How has the tree battle come to this?

The Sheffield City Council has been, by any measure, behaving appallingly toward its citizens in its eagerness to see that healthy trees are felled. Just within the last year, they’ve carried out a dawn raid, rousing pensioners from their beds at 5AM to move their cars and arresting those who didn’t comply. They used Thatcher era strikebreaking laws to arrest nearly a dozen more protestors soon after. All of these charges were dropped, and soon the South Yorkshire Police refused to cooperate any further in the efforts against peaceful protestors. But the battle continues. Despite the ruling of its own hand-picked Independent Tree Panel that most of the condemned trees could be saved, the council is forging ahead in its determination to destroy healthy trees. And these aren’t just any healthy trees being destroyed. They are beautiful mature cherry and lime trees; a rare Elm tree home to a colony of endangered butterflies; and a series of trees planted as memorials to individual soldiers killed in World War 1. Such is their determination that they have now taken out injunctions against protestors (including a city councillor, Alison Teal) forbidding them to even speak in favour of tree protests or park their cars anywhere that somebody might want to do road works. And they have issued bullying documents threatening such injunctions even against passersby who stop to watch.

This is not the behaviour of a council behaving reasonably. A council behaving reasonably would enter into genuine dialogue with protestors who have repeatedly and carefully spelled out their views and objections, attempting to have discussions. Instead, Labour councillors turn their backs and check their phones when petitions force a “debate” at full council. When STAG did manage to secure meetings with the council, these were not genuine meetings with full discussions of solutions. Instead, the council attempted to “sell” them on such offers as two seats on the Independent Tree Panel— even though it had already become clear that the panel’s’ advice was being almost completely ignored.

A council behaving reasonably would respond with interest to the recent report from highway engineer Peter Townsend. Townsend noted that despite the continued presence of trees that would supposedly prevent resurfacing of Montgomery Road, the road had been successfully resurfaced. And this was, to him, wholly unsurprising: normal practice would not require the removal of the trees. But the council seemed uninterested in the views of any engineers other than those of Amey, the contractor.

A key reason for the council’s intransigence is probably the nature of the 25-year monopoly that private multinational Amey has under the PFI scheme. We can’t know for sure because of the unprecedented degree of secrecy regarding the contract, which makes it immune to public scrutiny. It may be that this makes commitments that somehow require the unnecessary felling of large numbers of healthy trees: we have no way to know. We do know, however, that the council seems to feel locked into a contract that is proving completely unsustainable and indefensible. And, such is the way with PFI contracts, it seems almost impossible to open this up to proper scrutiny and review.

However, we also know that the council has been handed an excellent justification to renegotiate the contract. Health and Safety expert Richard Davis recently explained at a public council meeting that during the contract negotiation Amey failed to disclose a conviction for the death of an employee in 2011, despite being required to do so by the terms of the contract. This breach of contracting conditions gives the council potential to renegotiate from a position of strength. This offers an immensely valuable opportunity.

What should we do with this opportunity? Have a genuine, open discussion in good faithof what is happening and what can be done. It’s not yet too late for Sheffield’s trees, and it’s not yet too late for Sheffied’s democracy either. All that is required is open discussion and reasonableness. STAG has offered that repeatedly. The council needs to do the same.

To donate to the legal fund defending peaceful protestors, go here.

To join the campaign go here.

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