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Tree-hugging protesters take back control in Sheffield

Urban planning

Tree-hugging protesters take back control in Sheffield

The struggle to save a city’s trees divides people and politicians

Protesters protect a Huntingdon elm in Sheffield, where thousands of trees are destined for the axe © PA

Trees breathe life into our urban landscapes, a reminder of the natural world amid the city smog. Even the most mild-mannered, stoical Brits can be radicalised to defend their place in our leafy streets.

In the northern city of Sheffield a dispute over mass tree felling has inflamed bourgeois passions and awakened unprecedented levels of civic activism. The local authority has sanctioned chopping down thousands of oaks, purportedly to address the city’s potholes and buckling pavements: 17,500 trees — half of the city’s tree population — face the axe as part of the 25-year “tree management strategy”.

Furious residents have taken to the streets, leading to dramatic stand-offs with the police officers sent out to enforce the private contractor Amey’s ability to cut down and remove the trees. The protesters claim that many of the trees classed for removal as “dead, dying, diseased, damaging or dangerous” are safe and sturdy, but the authorities seem to believe it is simpler to cut down a tree than fix a wonky kerb.

The torrid scenes include retirees out on early-morning patrols to spot the high-vis vests of Amey’s felling teams. The axemen are then blocked by tree-huggers, until police and private security teams undertake their forcible removal. The resulting injunctions and arrests have caused outrage, but there is a community carnival aspect to the resistance too. Local hero Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of the band Pulp (who once sang “those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing”) helped give musical voice to a fundraising concert.

Sheffield’s tree-felling scandal has gone national. Michael Gove, environment secretary and latterly the Conservative party’s own rainbow warrior, has sailed into the dispute claiming he will do “anything required” to end this “environmental vandalism”.

It is not clear what exactly the environment secretary can do (he may not intend to wrap himself around a tree). Yet he grasps why this dispute matters. The mistakes made by the council speak to all that is currently troubled about British public life and the disconnection between public services, outsourcing companies and the communities they serve.

Felling has been temporarily halted in the wake of a BBC film that focused on heavy-handed policing and showed Sheffield City Council’s Labour leader refusing to answer questions. Chopping, however, has been paused before; the battle is far from won. Amey was licensed as part of a £2.2bn deal struck, as with most public service contracts, with a view to minimising the costs.

Sheffield Council claimed there was no numerical target for removing trees, but a freedom of information request revealed otherwise. If fewer than the target number of trees go, the Sheffield taxpayer will be on the line — officials call it “a financial adjustment”. The current council leadership resolutely defends the strategy, aware of the huge costs if they U-turn.

Were the previous set of councillors, who agreed the contract, naive or just under pressure after seven years of austerity? When the Conservatives took power in 2010, health and foreign aid were ringfenced and councils were exposed to the harshest cuts. A further 77 per cent cut of funding from central government will take place before 2020. Against this background, local councils lack the capacity and resources to negotiate robustly with contractors.

Nothing says a lack of control like watching trees come crashing down outside your house while being helplessly restrained by an unflinching security guard

The tree dispute reveals the problems of inexperienced local politicians. Belligerent councillors are taking voters for saps — unwilling to concede they have lost their trust. One solution is the growing ranks of metro mayors: directly elected supremos who speak for bunched-together regions of cities and towns. The groupings are sometimes awkward but the positions attract high-calibre candidates — former cabinet minister Andy Burnham in Manchester, for example, and ex-John Lewis boss Andy Street in the West Midlands.

Sheffield will soon have its own metro mayor. It could be Dan Jarvis, a soldier-turned-MP who was once the future of the Labour party. Assuming Mr Jarvis is elected in May, his first task will be to rebuild relations between Sheffield’s voters and their representatives.

The slogan “Take back control” was responsible more than anything else for the UK’s Brexit vote. Aligning leaving the EU with regaining a sense of purpose spoke to what many Britons care about.

Nothing provokes a feeling of lack of control like watching trees come crashing down outside your house while being helplessly restrained by an unflinching security guard. Tackling populism in all forms depends on renewing the British sense of community. In Sheffield, the fightback has begun by rescuing those “useless” trees.

This article has been updated to clarify that Sheffield’s street tree population is around 36,000.

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