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What Sheffield felling investigation means for the future

The mass felling of more than 5,000 street trees across the city of Sheffield in recent years has caused public outcry among residents. They asserted that Sheffield City Council’s (SCC) tree felling contravened the Forestry Act 1967. 

In early 2018, the Forestry Commission (FC) began an investigation to see if this was the case and published its findings in July 2019. It heavily criticised the council and its contractor, but stopped short of prosecution.

The background

According to the Forestry Act, landowners must apply for a felling license if they wish to remove trees over a specified timber volume limit. Exemptions apply where there is overriding legislation – for example the Highways Act which requires councils to maintain safety and access as priority.

But in Sheffield there are concerns many of the trees removed didn’t pose such a risk to safety, and needn’t have been felled. The FC investigation sought to identify whether a felling license was in fact needed.

Thousands of Sheffield's valuable street trees have been lost (Photo: Philip Formby / WTML)
Thousands of Sheffield's valuable street trees have been lost (Photo: Philip Formby / WTML)

The findings

The FC has ‘identified a number of areas regarding the Streets Ahead programme where SCC has fallen far short of good practice’.

To its credit, the FC has gone to great lengths in its investigation. But it stopped short of prosecution and it’s easy to feel disappointment at the lack of punishment.

The FC stated: ‘There is insufficient evidence to say with confidence that an offence of felling without a felling licence has been committed by SCC and Amey’.

The report is an important step on the road to resolution in Sheffield. Heavily criticising the council and its contractor, it draws a clear line in the sand.

The case has called into question just what rights and responsibilities councils have over the management of trees.

Lessons to learn for other councils

We have witnessed every twist and turn in this long running saga. At the same time, we’ve been working with councils and communities across the UK to prevent unnecessary felling. In most cases, we have found that council officers are doing a sterling job of managing their trees in the face of budget cuts and staff reductions.

So what does this mean for them? Sheffield is a cautionary tale, watched closely no doubt by every tree officer in the UK. The chances are it has made their lives more difficult. Sometimes it seems suspicion arises at the very suggestion of felling – even when it is appropriate.

Is that fair? Well yes, and no. We are waking up to a climate crisis. We need more trees, now, and we need to retain the ones we have wherever it’s safe to do so. But tree officers are a rare breed, and their job isn’t easy. They often need support, and not unfounded criticism.

Mistakes in Sheffield were related to contracts, decision-making and interpretation of the law. It’s not like that everywhere. The report published by the FC is a valuable case study. Councils should take heed of warnings about bad practice, but not be afraid to manage their trees appropriately.

Residents have campaigned to put a stop to the fellings (Photo: Philip Formby / WTML)
Residents have campaigned to put a stop to the fellings (Photo: Philip Formby / WTML)

Can Sheffield redeem its Green City credentials?

We hope so. The council has announced intentions to work with stakeholders and affected residents on a new strategy for street trees. This is a positive step towards resolution. Will it work? It’s too soon to say. Any proposal would need agreement across the board. Nevertheless, it must be given a chance to succeed.

A conference on Street Trees and Politics will also help pave the way to better understanding and collaboration. Sheffield University hosts the event on 19-20 September.

The future

We support these exciting developments. We’ll engage and contribute positively to opportunities that improve relations and street tree management - in Sheffield and beyond.

We have a vision for more trees and better management in our towns and cities. To get there, we’ll continue to call for:

  • better policies
  • more resources
  • stronger enforcement
  • good people working together to make it happen.

We had hoped that the FC’s investigation would set a legal precedent for urban forestry. A decision not to prosecute means this hasn’t happened, but it was not a decision taken lightly – evident by the lengthy inquiry. A precedent has been set nevertheless.

You can help

Local communities taking action is the most effective way to protect woods and trees. Make sure your council is aware of its obligations before it fells trees. We’ve put together some useful resources to help you defend the local woods and trees you love.

Make a difference to trees and woods near you

Take action in your community