While Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has been working hard to boost the green credentials of the Conservatives we have seen Sheffield City Council engaged in an equally energetic and high profile effort to undermine the Labour Party’s reputation in that respect. Thousands of healthy street trees have been needlessly destroyed. According to Sheffield Tree Actions Groups:
“5,500 of Sheffield’s street trees have been chopped down in the last five years – another 12,000 will go over the next 20 years.”
As Gove told the Yorkshire Post last September:
“Having listened to people who have been on the frontline, it seems to me clear that the council has no adequate defence for continuing to cut down trees in the way that it has been.
“Sheffield is losing, we are losing, an amazingly valuable natural resource and the justification for it seems as flimsy as an autumn leaf. The idea that because tree roots might potentially cause a kerbstone here to be slightly out of alignment or might theoretically pose a risk to someone’s mobility and therefore that justifies felling trees that have been here for generations is bonkers.
“What the council should be doing, I think, is trying to work with the contractor, Amey, to find different solutions rather than cutting down trees.”
The Woodland Trust has offered to help the Council with cost effective alternatives to felling. But in a spirit of bureaucratic intransigence the offer has been spurned.
Chopping down 17,500 trees over 25 years would mean that almost half of the City’s trees would go – to be replaced with saplings. The Council has claimed that the trees are only removed as a “last resort”. They said they applied the “six Ds” criteria – if the trees are “Dangerous, Dead, Diseased, Dying, Damaging or Discriminatory” (the last category being concerned with the problems for mobility if the pavement is obstructed or uneven).
However a Freedom of Information request revealed that the Council contracted the firm Amey to remove the 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”. You can stipulate that trees only be removed as a “last resort”. Or you can stipulate that 17,500 must be chopped down regardless. But you can’t do both. The Council claim to be do the former while in reality it has been doing the latter. No wonder they had to be forced to disclose the terms of the contract.
Huge sums are being spent on this. The tree removals are part of a £2.2 billion PFI contract to cover 25 years. Of course that would need to be renegotiated and doubtless penalty clauses would apply. But surely it would be cheaper to cancel unwanted and unnecessary work than to proceed with it – even allowing for how inept and perverse the terms of a contract approved by Sheffield City Council has the potential to be.
The Council has said it will “pause” the tree felling but only for a few weeks. Gove has said he wants to halt the ecological vandalism in the City. Yet in the spirit of local democracy is it not for the people of Sheffield to take that responsibility?
A third of the Council seats are up for election on May 3rd. At present Labour has a big majority – with 56 seats against 20 Lib Dems and four each for UKIP and the Green Party. At the General Election last year Labour saw their vote share increase across the city and they unexpectedly gained Sheffield Hallam from the Lib Dems thus ousting Nick Clegg. So Labour may feel they can take the city for granted. Those who want to save the trees have a chance to prove them wrong.