People are extremely upset about healthy trees being chopped down in one of Europe’s greenest cities as part of a PFI deal. Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing saga
Healthy trees in one of Europe’s greenest cities are being chopped down as part of a PFI deal, and locals are very upset about it.
In recent weeks, you may have seen pictures and video of pensioners chained to trees, or being arrested for blowing a small plastic trumpet
It all started when Sheffield City Council signed off on a £2.2bn Private Finance Initiative contract in 2012.
The 25 year ‘Streets Ahead’ contract, to be delivered by Amey plc, is for highway, pavement and street light renewal, but also includes the management of Sheffield’s highway trees.
Any tree that is judged as dangerous, diseased, dead, dying, damaging or discriminatory, is subject to be felled.
But the policy’s provoked a huge backlash with protesters angry over how the council have come to conclusions on which trees should be chopped down.
Environmental Secretary Michael Gove said on Sunday he would “do anything” to stop what he described as “environmental vandalism”.
So why is it controversial, how many trees are being felled, and why have the government stepped in?
Here’s everything you need to know about Treegate.
What’s the big fuss?
Last week the council confirmed, through information obtained via FOI request, that it is aiming to replace around half of Sheffield’s trees
This means that 17,500 will be felled when the contract ends in 2037.
If fewer than the 17,500 trees are felled then a “financial adjustment” between the council and Amey will have to be made.
The council insists that the figure is not a target, insisting that 10,000 will face the chop and be replaced by tree samplings planted across the city.
But tree campaigners say that many of these trees are healthy and are being removed unnecessarily.
5,500 trees have already been chopped down.
It’s led to a series of stand-offs between protestors, contractors, private security staff and police, with a court injunction imposed as a result.
Who are Amey and what is a PFI Contract?
Amey is an infrastructure support service provider, and works in the private and public sector selling services such as highways maintenance and facilities management.
The company won the bidding for the PFI contract ahead of fellow construction giant Carillion.
Its workers are the ones who undertake felling activities across Sheffield.
The term PFI describes any private sector involvement in public services.
If the council decided to fell the trees themselves then it would be the taxpayer who would foot the bill.
Why are people getting arrested?
(Image: Yorkshire Post / SWNS.com)
Campaigners have been taken away in police vans for obstructing the work of tree fellers.
A majority of the arrests have taken place under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
Earlier this month South Yorkshire Police deployed its Protest Removal Team for only the second time in its 12 year history, in an attempt to remove a campaigner crouching under a cherry picker.
The police’s chief constable, Simon Watson, has said that the force “regrets” that tree protests have led to the arrests of “decent people”, adding that the police had “bent over backwards” not to take people away.
Around 25 people have been arrested since the start of the year.
What are people being arrested for?
Just last week a 57-year-old woman was arrested for blowing a small plastic trumpet at police officers during a protest.
The campaigner set off a rape alarm, after telling police that the council’s contractors were “raping the trees”.
Then the following day a woman with a broken arm and a pink glittery recorder was also arrested while trying to halt the destruction of a lime tree.
She was a group of about 40 “tree protectors” who demonstrated with an array of noise-making instruments, in solidarity with the trumpet player, before she was taken away by police.
A newly ordained vicar armed with a tambourine was also arrested, reportedly because she chased after the woman with the recorder, who had her car keys.
It comes as another man was arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated harassment under the Public Order Act 1986.
Entire residential streets have been effectively “shut down” with scenes of 30 or so police commonplace, alongside riot vans and security guards at various tree fellings.
Why is there a pause in the felling?
Two days ago the council announced a temporary halt to its felling programme.
It said that its contractor Amey was “exploring options for completing the work and will present these options to the council.”
Two Labour MPs in Sheffield called for a pause to the felling in the city, in the wake of further arrests of protestors at recent felling sites.
Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, said: “One thing is clear, this dispute cannot be solved by ramping up security. That’s why I believe that the only possible solution is a halt in the fellings and meaningful mediation with local residents going forward.”
While Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central called for a pause in the work to allow for more discussion to resolve the current conflict, “putting the views of residents on affected streets first.”
It’s the second time that work has been halted, after disturbance between protesters and security staff in January stopped felling for four weeks.
It is not certain why the council made the decision to pause the felling again, but with increased police presence on the streets and local elections on the horizon in May it doesn’t come as a surprise.
How big of an issue are trees in Sheffield?
Sheffield Tree Action Groups, the main group of campaigners against the felling, make up just under 10,000 people.
People from all backgrounds, from the civil service to local residents, voice their dissent in organised street protests.
Last year a study by mapping firm, Esri UK, found that Sheffield was the sixth greenest city in the UK, with 22.1% of the city’s map made up of greenery.
The Green Party have had representation on the council since 2004, and currently have four councillors.
Former leader of the party Natalie Bennett finished third in the Sheffield Central constituency in the recent general election.
Where does it go from here?
Given the PFI contract ends in 2037 there may be no end in sight.
The council and Amey are currently in talks about the contract and arrests of tree protesters. Any major announcements could be issued after local elections on May 3.
According to Labour Councillor Jack Scott the council would be projected to lose around £300m if they terminated the contract today.
Three days ago it was confirmed that the government wouldn’t step in over the £2.2bn contract.
With 20 years of the contract left thousands of trees are still projected to be felled