting columns and boundary treatments. There is parking for 225 cars on each side, plus space for larger vehicles.

The £40 million service station, owned by Cumbria-based motorway services operator Westmorland Ltd and run by local charity the Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, has other unusual attributes. It sells locally sourced food in its farm shops and cafes, and operates an employment scheme to help disadvantaged local communities; these formed part of its section 106 planning gain agreement.

Plans for a traditional service area at Brookthorpe on the southern edge of Gloucester were rejected by Stroud District Council in the 1990s on the grounds that they were contrary to its local development plan. Specifically, officers felt it would have a detrimental effect on the character and appearance of a defined special landscape area and on views from the adjoining AONB.

Following 2008 Highways Agency guidance that highlighted the location as an opportunity for a new service area, consultancy Pegasus Group was commissioned by applicants Westmorland and the trust to draw up plans. Pegasus managing director Tony Bateman says the site's landscape sensitivity drove the design process for the scheme. "It was very much a landscape-led approach," he says. "At each step, we had to consider the impact on views. Once the landscaping is fully grown out, you shouldn't be able to see anything of what's been built from the key AONB viewpoints."

Pegasus ran a design competition centred around the impact of the scheme. The winning entry, by Glenn Howells Architects, was positively reviewed by the South West Design Panel.

Holly Simkiss, principal planning officer at Stroud Council, says there was at least a year of pre-application work before the planning application was submitted in 2009. Simkiss says Westmorland was keen to include opportunities for local producers to sell their wares and provide jobs among the area's disadvantaged communities.

However, the 2009 application attracted considerable local opposition. Simkiss says residents were confused by the fact that the Highways Agency guidance had driven the case for a new service station on the spot, not Stroud District Council. She says: "There were about 2,000 letters of objection, constant phone calls, and much reading and responding to e-mails. It was taking up most of my day. Now a lot of people who previously objected have come back and said how fantastic the service station is."

The case for a new service station and the strength of opposition prompted Stroud and Pegasus to invest in detailed consultancy work that Simkiss believes reduced exposure to technical challenges. "We wanted to make sure we'd been absolutely rigorous," she says. Stroud hired landscape consultants to help with the environmental statement and commissioned an audit of pre-application consultation work. In addition, Pegasus brought in a planning and environment QC to scrutinise the draft officers' report.

Simkiss says this belt-and-braces approach paid off when Stroud's August 2010 approval of the scheme was challenged at the High Court by the operators of two nearby service stations, in conjunction with two parish councils and a protest group. The judicial review sought to overturn the approval on grounds including its adverse impact on the AONB and on local communities. All of the grounds were dismissed following a two-day hearing in 2012.

Though no planning performance agreement was signed for the project, Simkiss says the applicants were regularly updated on its progress and an end date agreed by both parties. "We undertook almost monthly meetings to ensure the application was effectively and efficiently managed to a mutually agreed timescale," she says. "Extensions of time were accepted on this basis."

Gloucester Services was granted permission in December 2010 and was officially opened last July by the Prince of Wales. It now employs about 400 staff, uses products from over 100 local suppliers and has won a host of awards.

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