Greater Sheffield is one of Britain’s leafiest areas. There are about 100,000 trees in the city’s parks and green spaces, and another 35,000 lining its streets: mostly cherry, sycamore, lime, ash and rowan, many dating back to Victorian times.
However, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, in 2012 Sheffield City Council agreed a contract with the infrastructure firm Amey to remove half of these street trees and replace them with saplings.
Work began in late 2012, and thousands were removed, to the dismay of many residents. A bitter five-year battle began which saw furious protests to protect endangered trees. Between 2016 and 2018, police attended 40 tree protests, and arrested 41 people.
Last year, an independent inquiry was set up to examine the issue, chaired by the former UN official Sir Mark Lowcock. It issued a damning report earlier this month.
Why did the council decide to cut down the trees? In the first decade of the century, Sheffield’s roads were in a dire state – potholes were a particular problem – and the city’s many trees contributed to that.
In 2012, during the austerity period, and in the absence of other funding options, the Labour-run council signed a 25-year, £2.2bn Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract with Amey to manage its streets, dubbed Streets Ahead.
In 2007, the arboriculturist Elliott Consultancy had submitted a report on Sheffield’s street trees, finding that 1,000 of the city’s 35,057 needing felling, and that another 9,000 needed remedial work; it classified 74% as “mature” or “overmature”, which does not in itself indicate the need for removal.
Somehow, this report was misinterpreted by the council as meaning that around half of all trees “were ready for replacement”; it seems that the city’s highway engineers may have thought that this would make road maintenance easier. Amey agreed to remove and replace 17,500.
When did the removals begin?The first trees, those marked as “dangerous”, were felled in late 2012. Many others would follow: residents found felling notices attached to trees in their areas, or simply discovered that they had been cut down.
In early 2014, the 450-year old “Melbourne Oak” was removed in Stocksbridge in the northwest of the city, although a survey had shown that it was “uncompromised”.
Before long, resistance had erupted into a well-organised campaign against what was dubbed a “chainsaw massacre”. Pressure groups were formed, and an umbrella organisation: Sheffield Tree Action Groups (Stag).
Petitions were published, collecting thousands of signatures. In 2016, an application was made for a judicial review in the High Court, which was rejected, on the grounds that the council had acted within its legal authority.
Why did it become so bitter?After the judicial review, both sides became more militant. The council developed a “bunker mentality”, according to Lowcock’s report.
Protesters started using non-violent direct action: they conducted early morning patrols for Amey’s felling teams, and created a “flying squad”, a small group of residents who travelled round the city to stand under trees or obstruct works wherever they were taking place.
The lowest point was reached in November 2016, when police woke residents on Rustlings Road at 5am to order them to move their cars before the tree surgeons arrived.
Two pensioners, Jenny Hockey, 70, and Freda Brayshaw, 71, were arrested following a standoff with police. Sheffield Hallam’s then MP Nick Clegg likened the scene to something from “Putin’s Russia”.
How was the row resolved?By early 2018, reported Lowcock, “the council had united almost everyone against them”. It had taken out an injunction against one of its own Green councillors, and was pursuing protesters with claims for damages that could have bankrupted them.
By then it had endured years of negative headlines, from the national as well as the local media.
The tree-cutting project had been condemned by figures from Michael Gove to Jarvis Cocker. The council’s PR team was issuing internal warnings about the reputational damage involved.
“Put simply, there is no good picture of older residents being arrested. There is no good way to photograph a tree lying in the street,” wrote its head of media.
Finally, the programme was paused in March 2018 and, after local elections in early May, a new cabinet member was appointed to handle the issues. The council entered mediation with campaigners, and the policy was moderated.
What did the inquiry conclude?That the council’s approach to street trees was “flawed”, and that the decision to remove the trees was “misjudged”. Lowcock found that it had ignored sensible recommendations, including from its own Independent Tree Panel.
It had also misled the public and the courts about the details of its tree programme, consistently denying that there was a policy of removing 17,500.
In fact, the council deceived itself too: “deluded” officials persuaded themselves that “all was well”. Officials even considered killing healthy trees by removing bark so that “Stag could no longer claim they were defending ‘healthy’ trees”.
What damage was done?“Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost,” the report found. In total, some 5,600 trees were removed, though a similar number of saplings have been planted.
Public trust in the council was undermined. Council staff, campaigners and contractors were adversely affected by the stress and bad feeling. (Some campaigners behaved in “unacceptable” ways “including abusing and harassing public officials”.)
The inquiry described it as “a dark episode” in Sheffield’s recent history. On the plus side, however, the Lowcock report concluded that “roads, pavements and lighting in most of the city” are now “much better”.