FEW planning applications caused as much controversy in recent years as Smithills Coaching House.

A popular restaurant for more than four decades until its closure last August, the grade II listed building started life as the stables of the historic grade I listed Smithills Hall — one of the jewels in Bolton’s heritage crown.

The estate itself is also a registered park and garden and contains ancient woodland.

But residents and heritage groups were furious last summer when plans were unveiled by developer Jones Homes to convert the Coaching House into eight properties and build 21 homes on surrounding green belt land.

The firm claimed it was the only way to stop the Victorian building — which had fallen victim to metal thieves and vandals since its closure — from falling into ruin, and said the surrounding housing development was the only way of making its investment in the Coaching House itself financially viable.

But opponents claimed there were alternative options and that other interested parties would have stepped in to preserve the building for leisure use rather than housing.

The Smithills estate has a long history.

The first written records relating to the hall itself began when William Radcliffe obtained the manor from the Hulton family in 1335.

In 1485, when the last Radcliffe to own the estate died without a male heir, the hall was passed to the Bartons, a wealthy family of sheep owners.

Smithills was home to the Bartons for almost 200 years until, in 1659, the hall and estate was passed by marriage to the Belasyse family, who owned many other properties around England, and Smithills entered a period of neglect.

In 1801, the hall and estate were sold to the Ainsworth family, who were successful Bolton bleachers, and, under three generations of Ainsworths, Smithills was extensively rebuilt and modernised.

In 1870, Richard Henry Ainsworth, the nephew of Peter Ainsworth, inherited the house, and five years later he hired prominent Victorian architect George Devey to design the most significant improvements to Smithills Hall.

But changes in the British economy after the First World War had increased costs and reduced the amount of income the family could raise from the estate, and the financial burden of maintaining a large house eventually became too great.

In 1938, Smithills was sold to Bolton Council for £70,600 and the Victorian parts of the hall became a council residential home and later a day centre until the late 1990s.

Conservation work on the older sections allowed part of it to be opened as a museum in 1963, and in the 1990s the museum was extended into some of the Victorian parts of the house.

The Coaching House itself had been built in the 17th century as the stable block of the hall, and was converted into a restaurant in 1966 by brothers Alan and Donald Clarke.

Current Bolton Council leader Cllr Cliff Morris — a former chef — was previously the managing director of the Smithills Coaching House restaurant, which operated for 46 years until its closure last August with the loss of 30 jobs.

The plans which followed resulted in a flurry of objections, including one from English Heritage — the organisation set up to protect the country’s historic buildings — which claimed the development would affect the view from Smithills Hall.

Jones Homes then altered the plans, but English Heritage did not withdraw its objection.

Ian Greenhalgh, aged 66, was chairman of Smithills Hall from 2006 to 2008 and had been a member of the Labour Party since he was 15 before resigning following last December’s planning decision.

He said: “Smithills Hall was once named as the 49th most important building in the country because it had three distinctive styles of architecture — mediaeval, Victorian and Elizabethan.

“There’s a stained glass window of Henry the VIII’s coat of arms which has been there 600 years.

“I think the development will change the whole feel of the area.

“It’s precious and I love it there — I used to play there as a kid.

“I walk around the area. A lot of people do, and it’s just so important to people.

“But we don’t seem to be proud of our history in Bolton.”

Margaret Collier, a member of Bolton and District Civic Trust’s executive committee, questioned whether all the possible options had been considered.

She said: “To me, Smithills Hall is a rare example of a mediaeval manor house that can be appreciated in its original rural, green belt environment.

“That is disturbed only by the Coaching House, itself a listed building, giving witness to Bolton’s heyday of Victorian affluence.

“The magical setting, next to ancient woodland, has survived unchanged for 600 years.”

Nearby resident Peter Tate, of Abercorn Road, works as an engineer for Bury Council.

He had his wedding reception at Smithills and said he has known it all his life.

“It’s part of the heritage of Bolton — it’s been around for hundreds of years,” he said.

“The concern is that they’re closing the building to the public.

“Once it’s just private residents in there, they’ll lock the doors and that’s it.

“The Coaching House is part of Smithills — if you mention Smithills to people they say: ‘Oh, the Coaching House’.

“The application is basically about splitting the Smithills Estate in two and it’s part of our heritage.”

Pat Allen, aged 68, worked as a waitress and supervisor at the Coaching House restaurant between 1978 and 1988 and has opposed the plans.

She said: “I worked there for 10 years in its heyday when things were going great.

“It’s a beautiful building, and it’s perfect as a restaurant.

“It was really busy and we did everything from funerals to racecourse meetings and weddings.

“My daughter was the first to get married in Smithills Hall and we just walked over to the Coaching House and had a wonderful time.

“Our green spaces are the only thing we’ve got in Bolton.”

With the plans passed by the council’s planning committee, councillors agreed the scheme was needed to prevent the Coaching House deteriorating further.

But because the estate is on green belt land and a heritage site, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had the power to stop the plans going through.

But despite asking for more time to decide, he later chose not to intervene and the project will now go ahead.

Smithills councillor Roger Hayes, who had campaigned against the plans, said: “The Smithills Estate is important as a whole — the grade I listed hall, grade II listed Coaching House and the park and gardens.

“They are much more significant as a whole than as the individual parts.

“Anything which reduces the setting of one does so for the whole estate.

“That is one reason that the development of the Coaching House is important.

“Also, the area is in green belt and any development there sets dangerous precedents for other nearby parts of the green belt.”

Jones Homes could not be reached for comment, but in a previous statement its spokesman said its proposals would restore aspects of the building that had been damaged by “unsympathetic extensions and additions” that had been made over the years, adding that the plans were “sympathetic to the listed building and its surroundings” and provided “the most viable alternative to securing the long-term future of the Coaching House”.

add from jones homes???