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A Magazine for Sheffield

Stumped: The battle for Sheffield's street trees

As the battle for Sheffield's trees continues to play out across the city's streets, in its courtrooms, newspapers and online, it seems a good time to ask: in England's greenest city, how did it come to this?

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Tree protestor and Green Party councillor Alison Teal.

Chris Saunders.

The first thing to say about Streets Ahead, the £2.2bn contract between Amey and Sheffield City Council, is that, in the words of Council Leader Julie Dore, "It's not a tree contract - it's a highways contract."

To be more precise, it is a PFI arrangement to upgrade "the condition of our city's roads, pavements, street lights, bridges and other items on or around our streets". In doing so, private company Amey and their subcontractors have so far removed approximately 5,500 trees. The Council say every felled tree is replaced one-for-one with an eight to ten-year-old sapling, and only removed in the first place if it is dangerous, dying, diseased, dead, damaging or discriminatory.

A lot of people dispute this, most notably the protestors from Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG). But passion can also be found on the side of those who want their street trees replaced and pot-holed roads repaired, and are frustrated by the obstruction of protestors. The Council itself points to its legal obligation to maintain the highway. A lot of other Sheffielders, perhaps most, either don't know or don't care. But as the battle for Sheffield's trees continues to play out across the city's streets, in its courtrooms, newspapers and online, it seems a good time to ask: in England's greenest city, how did it come to this?

The Surveys

In 2006-7, an independent survey formed the basis of the tree replacement programme. It concluded that approximately 10,000 trees required "some form of remedial treatment", but only 1,000 were recommended for replacement. So why, by 2016, had the figure increased to 6,000, 17% of Sheffield's street trees, and why have even higher figures, even up to 18,000, sometimes been mentioned?

In 2012, a second survey, this time conducted by Acorn, an arboreal firm that would later be subcontracted to carry out the replacement work, stated that "the majority of street tree species will require replacement after 70‐80 years". The Council have referred to this survey to highlight the urgency of the work, but this is disputed by Professor Ian Rotherham of Sheffield Hallam University, who argues that many of Sheffield's trees could "easily live for 250 to 450 years". The Council's interpretation of the original 2006 survey has also been criticised by its author: "Did I tell them that 70% of the trees were nearing the end of their life? No [...] Did I even suggest that the 10,000 bits of tree work were 'urgent'? No."

In response to opposition, a survey of households was conducted on affected streets, meant to determine the level of support for tree replacements. It only asked nearby residents and was addressed to 'the occupier', so one house, one vote. Campaigners also noted that the survey arrived in a plain brown envelope which could easily be mistaken for junk mail, in their view a deliberate attempt to depress the response rate.

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Chelsea Road Elm.

Ian Wilshaw.

Overall, 13.4% of households responded and the results were something of a dead heat. 6.75% agreed with the replacement programme and 6.65% disagreed. In the view of the Council, this was sufficient basis to claim that "the vast majority are supportive or indifferent", a broad category which conflates support (6.75%) with indifference (the remaining 86.6%), while at the same time confining disapproval rates to the headline-friendly phrase 'a small minority'. Cllr Bryan Lodge has since said of "the Streets Ahead tree renewal programme" that "the majority of people in the city want to see this work carried out." It is not clear how he knows this.

The Independent Tree Panel

The household survey informed the work of the Independent Tree Panel (ITP), set up in 2015. Where 50% or more of households said they opposed the work, the ITP would give a further view and make suggestions to the Council. According to the Council, it agreed with the panel in 70% of cases. According to Save Nether Edge Trees, a total of 802 trees were considered by the ITP. 174 of these trees were dead, dying, diseased or had already been removed. Of the remaining 628 trees, the ITP recommended retaining 312. Of those, 237 trees (76%) were marked for removal and replacement. On at least three streets where household opposition to the work was 50% or higher - Ashfurlong Close, Burlington Road and Furniss Avenue - trees were removed and replaced before they were referred to the ITP, and in some cases before residents had had their say.

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Tree protestor Calvin Payne.

Chris Saunders.

The most dramatic instance of the ITP's recommendations not being followed was the removal of trees at dawn on Rustlings Road on 17 November 2016, amidst strong household opposition. In their report, which was released at 4:45am on the day of the work, the ITP had recommended felling only two of the eight trees, which were all subsequently removed and replaced. A Freedom of Information request has shown that the Council had the ITP's recommendations at least a month before. The Council say the report was held back "due to concerns about public safety and the safety of the workforce".

The Court Battles

After the failed attempt by campaigners to subject the Streets Ahead contract to a judicial review, in 2017 the Council gained a High Court injunction to prevent protestors stopping work by entering 'safety zones'. These 'bunnies' - so called because they 'hop over' barriers - would then be breaching the injunction and be guilty of contempt of court. The wording of the injunction states that protestors are forbidden from, amongst other things, entering a safety zone, "that area delineated by barriers erected on the public highway around a tree to be felled."

Copies of this injunction were handed to, or read out to, protestors outside work barriers, in private gardens and public parks, in some cases suggesting that legal action would be taken against them when they were not breaching the injunction. The wording of this document was also changed to "around any street", greatly expanding the possible interpretation of its restrictions. More recently, new signs have been put up at work sites, stating that the safety zone "extends to the natural barrier being the wall, fence, or bush or other natural barrier that directly abuts the erected barriers", despite the judge stipulating that erected and continuous barriers on all four sides are required. It sounds like hair splitting, but these distinctions really matter in court.

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Hawksley Avenue, Hillsborough.

Kelly Dorset.

Despite substantial legal costs, the injunction has largely failed to deter protests. When the Council took Green Party Councillor Alison Teal to court for allegedly breaking it, the judge dismissed the case. Breaking the injunction requires a protestor to enter and/or remain inside a safety zone. As the judge noted, according to the Council's own evidence, once the safety zone in question was "completed... [Alison Teal] left". Labour councillors repeatedly referred to this result as 'a technicality', citing an interpretation of 'safety zone' different from the judge. Another protester, Calvin Payne, was found guilty of breaking the injunction by twice stepping into safety zones and given a suspended sentence, but is still peacefully protesting on a daily basis and 'bunnies' continue to enter work zones.

The injunction also explains why private security staff can now be seen on the streets, brought in by Amey to remove any protesters entering a work area and sanctioned to use reasonable force, and why police have begun making arrests again. Between protestors and arborists, what was once a relatively good-tempered relationship has soured into something more bitter, their differences amplified by the questionable 'reasonable' force used by security on elderly Sheffielders.

The PFI Contract

The Streets Ahead contract was signed in 2012, by which time Sheffield's roads were already long overdue for repair. Most street tree discussion revolves around the 14 'engineering solutions' that are priced into the contract and can be used to retain street trees at no extra cost. The Council's position is that where these solutions can be used, they are, but where other solutions to retain trees would incur extra costs, austerity budgets mean they can't be justified. Campaigners claim that the solutions are routinely ignored and point to instances where the Council say they have been used but seem unable to prove it.

Any attempt to fully understand the situation is hampered by crucial sections of the contract which are redacted in the name of 'commercial confidentiality'. This means that while the Council say Amey make no extra money by replacing trees, and the campaigners counter that fellings are done purely for shareholder profit, the reality is that we don't know, because legally we are not allowed to know. This, the Council points out, is neither unusual nor unlawful.

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Tree protestor Simon Crump.

Chris Saunders.

These gaps in public knowledge have been filled with suspicion, mistrust and, in some cases, paranoia. But whereas other cities have escaped their PFI deals by mutual consent, Sheffield Council seems entrenched, even as the tide of public opinion and national Labour Party policy moves in the opposite direction. The Council has also engaged in a PR war, often with little regard for proper context. For example, the claim that Streets Ahead affects 0.3% of Sheffield's trees is only true if you count every tree from Howden reservoir to Meadowhall. The proportion of street trees affected is considerably higher. Similarly, Cllr Terry Fox's 2016 claim that flexipave, a possible engineering solution, had been 'already used' in 143 instances to retain street trees has not stood up to scrutiny.

The blunt fact is that despite a sizeable and motivated protest movement, national media attention, the Shadow Chancellor sounding the end of PFIs, and figures as ideologically opposed as Michael Gove and George Monbiot castigating the Council, the basic realities of the contract have not changed. It seems hard not to draw the conclusion that this is because it could never and would never change.

The Council correctly point out that 'democracy' means elected officials carrying out public policy according to the rule of law. It's not for a minority, however motivated, to usurp that process. But democracy means other things too: discussion and debate, meaningful consultation, appropriate compromise on both sides. In Sheffield today, these elements feel like little more than a performance that must be undergone for the sake of appearance. Against the intractable, redacted and unforgiving terms of the PFI arrangement, such democratic rituals are pointless and powerless. Depending on your perspective, Streets Ahead may or may not have damaged Sheffield's environment - but it has certainly harmed our politics.

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