The residents of Sheffield on the brink of winning the battle of the trees
At the wheel of his car, Chris Rust stops and points out a tree. “There was a terrible battle over there!” Dozens of multicoloured pennants hang around the wide trunk. The Chelsea Road Elm, named for the street it was planted on 120 years ago, looks immortal. Nonetheless, it was very nearly cut down, as Chris, the co-president of Sheffield Tree Action Groups explains. It was a close-run thing but, on the 12th February, the workers responsible for the maintenance of Sheffield’s highways decided not to fell the famous elm, known well beyond the city’s borders.
The tree was saved by the mobilisation of Nether Edge residents and the presence of a rare butterfly — the white-letter hairstreak — in its foliage. But against the wishes of the City Council. Because the town hall claims that the Chelsea Road elm, of which the locals are so fond, is diseased and represents a danger to pedestrians.
For now, the elm’s sentence is suspended. But other trees haven’t been so lucky. Since 2012, a little more than 5,000 roadside trees, said to be decaying or with roots judged to be a nuisance, have been reduced to sawdust in this city in the centre of England.
In the first years, the residents didn’t react. They didn’t know that a felling campaign of great magnitude had just begun. Then, over the passing months, all over the city, lime trees, cherry trees, and elms were decimated. In January 2014, the noose tightened on an oak tree, many hundreds of years old. The district of Stocksbridge took up the tree’s case with the town hall. The oak could not be saved but, from hilltop to hilltop, from group to group, the news came to circulate among Sheffield’s half-a-million inhabitants.
In 2015, when the trees of the city centre found themselves on the front line, opposition to the tree-felling campaign intensified. Chris Rust, a retired academic, joined the movement at this point. “My ambition was to devote my free time to music, until the day I learned that eleven of the twelve trees on my street were condemned,” the septuagenarian recalls.
That year, Sheffield’s tree protectors started to coordinate their action. They launched a petition and legal action. The tree-felling campaign was suspended for three months. When it restarted in September 2016, the tensions between the authorities and their opponents went up a notch: from now on, the tree-felling teams would be under police protection.
The police are using powers from the 1992 trade union act to arrest protesters who prevent workers from carrying out their work. The opponents will not allow themselves to be intimidated: determined to frustrate the process of destruction, they adapt their tactics.
Day and night, the tree defenders track the Amey trucks, the company responsible for the tree-felling. Some activists keep watch at the depot, while others position themselves at strategic crossroads on the road network so as to not lose track of the different teams at work. On the messaging service WhatsApp, the Amey trucks’ registration numbers circulate quickly and each group of “friends of trees” use their own initiative to complicate the woodcutters’ task.
“Among the different groups, there are local associations, but also groups of ‘bunnies’ and ‘geckoes’”, Chris Rust says, a mischievous expression behind his tinted glasses. The “bunnies” seed trouble by jumping over the protective barriers erected around the tree to be felled, faces covered with masks. Then they disappear as quickly as they appeared. The “geckoes”, for their part, position themselves as close as possible to the tree to impede the work of the fellers: the presence of a person underneath a tree is enough to prevent its felling.
In parallel with their peaceful direct actions in the field, the members of STAG try to negotiate with the council. They meet with a brick wall. The council have refused three times to enter mediation with the collective.
At the heart of the conflict is the 2.5 billion euro contract signed by the local authority with Amey, a subsidiary of the Spanish conglomerate Ferrovial.
Instead of borrowing to finance important works on Sheffield’s pothole-ridden roads, the city of Sheffield signed a 25-year public-private partnership with Amey in 2012. This type of contract, known as Private Finance Initiative (PFI), allows a public investment to be partially financed by the private sector. In the 1990s and 2000s, British public authorities often took advantage of these financial mixtures. In the medium term, they prevent the public deficit from growing. But in the long term, financing public buildings or public works through banks, investment funds and private enterprises is much more expensive for taxpayers than regular borrowing.
The pro-tree activists of Sheffield understand that the very constraining terms of this partnership, negotiated in the greatest secrecy, partially explain the authorities’ inflexibility. However, a mystery remains. Why is the Labour majority of Sheffield council determined to fell a total of 18,000 trees — half the city’s street trees — before 2037, as revealed by documents obtained by the opponents of the felling?
Rebecca Hammond has thought about it a lot. This pharmacist, very active in the Sheffield Tree Action Groups, doesn’t understand where this number has come from, nor how it could have been written into the contract which binds Sheffield and Amey over a quarter of a century. In 2007, five years after the signature of the controversial PPP, an independent study of the city’s street trees had concluded that 74% of the trees planted on the public roadway were in good health. Experts consulted by STAG have since confirmed this analysis.
Certainly, the council has committed to replace each and every tree felled, but the effect produced by a fragile sapling is incomparable to the presence of a multi-centenarian oak tree, or a cherry tree from the Middle Ages. “The canopy is just not the same. The landscape of the streets is changed and this affects air quality and the feeling of wellbeing which the presence of plants in cities provides,” Rebecca says.
The residents of Abbeydale Park Rise know from experience how much the cherry trees that border this residential road in the south-east of Sheffield enrich their daily lives. In mid-April, Stefanie Barringer and her neighbours organised a street party to celebrate the flowering of the cherry trees. The event attracted 200 people. The cherry trees cement the neighbourly relationships of the 70 middle-class households living on Abbeydale Park Rise. “At Christmas, each family decorates the cherry tree in front of their house. We give a hand to elderly people who need help to hang their fairy lights. People come from all over town to see the decorated trees!” says Stefanie, who has been honouring the tradition since she moved to Abbeydale Park Rise seven years ago.
At the end of June 2017, when the Amey employees arrived to cut down 19 cherry trees, Stefanie and her neighbours came out onto the pavements en masse to defend the trees bought by the residents 40 years ago. It was then that the residents had a nasty surprise — they were handed a letter heavy with menaces. The letter warned the residents that the council had obtained a court injunction against the tree-felling opponents. To avoid stiff judicial consequences, protesters had to sign undertakings not to prevent the Amey workers from carrying out their task.
From then on, the battle between Sheffield City Council and the STAG activists became venomous. The council doubled down on its stern warnings to tree protectors. This January, a couple, both anti-felling activists, were investigated by the police on suspicion of poisoning. Susan and John Unwin were accused of having put laxative in the tea and orange juice served to Amey workers three months before. Two months later, on 22 March, a woman who blew into a plastic trumpet to protest the tree-felling was arrested by the police.
On 26 March, after many tense confrontations between protesters and police, Sheffield City Council announced a provisional suspension of tree felling — six weeks out from the local elections. And, after the ballots are counted, what will happen? Chris Rust dares to hope that victory is almost at hand for the almost 10,000 supporters of STAG. “The police can’t mobilise 30 officers per day to chop down one tree. They don’t have enough police for that,” says the co-president. If Sheffield puts an end to its ‘ecological vandalism’ — as Michael Gove, Theresa May’s Minister of the Environment, calls it — Chris Rust still won’t let his guard down. “It’s not just an environmental problem that has been raised. What is at stake is the exercise of democracy at the local level.”