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Council U-turn on street trees: Have we reached a turning point?

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Photo by Kelly Dorset

The row over the removal and replacement of Sheffield's street trees has become the city's most contentious dispute in recent years, but yesterday Sheffield City Council gave their strongest indication yet of a change in direction.

"What I have heard is that whilst many people value investment in our highways, its implications for street trees were too much, too soon, in some parts of the city," said Councillor Lewis Dagnall, Cabinet Member for Environment and Street Scene. "There was a feeling that proposals to replace mature trees with smaller trees in one process would have immediately changed the face of some streets."

Some of the city's most well-loved trees [...] have been granted a reprieve

A joint position has been reached between the Council and representatives of the Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG), following months of fraught negotiations overseen by the Bishop of Sheffield.

Announcing changes to the terms of their deal with private contractor Amey, the Council said that "around a third of the 305 trees earmarked for replacement during the first five years of the Streets Ahead programme can now be retained using a combination of engineering solutions, regular monitoring and ongoing maintenance."

Another third will now be replaced over the next decade rather than straight away, with extra costs in maintaining these trees being met in full by Amey.

Some of the city's most well-loved trees, which have taken on symbolic status in the battle between protestors and contractors, have been granted a reprieve.

"Our new proposal for compromise will see a large proportion of trees, including the Vernon Oak and the majority of memorial trees, retained," said Councillor Dagnall.

Under the plans announced on Thursday, dozens of trees that have previously been earmarked for replacement will be inspected over the coming weeks to assess whether they can be retained.

A revised street tree strategy will also be developed in early 2019, based on the understanding that "healthy street trees should only be replaced if no other practical solution can be found," according to the Council.

But not all members of STAG fully endorse the joint position announced by Sheffield City Council.

I'm really disappointed that we couldn't do this before

Local group representative Rebecca Hammond gave the plan a cautious welcome, calling it "a positive first step, but by no means the end of it."

"The Council have to remember that they've already chopped down 5,500 mostly healthy trees," Hammond told Now Then. "They've only committed to saving a third of the remaining 305 [earmarked for replacement]."

"I'm really disappointed that we couldn't do this before," said Hammond. "If those 100 trees can be saved, why couldn't thousands of others that were causing similar amounts of damage?"

Hammond also criticised the Council's decision to press ahead with the removal of some street trees over a longer timescale.

"The same trees will be chopped down, it's just that they're going to do it in five or ten years' time rather than now," she said. "There's no need to chop them down. If that kerb damage is acceptable for the next five or ten years, it can be acceptable for the next 50 years. The trees aren't growing like triffids.

"The Council are still wedded to the idea that we must have perfectly straight kerbs," Hammond told me. "There's absolutely no reason why, as the rest of the country manages without perfectly straight kerbs."

The former STAG co-chair also queried the timing of Thursday's announcement, which came before the launch of the new street tree strategy, due in 2019.

"It's a fantastic thing, but they're making decisions before they've got their decision-making criteria," she said. "What is the point of going through that process if you've already decided what to do with a whole bunch of these trees?

"For us, the campaign continues."

The joint position statement, as well as specific street-by-street proposals, have been published on the Council's website.

Sam Gregory

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Photo by Andrew Tryon (geograph.org.uk)

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