The Anti-Democratic Assault on Sheffield’s Trees
by Jennifer Saul
It is not just the trees of Sheffield that have been disastrously affected by the PFI agreement and felling operation. Sheffield’s democracy is also being destroyed.
To see this, start with the contract: despite its far-reaching, permanent, and highly controversial implications, the contract with Amey remains a secret. Freedom of Information Act requests have been met with documentation so deeply redacted that no sense can be made of them.
After protests began, the Council set up the Independent Tree Panel (ITP), ostensibly to give both local citizens and experts a voice in the process. This has accomplished no such thing. The ITP process began with street surveys, a deeply flawed vehicle for allowing local residents a voice. This was flawed in several ways. First, it assumed that only residents of streets with trees were entitled to any say over the trees’ fate. This ignores their immense value to neighbours, passsersby and anyone else who values unpolluted air and a lack of flooding. Next, the surveys were conducted using the long-discredited one household/one vote principle, which went out of fashion when women got the vote. Finally the surveys came in plain brown envelopes addressed to ‘occupier’, universal sign of junk mail. If 50% or more of the respondents to these surveys objected to felling, the ITP, made up of experts, examined the felling plans. Although many trees with high levels of local support did not go to the ITPs (because residents never saw the surveys) many did. And the ITPs recommended saving many trees. But these recommendations were ignored 87.3% of the time—including on streets where 100% of survey respondents wanted to keep the trees. The upshot is that many stakeholders were overlooked entirely, many of those who were consulted were consulted in a deeply flawed manner, and that both expert advice and wishes of residents were in many cases completely ignored.
The authoritarian behaviour toward protestors has been deeply undemocratic. Because elections are an imperfect vehicle for making the public will known, it is essential for a functioning democracy to allow (and indeed encourage) peaceful protest and dissent. Sheffield City Council’s attitude has consistently been to bully and intimidate. The tree campaign has on several occasions had sufficient signatures on protest petitions to force a debate at council. Each time, the Labour councillors have turned their backs, become absorbed in their phones, or otherwise indicated that they have no intention of listening or engaging. But the authoritarian tactics really took off with the dawn raid on Rustlings Road in Autumn 2016. In this 5am raid, locals were summoned from their beds by police who demanded that they move their cars so that felling could proceed. Two pensioners were arrested for refusing. Apologies were made and eventually charges were dropped, but the arrests continued. Over the next months, eleven more protestors—including councilor Alison Teal—were arrested, using Thatcher-era anti-union laws, a deeply ironic move from Sheffield’s Labour council. These charges too were dropped, and the South Yorkshire Police made it clear that they would no longer involve themselves in the dispute, as nothing illegal was taking place.
Despite the withdrawal of the police, the legal bullying has reached new heights. In Spring 2017, notices started to appear forbidding pedestrians on a wide range of streets with healthy condemned trees. Meanwhile, Amey began hiring bouncers to photograph protestors. In the summer, the next move became clear. 17 protestors, including councilor Alison Teal, received documents dozens of pages long, warning them of an impending injunction, and displaying an astonishing array of photographs and screenshots—revealing an extensive campaign of surveillance against these peaceful and lawful protestors. The letters demand that recipients sign promises never to attend or even to encourage protests against felling—even speech is being banned—on pain of imprisonment or extremely heavy financial penalties which could easily cost them their homes. Then these letters began to be handed to people who were not even a part of the protests—who happened to walk down the street, or to come out of their houses to see what was happening.
The Council is attempting not just to ignore but to crush all dissent, legally bullying and intimidating everyone from councillors fighting for their constituents wishes to passersby who stop to watch. This isn’t just undemocratic, it’s deeply authoritarian and anti-democratic.
– Jennifer Saul is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.