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"Alive with detail and often humour": Persons Unknown. The Battle for Sheffield’s Street Trees

The infamous battle for Sheffield's street trees has been immortalised in a book. Read Jenny Hockey's review of Persons Unknown.

Sheffield street trees viewed from Psalter lane
Benjamin Elliott

From 2015 onwards, the sickening buzz of a chainsaw could be heard almost anywhere in Sheffield. The trees that greened its streets – and for which it is famous – had begun to disappear. Gaps opened up and if you’ve ever had the classic nightmare where your teeth start to fall out, you’ll know how that felt for residents.

Sheffield City Council had signed a twenty-five-year contract with Amey PLC to the value of £2.2 million. Its overt aim was the renewal of the city’s highways. Covertly it specified the replacement of the city’s street trees ‘at a rate of not less than 200 per year so that 17,500 highway trees are replaced by the end of the term’.

Despite repeated Freedom of Information requests, that clause remained secret . There were no targets, the public were told. Only trees that were dangerous, dead, diseased or dying, damaging or discriminatory would be felled.

These events are the backdrop for Persons Unknown. The Battle for Sheffield’s Street Trees. Writer Simon Crump and community activist Calvin Payne spent two years interviewing Sheffielders who had stood up for their trees. With the help of Julie Stribley, a member of STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Groups) and full-time nature lover, they have produced a riveting, grassroots account of what took place in the city’s previously quiet suburbs, often by night, very often in freezing weather.

As the tree campaigner known as Gandalf puts it: ‘We had months of sleep-deprivation, blizzards, rain, frosty mornings, anger and frustration’.

Persons Unknown. The Battle for Sheffield’s Street Trees by Simon Crump and Calvin Payne with Julie Stribley

Both Simon and Calvin took direct action at street level to protect the trees. Both were arrested for their efforts.

I too stood under a tree – at 5am one November morning – and was arrested. However, the testimonies of residents from the 24 Sheffield streets that are laid out in these pages left me awestruck: the months of their time people had sacrificed, monitoring the activities of the ‘arbs’ (the felling crews), sitting or standing or camping out under trees, climbing into them, climbing the fencing erected to keep them at bay, being ejected with little care for their personal safety, facing ruinous fines and job loss.

Their dogged willingness to submit to this kind of pressure was nothing short of heroic. Many of them, as Jon Johnson of Chippinghouse Road put it: ‘previously wouldn’t have kept a library book out too long’, yet when a tree that was part of their personal landscape and history was threatened, they were ready to risk everything.

Stephanie of Abbeydale Park Rise said, ‘They got two trees that day. They got Maisie’s tree, the tree that Maisie’s grandma used to stand under and wave to Maisie through the window, and she used to put things round the tree for her grandma and leave little presents on the tree’.

The book comprises over two hundred pages of testimonies, yet my interest never flagged. The accounts are alive with detail and often humour, vivid evidence of the anger and shock people experienced and the energy and collective spirit galvanized in response.

As a reader I can imagine these stories staying alive for years, if not generations.

If Sheffield City Council ever wanted to promote community spirit and cohesion, they certainly achieved it when they released the felling crews onto the streets.

Street tree police
Russell Johnson.

Along with interviews with residents, the book also contains ‘Tales from the Flying Squad’, the accounts of a small group who took action wherever or whenever a felling was threatened. And because repeated attempts to use legal action against campaigners became highly complex, the book also contains transcripts of proceedings made by campaigner, Sheldon Hall.

Finally, and for me particularly enjoyable, we have Heather Russell’s ‘Diary of a Tree Protester’ which offers timelines of the action on specific roads and repeatedly ends a day’s account with the chant: ‘POWER TO THE PEACEFUL. WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY’, the rhythm of which is firmly lodged in my head.

Many of the people whose voices are recorded within these pages may feel, like I do, that theirs was a small contribution to this ultimately successful campaign. By bringing their words together, however, Simon, Calvin and Julie allow the power of collectivising to shine through.

In the foreword to the book, Nick Hayes, author of ‘The Book of Trespass’, says, ‘the key to challenging power is connectivity, the WhatsApp groups that alerted each other to a morning’s fellings, the solidarity between protesters keeping each other out of prison, the tireless emails, conversations and networks created to stand up to the cold, blind logic of a PFI contract’.

This book deserves its place among these acts of connectivity.

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