It might seem as though Sheffield’s street trees have always been here, however most of the city’s highway trees were planted during the last 100 to 120 years.
Many were paid for, and planted by, Sheffield people who wanted the trees to brighten up their city.
• Some were paid for, a street at a time, by neighbourhood communities.
• Many were planted as living memorials to war-dead, as in Oxford Street, Crookesmoor (pictured).
• Grand avenues were planted by wealthy manufacturers.
• A few are remnants of ancient boundary-lines and field edges, and are still cherished as local landmarks by the communities around them.
2006 – 2007
Elliott Consultancy undertook an independent survey of Sheffield’s 35,057 highway trees. Although Elliott observed that 74% of trees were ‘mature’, he judged that 25,000 (71%) of the total tree population were healthy and safe enough to require no work. Approximately 10,000 trees did merit some further action including:
- 241 trees requiring crown reduction
- 995 trees needing more extensive surveys, which, when complete, might support the need for removal
This still only comes to a maximum of 1,236, a long way short of the 5,000 (approx.) felled by the end of 2016.
At some point between the completion of the survey and negotiating the contract, someone appears to have misinterpreted Elliott’s data. At a full Council meeting in July 2015, the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr. Leigh Bramall, referred to Elliott’s survey in the following statement:
“Just before Streets Ahead, we had an independent survey done, erm, assessing all the trees across Sheffield, and it found that 70% were nearing the end of their life and 10,000 needed urgent attention. …Now, the contract says up to 50 % of trees can be removed, erm, and actually that’s 18,000.”
Just to be clear:
- The term ‘mature’, which applied to 74% of street trees Elliott surveyed, is not the same as ‘nearing the end of life’.
- Elliott’s survey does not imply that 10,000 trees are ‘urgent’ cases – only 3,000 needed attention within three months.
- There is absolutely nothing within Elliott’s survey to support the removal of 18,000 highway trees (50%) – he said a maximum of 1,236 trees might merit replacement.
The £2.2 billion ‘Streets Ahead’ PFI contract was signed. This is a 25 year contract for highway, pavement and street light renewal, and includes the management of Sheffield’s highway trees.
Who signed the ‘Streets Ahead’ contract:
- Sheffield City Council (SCC) – some salaried Council Officers who worked on drafting the contract are still in place; some have since resigned.
- Amey Plc, owned by Ferrovial, a large international company based in Spain.
- The Department of Transport, who provided over one billion pounds of tax-payer’s money.
SCC has taken out loans to pay for half of the £2.2 billion contract. Financiers have transferred these loans from one banker to another as profitable assets. Sheffield Council Tax payers will be paying the interest on these loans for many years to come.
After the ‘Streets Ahead’ contract was signed, the previous 30 years’ worth of agreements negotiated with communities about the care of their street trees were lost or ignored.
A new survey is commissioned…
At the start of the PFI contract, Acorn Environmental Management Group (AEMG) were sub-contracted by Amey to re-survey Sheffield’s highway trees. SCC’s ‘old’ website referred to Acorn’s 2012 survey:
“…just over 1,000 trees for felling (dead, dying, diseased, dangerous) along with 6,300 other pruning and maintenance jobs were raised at that time.”
…but the results are ignored
In the same year Steve Robinson, SCC’s Head of Highway Maintenance, was interviewed by The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation; the article includes a list of works to be completed during the lifetime of the contract, one of which is “…replacing half of the city’s 36,000 highway trees…” Who else but the Council could have provided this figure?
Robinson created further confusion in February 2013 when, in an interview with The Sheffield Star, he said of street trees:
“…there are 1,250 across the city which we are taking out and replacing.”
Where this statement stands in relation to the previous year’s revelation that 18,000 trees could be up for replacement is anyone’s guess.
How Sheffield people began to wake up to what was happening
Due to a lack of public consultation, the first time most people heard about the ‘Streets Ahead’ programme was when felling notices were attached to trees, or when they realised that trees had gone. Isolated neighbourhood groups began to stand up for the trees in their area.
January 2014 – In Stocksbridge controversy flared around the felling of the 450-year-old Melbourne Oak. Despite local protests and an expert survey showing that the tree was ‘uncompromised’ the tree was felled anyway.
September 2014 – Dave Dillner, and other Heeley residents, started a campaign to prevent the felling of 189 mature trees that were to make way for a bus-lane. Due to their actions those trees were saved.
News of the ‘Streets Ahead’ programmes’ intentions began to spread. Tree-protection groups formed in Greenhill, Dore, Crookes, Nether Edge and Rivelin. Residents in Wayland Road blocked their street to felling crews.
Spring 2015 – Felling notices were attached to lime-trees on Rustlings Road.
May 2015 – SORT: ‘Save Our Rustlings Trees’, which later became ‘Save Our Roadside Trees’ was formed.
25th May 2015 – A petition was launched, calling for Sheffield City Council to save the Rustlings Road trees, and to revise their policies on street trees. Due to the strength of feeling in the city, the petition gathered signatures very quickly.
22nd June 2015 – SORT presented their petition to Sheffield City Council:
14th July 2015 – SORT Wrote a 32-page letter containing detailed evidence from respected sources to Cllr. Fox, Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport. The intention of this document, and of handouts distributed to every City Councillor, was “to support the case for the safe, long-term retention of street trees and to help encourage informed debate, based on evidence and sound knowledge of current best practice.”
SCC voted not to follow SORT’s recommendations and instead set up the first of two Highway Tree Advisory Forums for ongoing ‘dialogue.’
The ‘Tree Forums’ were attended by well-informed local people. Some of them brought professional experience in landscape design, local government, ecology, highways and arboriculture to the discussions. Some simply brought their passion to protect their home environment.
Faced with mounting expert criticism and opposition from communities, the Council soon abandoned the Tree Forums.
FOI (freedom of information) requests about the terms of the ‘Streets Ahead’ contract were answered with pages of blanked-out wording on the grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity.’ Although this can be standard procedure, the amount of blanked-out information (redactions) has been described as ‘unusual’ by an expert in PFI contracts.
July 2015 – At a full Council meeting the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr. Leigh Bramall, said:
“Just before Streets Ahead, we had an independent survey done, assessing all the trees across Sheffield, and it found that 70% were nearing the end of their life and 10,000 needed urgent attention. …Now, the contract says up to 50% of trees can be removed and actually that’s 18,000.”
Exactly which survey is Cllr. Bramall referring to? There is absolutely nothing within Elliott’s survey, or the one subsequently completed by Acorn, to support the removal of 18,000 highway trees (50%).
SCC have quoted so many different figures that it is hard to pin down their official position.
August 2015 – S.T.A.G. (Sheffield Tree Action Groups) was formed.
November 2015 – SCC launched the ‘Independent Tree Panel’ (ITP), whose members would provide advice over whether a tree should be saved or not. Over time, the majority of the ITP’s recommendations to save trees have been ignored by Amey and the Council. When the review process was complete in August 2017, the ITP had recommended saving 312 trees in total. The Council overruled them on 237 occasions (76% of the time) and only 75 trees were to be retained, questioning the purpose of the ITP process and exposing it as a needless waste of tax payer’s money. The total costs for administration and panel expenses stands at £131,705 (August 2017) with the final costs yet to be calculated.
November 2015 – SCC launched public ‘consultations’ on a street-by-street basis. Called the ‘The Independent Tree Panel Household Survey’, the survey’s ‘independence’ is a matter of debate bearing in mind it was administered by SCC. The questionnaires were hand-delivered through residents’ doors in plain envelopes, looking much like ‘junk-mail’, and unsurprisingly many were binned by mistake.
Emeritus Professor Greg Brooks, of The University of Sheffield, criticised the validity of the survey method in an expert analysis showing why the ‘Household Survey’ is unrepresentative and undemocratic. STAG has done its own door-to-door surveys by speaking to residents – our figures differ dramatically from Amey’s results.
Some have labelled the ‘Household Survey’ ‘divisive’ and a threat to the unusually strong community bonds that are considered to be one of Sheffield’s greatest assets. Local Authorities with expert-led, well-considered tree strategies – such as Bristol, Harrogate or Bromley – have never required surveys to shore up their decisions.
By the end of 2015, 3,068 trees had been felled across the city.
22nd January 2016 – Save Nether Edge trees handed a 6,500-strong petition to the Town Hall, which triggered a debate at the full Council meeting on the 3rd February.
3rd February 2016 – During the Council meeting Councillors made it clear that they were not interested in hearing the points raised in the petition. While the petition was read out Councillors wandered around the chamber and chatted amongst themselves, contrasting starkly with their usual professional demeanour. In response to a question from the gallery, Cllr Julie Dore informed those present that 3,388 trees had been felled since the start of the Streets Ahead contact. This meeting marked a pivotal point in the campaign.
5th February 2016 – Dave Dillner, then chairman of STAG, applied to the High Court seeking a Judicial Review.
8th February 2016 – The High Court issued an interim injunction which halted felling from February to April 2016.
The Information Commissioner investigates Sheffield City Council’s claims.
Dissatisfied with vague replies concerning Cllr.Fox’s claims about SCC’s use of Flexi-Pave, tree-campaigners escalated their enquiries to the Information Commissioner.
19th February 2016 – The Information Commissioner’s investigation found that SCC and Amey, despite their claims, had not used Engineering Solutions to retain healthy highway trees. This embarrassing revelation came to be known as ‘Fox’s Fabled Flexipave.’
The fight to save Sheffield’s trees reaches the High Court
22nd and 23rd March 2016 – Judge Gilbart examined Dave Dillner’s application, but did not grant permission for a Judicial Review to take place. Since then SCC have claimed that the ruling meant that their policies and procedures had been ‘approved’ by the High Court. Considering that Justice Gilbart did not rule on these matters, SCC’s interpretation of the judgement is grossly misleading.
During the hearing SCC’s representative told the High Court about the precise conditions necessary for SCC to remove a street tree that was deemed to be ‘damaging’ the pavement or highway:
“The damage must be such that it cannot be rectified by using reasonably practicable engineering solutions such as flexible paving materials, root removal, raising the footpath level or the use of thinner and/or smaller kerbs.”
SCC’s lawyer’s list of ‘practicable engineering solutions’ being used is at variance with the Information Commissioner’s findings only a month earlier, which stated that:
“…neither Amey or the Streets Ahead Team have ever commissioned or drafted any alternative highway engineering specifications for footway, edging (kerb) or drain construction that could enable the safe long-term retention of mature highway trees…”
STAG members have since continued to ask Amey and SCC to show us where any of the listed engineering solutions have been used to retain trees deemed to be ‘damaging’ – their replies have been vague (read private correspondence). Despite STAG’s citywide membership, we have found scant evidence of engineering solutions in use.
June 2016 – When the three-month injunction came to an end, felling recommenced with a ‘dawn raid’ on trees on Bannerdale Road. South Yorkshire Police (SYP) were involved for the first time.
November 2016 – During a peaceful campaign to protect a tree on Marden Road, involving five residents and members of STAG, two people were arrested under Section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1992), designed to deal with ‘Flying Pickets.’ The validity of these charges against people exercising their right to peaceful protest was hotly disputed by STAG.
Sheffield hits the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons
17th November 2016 – At 4.25am the ITP’s recommendation to save seven of the threatened trees on Rustlings Road was published on SCC’s website. Just prior to this, at 4am, residents were woken by police asking them to move their vehicles and tree felling began shortly afterwards, with no regard given to the highly anti-social hour. By 11.00am all but one of these ‘saved’ trees had been felled by Amey crews assisted by the South Yorkshire Police.
Two pensioners (pictured here on a happier day) were arrested in their pyjamas, along with another person, while peacefully protesting. All three were detained under public order offences and spent many hours in police cells. It was, said constituency MP Nick Clegg, like “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia rather than a Sheffield suburb.”
26th November 2016 – The Sheffield Central Constituency Labour Party’s chairman wrote publicly to Cllr. Julie Dore, Leader of Sheffield’s predominantly Labour City Council, saying:
“Long-standing members on whom the Party depends to elect Labour councillors feel they have been placed in the position of having to defend the indefensible.”
He described how party members had “expressed distress, bewilderment and outrage” and pointed out that SCC was “getting national media coverage and is painting the city in a bad light.”
Cllr. Bryan Lodge issued a statement about the Rustlings Road operation:
“This was not an acceptable course of action. We commit to publishing the Independent Tree Panel reports in a timely manner, with full and transparent information about how we have come to decisions.”
This promise has not been kept.
6th December 2016 – Professor of Environmental Geography, Ian Rotherham, gave a lecture called ‘The Sheffield Trees debacle – an avoidable crisis’ at Sheffield Hallam University. He said:
“Leading arboricultural practitioners have visited Sheffield to assess the situation, including authors of the National Policy Guidance on Urban Tree Management. Their conclusions are damning.”
December 2016 – Public condemnation of SCC, Amey and SYP lead to a surge in STAG membership. New tree action groups were set up in Millhouses, Burngreave and Pitsmoor, Ecclesall Road and Norfolk Park. Walkley, Wadsley, Hillsborough, Totley and Bradway all joined existing groups.
By the end of 2016 approximately 5,000 trees had been felled. SCC have since announced that they intend to fell a further 1,000 trees by the end of December 2017 – a date that marks the end of the 5-year ‘Highway Renewal’ period of the Streets Ahead contract.
Instead of responding to public concern by reducing felling, SCC and Amey have increased their felling of highway trees. SCC’s original total, quoted in 2012, of 1,250-2,000 to be felled in the first five years, is expected to become a total of 6,000 by the end of 2017.
A further 200 trees a year will be felled until the end of the contract in 2037, making a grand total of 10,000 trees. Many have questioned why the number of trees that SCC say have to be removed “as a last resort” should add up to such a convenient round figure.
Amey Plc. will be tasked with maintaining the remaining street trees until the ‘Streets Ahead’ contract finishes in 2037.
Since the end of 2016 quite a lot has happened! To find out about some of the most dramatic days that Sheffield has witnessed in recent years, read campaign news.