6 AM fellings and attempts to jail protestors: this is not a fresh approach
The recent Sheffield City Council elections were a powerful repudiation of council’s tree-felling policies and use of police in the service of multinational corporation Amey: Green Councillor Alison Teal, who the council has repeatedly and erroneously attempted to jail, increased her majority from 8 to nearly 1400. Despite only a fraction of seats being up for re-election, most of them very safe for Labour, the party lost seats particulary in areas with lots of felling, and saw majorities in formerly safe wards drastically reduced.
Shortly after the election, Cabinet Member for the environment Brian Lodge resigned. He claimed this was due to the abusive tactics of protestors, but could not cite any evidence of such — instead pointing to harassment councillors experienced before there was a tree campaign. The “pause” in fellings continued. This had been called just before the election. It was supposedly due to protestors’ increasingly dangerous tactics — a bizarre claim coming on the heels of disorder arrests of middle-aged women for tooting plastic instruments while chainsaws were running, and a vicar’s arrest for assault with tambourine. As the pause continued, so did revelations in the press.
Just before the pause, we had already learned that — despite claiming otherwise — the contract with Amey contained a requirement that half of Sheffield’s street trees be felled. Then, after years of refusing to reveal it, the council was forced to publish the contents of the contract’s Highway Tree ReplacementPolicy. This, it had been repeatedly asserted, called for trees to be felled only as a last resort, if certain conditions (“The Six Ds”) held. Now we learned that the policy contained no such commitment. Instead, Amey would be allowed to fell any trees it chose, with the only specification being that replacements would be low maintenance. Campaigners had long suspected that healthy trees were being felled in order to save on maintenance costs, and now it was confirmed. These two revelations were hugely significant — not least because they showed claims that the council relied on in court to be false. These claims had played a crucial role in bringing about the injunction the council received in Summer 2017 preventing campaigners from entering or remaining in fully erected safety barriers around trees to be felled. The ruling had been based on false testimony.
With these revelations, and the clear electoral verdict on the council’s behaviour, there was reason to hope that things were about to change. Lewis Dagnall, the newly appointed Cabinet Member for the Environment, promised “a fresh approach”and “compromise”. Campaigners began to think that negotiations — long requested — might be approaching. They began to hope that the injunction and the court cases based on it might be dropped, now that their false (and arguably deceptive) underpinnings were revealed.
And yet, Sunday morning at 6AM on 21 May, we awoke to the news that all four trees in Fitzalan Square had been felled. Amongst the only mature trees in the city centre, these had been specifically designated as important to retain. The council Tree Officer wrote:
“The city centre has the lowest percentage tree cover in Sheffield and there are relatively few large trees within the area. Visually, the trees provide a natural living feature that helps to soften the harsh lines of the existing built environment. The trees play an important role in trapping and removing pollutants from the surrounding air as well as providing dappled shade for users of the square. The canopies also help to break up wind movement that may otherwise funnel between the buildings. All four trees are well established with a significant potential longevity. All are considered to be in their prime.”
Clearly, the council knew that this felling, which went against the guidance they had received, would be unpopular. And yet they went ahead.
And then, on 21 May, we learned that — far from abandoning the fraudulently based injunction — the council was taking four protestors to court for violating it, and seeking prison terms. Even though it is now clear that the felling programme is committed to destroying half the street trees in Sheffield, simply to save maintenance costs. Even though it’s obvious that the council made false claims about this, in court, when seeking the injunction that is being used for the prosecution. Even though it’s also apparent that the “last resort” claim — equally important to the court case — was absolutely untrue. Unbelievably, while claiming to want a “fresh start” and to “restore trust”, on June 5 the council will attempt to jail four protestors for up to two years each.
A fresh start that restores trust would be an excellent thing. This behaviour is nothing like that.