Sheffield city council has announced an immediate pause of its controversial tree-felling scheme after a barrage of criticism.
Thousands of trees assessed as dead, dying, dangerous or diseased have been cut down under a £2bn project to improve the condition of the streets.
However, campaigners who oppose the scheme believe many of the felled trees are healthy.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said on Sunday he would “do anything” to stop what he described as the “environmental vandalism”.
A spokeswoman for Sheffield city council confirmed to the Guardian that the tree-felling was being paused for a few weeks.
The announcement will be met with relief and some scepticism by campaigners who have fought a long battle to save the street trees, of which 5,500 have been felled amid scores of arrests.
The Labour-run council began felling old street trees in 2012 under a 25-year private finance initiative (PFI) contract with Amey called Streets Ahead.
Despite sustained criticism of the project, the authority has repeatedly refused to suspend or cancel the works and has said it would be liable to pay millions of pounds in penalties if it terminated the deal.
Asked if the government would step in to help pay contract termination penalties, Gove said on Sunday: “We will make sure that we will do anything that is required in order to stop this.”
He also said the council had been “strong-armed and draconian” with citizens who had tried to protest, and called on the Labour leadership to intervene.
Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, wrote to the council last week offering to formally mediate in the dispute.
In a statement, the council said it was halting tree-felling work temporarily due to “the actions of a handful of people unlawfully entering the safety zones where tree replacement work is being carried out”.
The council said it had become increasingly difficult to carry out the work without endangering the safety of staff or residents and that Amey was reviewing the scheme’s safety.
However, it said the wider programme would continue once the safety review was complete. It added: “Given the increasingly dangerous tactics that have been seen in recent months, Amey have had to employ security staff at tree replacement sites.
“In the interests of both residents and staff, Amey are exploring options for completing the work and will present these options to the council. During this review period, only trees which are dangerous will be worked on.”
Alison Teal, a Green party councillor in Sheffield, said she had a “cynical” view of the council’s motives. “The local elections are on 3 May and I’m guessing Labour canvassing returns aren’t looking good. It’s likely they’re hoping a pause will protect Labour from a growing backlash.”
This month a freedom of information request revealed that the council’s PFI deal specifies that up to 17,500 trees – half the city’s 36,000 trees – could be felled as part of the work to maintain the roads and pavements
Sheffield council’s cabinet member for the environment, Bryan Lodge, denied that the 17,500 figure was a target, but the revelation prompted three of the city’s Labour MPs to call for an end to the programme