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Sheffield street tree massacre

We have been talking to officers and cabinet members at Sheffield City Council for around two years about Smithy Wood, some other ancient woods under threat, and ways we could work with the Council to build on Sheffield’s reputation as a well wooded, green city. In doing so, we have become embroiled in a major local controversy over the proposed mass removal of street trees. 

I’ve attended the first two meetings of the Sheffield Street Tree Advisory Forum. The Forum was set up by Sheffield City Council following a debate at a full council meeting in July and was in response to a campaign by thousands of Sheffield people against proposals to remove potentially thousands of street trees. 

Discriminatory trees

The Council commissioned a full survey of all its street trees in 2007 which showed that 10,000 of them (about a third of the total) were in need of some remedial work. It adopted a methodology document entitled “Streets Ahead” which put these trees into one of six categories named the 6 D’s: dead, dying, dangerous, diseased, damaging and discriminatory.

I expect, like me, you may be a little unsure what is meant by a discriminatory tree. According to the Council, a tree is discriminatory if by obstructing a footway in some way, it causes difficulty for someone with a physical or visual disability. However, I’ve heard that locals on Rustlings Road have investigated these claims, and were able to have two people on disability scooters ride side by side past the so-called discriminatory trees.

Meeting Sheffield City Council

At the first Forum meeting in July, we heard from Council officers about how the 6Ds classification works. At the second meeting, we were given information on the 25 management options the Council is supposed to consider before deciding to fell a tree. But we were told that many of the 25 options were discounted on grounds of cost and apparently crown reduction and pollarding are ruled out because (in the words of a council officer) “the trees don’t look very nice afterwards!”

The Council is working through its highway management contractor, Amey, on a programme of carrying out work on trees area by area across the city and this is resulting in over 2,500 trees being felled so far, with much more felling likely as the programme proceeds across the city.

Each of the Forum meetings was attended by around 200 local people. I was sitting on an expert panel of cabinet members, opposition councillors, council officers, senior people from Amey, Sheffield Wildlife Trust, local academics and representatives from Save our Rustling Trees (SORT) - a campaign group set up in one of the areas proposed for a felling programme, Rustlings Lane.

Call for a tree and woodland policy

Feelings from the public at both meetings ran high and it was great to see so many people so passionate about trees but also frustrating to see the Council not really responding to any of their concerns. People were calling for the Council to adopt an overarching trees and woodland strategy. One is planned but not until next year, we were told.

Street Trees Forum Aug 2015 221X166
Residents at the meeting
Photo: (Shaffaq Mohammed)

Why can’t the programme of tree removal be paused to allow the Tree Forum to carry out its work and for a trees and woodland strategy to be drawn up as agreed? This is what many locals are asking, too. Doing the policy first and then the delivery seems to me a more sensible way of working.

People have been told that any dangerous trees have already been removed, so there cannot be any real urgency, other than perhaps one imposed by some terms in the contract between the Council and Amey. I am told local people have not been allowed to see this because it is “commercially confidential”.

Adequate replacement trees

Other issues discussed at the Forum so far include replacement trees. The Council is proposing one for one replacement but, rightly, local people have said that replacing a large mature tree with a small sapling (which might not survive anyway) is hardly adequate either in terms of biodiversity or amenity value.

Also, all that we have heard is in terms of the costs of managing trees. No assessment seems to have been made of the financial benefits of the ecosystem services (prevention of flooding, alleviation of air pollution etc) that trees can provide in a city environment. It is also alleged that Amey has not done any proper risk assessments on trees proposed for felling.

All in all, it’s such a great shame that Sheffield - the most wooded city in England and whose history has been so closely linked to its woodland heritage - appears to have reached such an impasse with a large section of its citizens over the tree removal proposals.

What should happen next? 

We are calling on Sheffield City Council to do three simple things:

1. Pause any further tree felling (other than in cases of danger to the public) until the Tree Forum has completed its work and a new trees and woodland strategy is in place
2. Commission a review by an independent arboricultural consultant to find out whether felling really is the only realistic option in all cases
3. Ensure that at least two trees are planted for every one removed with local people consulted about species choice and location, and an emphasis on replacement as close to the removed tree location as possible.