Sheffield. Street trees. Protests and felling. It can’t have escaped your attention - it’s all over the media. But is anything new actually happening? And where does it go from here?
Mass tree removals across the city have been paused for several months now with Sheffield City Council (SCC) citing increasingly violent protest as a reason to reassess the strategy of its felling programme. Of course tensions are high – it’s an emotive issue. We certainly don’t condone violence of any sort, but neither have we seen any evidence to suggest that the long-suffering people of Sheffield have ever resorted to such action. Unless playing a plastic trumpet counts. We do, however, see resilience, creativity, peaceful protest and above all, an admirable determination to affect change through diplomacy and legal democratic process.
This May, the appointment of a new Cabinet Member for the Environment, Councillor Lewis Dagnall, brought hope of a fresh start and compromise. All along campaigners have made clear that they don’t want to prevent every single tree being felled. These aren’t blinkered eco-warriors refusing to accept evidence. They are normal, intelligent, pragmatic people who want the best for their city, but faced with SCC’s refusal to budge, they seemed the only party open to compromise so far. But hope remains, in the shape of Cllr Dagnall’s intention to continue meeting with residents and relevant experts to negotiate compromise. But for how long and to what end? We don’t know, but the signs are promising – ‘residents’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘compromise’ are words far removed from ‘protestor’, ‘injunction’ and ‘violence’.
What has been achieved since felling paused in March?
The days are already getting shorter with little obvious progress. Meanwhile, the Vernon Oak remains on the ‘kill list’, despite the easy solutions for retention that exist, along with an offer from charities to cover the cost. Incredibly, SCC has made no decision on taking up this offer as a gesture of good faith and willing since it was put forward in February.
Quite aside from the local story though, there is a broader narrative playing out. We now have a National Tree Champion with a government mandate to improve the fate of trees in woods and in our city streets. We also have a government manifesto pledge to place new duties on councils to consult with the public where felling is planned. None of this is coincidence. The Sheffield effect reaches far and wide, having been received with shock and disappointment internationally. I work with councils across the UK emphasising the need for public engagement, and it is taken seriously. So too are the hundreds of street tree communities cropping up all over the UK, standing up for their trees and preventing similar situations arising in their neighbourhoods.
If positive change is really going to happen, there needs to be transparency and commitment. When mistakes are made and hurt is caused, there is an approach that works to resolve the tension: hold up your hands, apologise, put your cards on the table and seek help. Saving the Vernon Oak would be a start for the city council and would show willingness to seek alternatives in a step towards much needed mediation. It can’t reverse the damage already caused, but accepting that offer might begin the journey back to Sheffield’s former glory – a green city that appreciates its trees, and its stalwart citizens.
Are street trees being felled near you against public opinion? Are you concerned but don’t know where to turn? We can help.