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Trees and the steel city, what’s gone wrong?

Trees keep falling, people keep protesting, the removal of street trees in Sheffield carries on apace. Will this situation never end?

The Sheffield Street Tree Crisis

One of the requests our woods under threat team hear most frequently is for us to intervene and stop the mass felling of mature street trees across Sheffield.

The answer is: it’s complicated. There are some good tree related things going on in Sheffield. They have created new woods in urban areas and have a popular Woodland Discovery Centre at Eccleshall. But on street trees what is happening is abysmal.

Like most rational people, we have the overwhelming desire to see mature street trees retained in the city. We abhor the unnecessary loss of these natural and cultural landmarks, green totems that provide such an array of benefits for people and place.

The removal of these trees, in the many thousands, is something that is not just impactful locally, but something harmful on a landscape scale. Put simply, what is happening in Sheffield with their street trees shouldn’t be taking place, and certainly not in the way it is currently being delivered.  

So while our day-to-day focus is very much on protecting ancient woods and trees, this is something we simply can’t ignore.

Why are thousands of healthy trees being removed?

When Sheffield City Council signed a private finance initiative (PFI) contact in 2012 to maintain their highways, no one would have anticipated that five years later the city’s environmental reputation would be being repeatedly attacked by thousands of its own residents.

The partnership with Amey, a private contractor, was meant to be a step change for Sheffield - something that would see roads and pavements transformed, and street lights, highway trees and litter bins better maintained.  

Unfortunately these worthy aspirations soon ran into trouble, in part due to this makeover of the highways causing contentious tree removals, against the wishes of many local residents.

Photo: Philip Formby/WTML
Photo: Philip Formby/WTML

How have we been involved in the situation in Sheffield?

We started talking to Sheffield City Council about street tree felling and the need to retain mature trees back in 2015. We took part in street tree advisory forum meetings and lobbied council officers and officials directly with concerns. Much of this is recorded in blogs written by my colleague Nick Sandford.

We also talked and worked closely with local campaigners to support them where they asked us to step in, for example by helping raise awareness of individual trees of great value that are threatened with the axe. Such important trees include the mature elm tree on Chelsea Road, Nether Edge – runner-up in our Tree of the Year contest last year – and the war memorial trees in Crookes.

A number of Sheffield street tree campaign groups have also linked to the Tree Charter campaign, our charter which ensures trees are better valued and protected in UK society. By becoming Charter Branches these groups are ensuring that their local concerns are seen in the wider context of UK society, where street trees can offer so much to people and the environment if they are planted, managed and protected from unnecessary loss.

Over time we have made offers to Sheffield City Council to act as an intermediary to help bring concerned local residents and council officials together, fund and publicly support an independent assessment of a selection of the trees scheduled for felling (to see if the same conclusions were reached as that of the council’s contractor), and help put council officials in touch with others with similar experiences in other locations.

Unfortunately none of these offers have been taken up.

Photo: Philip Formby/WTML
Photo: Philip Formby/WTML

Why is Sheffield City Council not listening to local residents?

Some people blame the penalty clauses of the contract the Council signed with Amey back in 2012 as the reason for the continued felling, some blame intransigence of the council leadership to finding solutions for retaining the trees, some blame the contractors delivering the tree management on the ground. The truth is likely a mixture of all of these.

Sadly the situation is not improving and the position for the remaining mature street trees still on the removals list remains bleak.

What next?

This week we’ve written again to Julie Dore the Council Leader reiterating our previous offers of assistance. We hope she takes this up.

Outside of this we will continue to talk to the Council on other priority areas for us, such as protecting ancient woodland from flood prevention schemes and the long running plan by Extra MSA to put a motorway service area development in the middle of Smithy Wood near Chapeltown. We’ll also speak out on individual cases of concern with the street trees. 

Photo: Philip Formby/WTML
Photo: Philip Formby/WTML

The city and its trees deserve better

Sheffield is not alone in having problems with maintaining its street tree stock in a way that suits every interested party. It’s not alone in having to make hard decisions that will upset local residents and on occasion conservation organisations like ourselves.

What is unique about this situation, however, is the way that communities have been left feeling marginalised and powerless regarding an issue they feel strongly about. The council’s decision to take its own residents to court to stop them protesting the fellings, rather than working on reaching an understanding or compromise that satisfies locals, has been costly in terms of money and reputation. Throughout the situation the council has tried to maintain that only a small number of residents from a limited demographic are opposed to their activities – a claim which large-scale public rallies, media coverage and social media noise has shown to be implausible.

If a solution is to be found it is likely to need intervention from elsewhere. An expert to find loopholes in the existing contract (currently impossible given the secrecy surrounding the wording of the contract), the contractor being willing to go above and beyond what might be the cheapest and most convenient solution if it will save valued mature trees and a willingness for all contract signatories to revisit it and work together on acceptable and deliverable revisions.

It’s not inconceivable that this may occur but it will take a herculean effort from all sides for it to stand a chance. As time ticks by and the chainsaws continue to roar, pessimism persists. Let’s hope it doesn’t win the day. The City and its trees deserve better.

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