One of Britain’s leading roadside service area operators has been accused of using “dirty tactics” to persuade councillors to approve a controversial proposal to build an expansive Motorway Services Area (MSA) across a wildlife haven.

Residents in the Catterick area have written letters of complaint to North Yorkshire Council after more than 80 generic letters of support for Roadchef’s £50m scheme on an 11-hectare former quarry site off junction 52 of the A1(M) were lodged by residents from across the UK this month.

The letters of support followed the firm inviting some of its annual 52 million customers to sign automated letters of support for its application, which was approved by Richmondshire District Council in 2022 on condition it provided sufficient compensation for the MSA’s ecological damage.

At the time the firm said it would pay almost £2m to create wildlife habitats elsewhere to compensate for the impact on fauna and flora in the area, such as curlew, and in particular on the nearby designated Site of Special Scientific Interest at Swale Lakes.

Ahead of the proposal being approved, Roadchef director Ian Mackay told councillors: “This is not a speculative project, but the most important project in Roadchef’s development.”

However, the firm has since been unable to convince planning officers it would provide sufficient environmental mitigation for the planning consent to be signed off, so the application has been referred back to a planning committee, now North Yorkshire Council, for another consideration.

The scheme, which includes 8,912sq metres of restaurant and cafe floorspace, a 100-bedroom hotel, Costa and McDonalds drive-thru cafes, a fuel filling station and HGV overnight parking, was unanimously approved by councillors who concluded it was urgently needed due to nearby facilities being at full capacity.

However, Catterick Village residents have questioned Richmondshire council’s conclusion and in letters of complaint to North Yorkshire Council described Roadchef’s letters of support as “outrageous and a total disregard of the feelings of the local population” and a “severe abuse of local ratepayer democracy”.

Many Catterick Village residents say did not realise what was happening when the application was first approved and believe it was pushed through to enable the closure of a lorry park in nearby Colburn, where there were complaints of antisocial behaviour.

One resident stated Roadchef’s automated response system on its website was “a clear attempt at manipulation of the outcome of this proposal”.

Another letter of complaint states: “I believe this is a dirty tactic and totally unethical. These letters should not be considered. If all the objectors used a similar tactic, it would just make a mockery of the whole planning system and set a precedent for all and sundry to take similar action, leaving the people of Richmondshire without a voice in local planning.”

When asked to respond to the accusations from residents, Roadchef said it was “committed to working closely with all relevant stakeholders and respects and values the opinion of the local community”.

A spokesperson for the firm said the MSA would “provide significant benefits to both the local Richmondshire community and those that use the motorway network outside of the local area”.

He added: “This includes all road users, long-distance travellers and the community network of HGV and coach drivers and we believe those stakeholders should be aware of the application and able, if they choose, to submit their views.

“Submissions made have been on their own merit and, as with any planning decision, it’s the role of the local planning authority to determine the weight to be given to public correspondence received.”

Catterick Bridge division councillor Carl Les said there was no doubt the MSA in the former quarry would have “a severe environmental impact”, especially on birds.

He said: “I was very disappointed when Richmondshire District Council decided it was a planning application they could pass, because I know from having operated on the road in that area there was no need for any further facilities.”

He added there were two sites with approval to become service areas, at Barton and Leeming Bar, just six miles to the north and six miles to the south of Catterick, alongside numerous other services close to the A1(M), two of which were classed as Motorway Rest Areas, rather than MSAs, and two truck stops.

Cllr Les said: “I don’t like the way the applicant has organised a campaign of support that has not been generated through local people.”