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Fragile truce reached over street trees as important elections loom

After years of tension over felling, Sheffield Council are keen to promote a new collaborative strategy. But campaigners believe problems with the city's democracy run deeper.

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Trees being felled at the height of the protests.

Shelley Cockayne.

The battle over Sheffield's street trees remains one of the most contentious disputes between the public and a democratic body in recent times. It was a cold war that turned hot, as residents tied themselves to threatened trees in 2016 and a Green councillor ended up in court along with six other activists.

The protests originated with a controversial outsourcing contract signed between Sheffield City Council (SCC) and Spanish multinational Amey in 2012. Named Streets Ahead, the 25-year PFI deal covers maintenance of the city's roads, pavements and street trees at a total lifetime cost of £2.2 billion.

But the contract, which has never been released in full, contained provisions for the felling and replacement of 17,500 street trees across the city, many of which the Council said were damaging pavements and making them inaccessible.

This sparked several waves of protest and direct action that received national attention, as residents argued that their mature trees were being sacrificed for the sake of straight kerb lines and cheaper long-term maintenance.

Nearly a decade after the contract was signed, negotiations between the Council and the Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG), mediated by the Bishop of Sheffield, have resulted in a fragile truce.

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Meersbrook Park Road, with a 'build out' into the road.

Sheffield City Council.

Created in 2019, the Sheffield Street Tree Partnership – which includes representatives from the Council, Amey and STAG – has seen paused maintenance work restarted on some roads in south Sheffield. The group has also created a draft Street Tree Strategy, the final version of which will be published later this month.

The new approach agreed by the Partnership often requires a different solution for each tree. In some cases 'tree pits' are created or roots are carefully trimmed by hand. Where neither is possible, 'flexi-pave' technology allows the pavement to adapt to the roots.

On Meersbrook Park Road, pavements have been 'built out' into the resurfaced road to make room for existing roots, allowing the street's row of mature trees on the southern edge of Meersbrook Park to be kept.

"Some of the more significant streets that boast a large number of trees, presented more complex challenges and it was back to the drawing board on several occasions to ensure that plans were in line with the new strategy and that all views were considered ahead of work starting," Cabinet Member for the Environment Mark Jones told Now Then.

Anti-felling campaigners have praised the partnership and the new approach being taken to mature street trees, but it's clear that a lot of distrust from the past ten years remains.

"The partnership group is excellent and we are being genuinely listened to," said a spokesperson for STAG, speaking on behalf of their committee. "However SCC and Amey are administratively slow, disorganised and chaotic, which is frustrating."

The group cite slow processes within the Council bureaucracy, leading to confusion over whether individual trees have actually been taken off the felling list after remedial work has taken place.

STAG also don't believe there has been a serious change in attitude at an institutional level, saying that the Council only began to work with them "because they had a gun put to their head."

"I don't think the concepts of trees, nature and biodiversity having real value are embedded within the entire organisation," said the spokesperson. "It must be hugely frustrating for those working for SCC that are basically fighting against their own side."

Cllr Jones, who was given the environment brief in August 2019, sees positive evidence of progress being made, and cites several residents on Meersbrook Park Road and Rundle Road, who are members of STAG and are happy with the work taking place.

“It’s credit to all those involved in the partnership group, local residents and those delivering the work on the ground that we’ve managed to come so far and see such positive outcomes," he said. "Particularly on those streets which have always proved tricky when it came to wider support and moving forwards."

As Covid restrictions are relaxed, work will resume on other streets where felling – and with it, road resurfacing – was paused before the pandemic. The Council are also creating a "street tree archive", which will preserve documents relating to the protests and which is due to open later this year.

But for many Sheffield citizens, including those not directly involved in the 2016 protests, the episode raises questions about local democracy which will last far beyond the original dispute.

As with the recent vigil on Clapham Common, the role of the police have been called into question. Peaceful direct action was repeatedly met with force, and many campaigners believed the police were protecting the commercial interests of Amey. In one infamous incident, a protestor was arrested for blowing a plastic trumpet at a police officer.

The Council themselves were reprimanded for their conduct by the Local Government Ombudsman and the Forestry Commission, and even Conservative minister Michael Gove labelled the situation "environmental vandalism."

Labour have so far resisted public calls from members of STAG and the local Green Party for an independent inquiry into the way the Council handled street trees and the subsequent protests. Any independent inquiry would examine decision-making within SCC, but it could also look at the heavy-handed role of the police and the impact of huge outsourcing contracts on local democracy.

When governments or councils sign very long contracts with outsourcing companies like Amey, those contracts are then inevitably subject to less democratic control and scrutiny by future administrations. SCC's contract with Amey lasts for a quarter of a century, meaning that Sheffield residents who were born before it was signed will one day elect councillors still bound by its terms.

Dissatisfaction over street trees may also have played a part in the formation of the It's Our City! movement, which aims to change the way the Council is run. This will culminate in a historic referendum on 6 May, which will ask voters whether they want the city to move towards a more decentralised committee model.

Supporters of the campaign say that the current 'strong leader' model means too much power is held by a cabinet of ten councillors, and that this inevitably played a part in the flawed decision-making over street trees.

"One person can neither know everything, nor have the time to absorb and understand everything that's needed to do what's best for an entire city," say STAG. "It needs to be opened out to bring in more expertise and stop the 'group think'. They need to stop thinking of the city's residents as something they can ignore and need to quell if there's any dissent."

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Trees being felled at the height of the protests.

Christine King.

Seemingly in response to the campaign, the Council recently announced the launch of a £650,000 project to set up seven Local Area Committees.

SCC say these will be a "a modern way of engaging, empowering and enabling Sheffielders to shape their local areas," and will go ahead regardless of the whether the referendum compels them to change from the current 'strong leader' model to a committee system.

Critics of the plan say this is a political move ahead of delayed local elections, with the Green Party claiming that "despite a press release of promises about empowering communities, no changes are being made yet to devolve budgets, responsibility or decision-making."

The Council say that they have learned their lesson, and point to a range of new projects around street trees, from the creation of a volunteer Street Tree Warden scheme to a new plan to plant 10,000 trees in the city per year with money from the Woodland Trust.

The result of the referendum, as well as the local elections on the same day, will tell us whether citizens in Sheffield believe they have really changed for the better.

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