Acres of woodland at Severn Beach have been cleared amid a dispute over whether the land is protected from development.

Upset residents and local councillors joined forces to block the way of a bulldozer knocking down trees at Orchard Ponds last month.

The land, formerly a large orchard at Grove Farm, is on Ableton Lane near the A403.

Residents believe the woodland is a protected wildlife area and that the landowner, Severnside Distribution Land Limited, wants to build large warehouses on the site.

But the company claims it is simply “managing growth” on the property, which it is permitted to do, according to South Gloucestershire Council. 

Severnside Distribution Land is the company behind a huge industrial park to the east of Ableton Lane. 

The 600-acre Central Park beside the A49 contains large distribution warehouses for more than a dozen companies including Lidl, Next and Warburtons.

Severn Beach resident Peter Tyzack alleges that the company has cleared the land at Orchard Ponds in breach of a 1995 planning agreement.

Mr Tyzack, who is also a parish councillor, was among the dozen or so people who stood in the way of contractors on Sunday, October 20.

Their protest sparked an investigation by the council over the landowner’s rights to clear and develop the land.

The council found there were two sets of planning permission for the land at Orchard Ponds, one from 1957 and one from 1995.

At the time, a council spokesman said: “Our legal officers are currently examining them both to determine what work is permitted on the site. 

“The developers have argued that the older permission (granted in 1957) is superseded by a 1995 Section 106 agreement, which allows them to do work on the site.”

The legal team has since concluded that the landowner can manage the land but must apply for planning consent to develop it.

In the weeks it took for the legal team to reach its conclusion, the council had no power to stop the landowner from felling trees, the spokesman said.

Council staff inspected the trees and issued a tree protection order over a single oak tree, which remains standing, but the landowner had permission from Natural England to remove the trees.

Mr Tyzack said he asked for the land at Orchard Ponds to be included in the Green Belt when the district local plan for 2006 to 2027 was being developed.

But he said he was told by officers at the time that the land was already sufficiently protected by a condition in a planning agreement from 1995 granting consent for the land east of Ableton Lane to be turned into Central Park.

According to Mr Tyzack, the condition required the land west of Ableton Lane, including Orchard Ponds, to be kept as a “wildlife refuge and community forest”.

Fellow parish councillor Michael Pruett, who also lives in Severn Beach, said he was “very saddened at the destruction of the trees, hedgerows, ancient orchard and all the interlinked ecology of the area”.

Mr Pruett said it was “particularly galling” given that Orchard Ponds was “designated as an ecological buffer zone and community forest”.

Severnside Distribution Land initially agreed to pause the land clearance but resumed after the council confirmed they could not legally stop the work. They did not respond to a request for comment.