'It’s more economic to cut down a tree than maintain it for twenty years'

Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker joins protesters against the felling of trees in Sheffield. 

Sheffield City Council signed a 25-year PFI highways’ maintenance contract with Amey, owned by Ferrovial, for £2.1bn in 2012. Now Amey is chopping down almost half of the city's street trees. Is this to cut costs, or are these trees 'dangerous, dead, diseased, dying, damaging or discriminatory'? PAUL MILES investigates

My eight-year old daughter will be very upset. She loved watching squirrels and birds in the branches.

Yvonne Wragg returned home after her day at work to find her front door barricaded. She had been teaching at a local Sheffield school when access to her flat in the leafy conservation area of Nether Edge had been blocked off with a cordon of temporary metal fencing panels.

This was patrolled by dozens of police and security guards. That morning, two pensioners and a man and woman over 50 had been manhandled away by security to clear the way for the erection of the barricades. Some of those among the private security and 30 police officers had filmed the proceedings.

Once Wragg had been allowed into the cordoned area, she was escorted to her door by security guards in hard hats. On her front step, she faced the phalanx of high-viz jackets - mostly inside the barriers - and a dozen local residents outside them, some waving placards, one wearing a fox mask.

Engineering solution

Through tears, Wragg shouted: “I bought this house because it’s on a tree-lined street!” The fox and his friends applauded. But on a chilly afternoon earlier this year, the 100-year old lime tree on the pavement outside Wragg’s small and unassuming 1980s flat was being felled, one of 13 healthy mature trees on the 400m long quiet residential road scheduled for the chop. 

In 2012 Sheffield City Council signed a 25-year PFI highways’ maintenance contract with Amey, owned by Ferrovial, for £2.1bn.

The controversial ‘Streets Ahead’ contract includes the felling of up to half of the city’s 36,000 street trees, which, according to the council, fall into one of ‘six Ds’: dangerous, dead, diseased, dying, damaging (to kerbs, pavements or roads) or discriminatory (meaning impeding access for wheelchairs or buggies).

Even ardent tree defenders agree that if a tree is dangerous, dead, diseased or dying, then cutting it down may be the best option but ‘damaging’ and ‘discriminatory’ are causing a justified furore.

Healthy trees for which there could be an alternative engineering solution - such as flexible paving, narrower kerb stones or root pruning - are being felled needlessly.

Watching squirrels

Darren Butt, Amey’s account director, was present at that day’s felling, but didn’t know why the tree was being axed. He referred to paperwork. “It’s obstructing the highway,” he said.

But in 12 years of living there, Wragg had never known the 30m tall tree - which briefly leant at an angle of about 20 degrees into the road from about 3m up - to cause a problem.

My eight-year old daughter will be very upset. She loved watching squirrels and birds in the branches.

The Independent Tree Panel, however, had noted “impact damage” and suggested replacement. The other tree removed that day on Thornsett Road meanwhile could have been spared if the panel’s advice had been heeded. They suggested that simply fitting a half-width kerbstone would solve the problem.

The removal of these splendid trees will negatively impact Wragg and her daughter. “I suffer from anxiety and depression and seeing these lovely mature street trees helped with that,” she told me when I sat with her in her flat - once I had been escorted through the safety zone surrounding the tree-felling outside her door.

“My eight-year old daughter will be very upset. She loved watching squirrels and birds in the branches.”

Determination and ingenuity

There are many no-brainer arguments for not cutting mature, healthy trees: the rich biodiversity they support, the mental health benefits for local residents, the carbon dioxide they sequester, the mitigation of urban heat island effect, flood prevention and even a boost to property values.

No wonder local residents of all ages, ethnicities and class have turned out to peacefully protest and, sometimes to take part in non-violent direct action such as scaling erected barricades to enter the ‘safety zone’, causing a halt to proceedings for health and safety reasons.

This year has seen an increase in police presence and private security whenever felling is attempted. “The police force that we pay for as local residents is being used against local residents to enforce [Amey’s] will,” says 60-something campaigner Annette Taberner. “I think that’s appalling.”

In the past few months, media attention has increased, the protests have grown and national figures such as musician Jarvis Cocker, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, have sided with the tree defenders.

While more than 5,500 of the mature deciduous trees have already been felled - many to be replaced by small exotic species - the determination and ingenuity of the tree defenders has been growing.

More economic

Some residents have been fixing bat boxes to doomed trees with the hope that the legal protection afforded bats will mean host trees are spared. Earlier that day I had watched as an arborist employed by Amey’s sub-contractor, Acorn, ascended in a cherry picker to inspect a bat box affixed to a tree scheduled for felling.

After studying images on his inspection camera, the arborist removed the box. “Are you a bat expert?” I asked. “I’ve watched Batman four times!” he jested.

Meanwhile, the woman who claimed to be Acorn’s real bat expert - but who wore no identification and refused to give her name - watched proceedings from the pavement below, too far away to see any camera images. “These bat boxes are just homemade, placed there as a delaying tactic,” she said. “They’re not constructed or sited properly to attract bats to roost.”

It’s no wonder the campaigners are resorting to such creative ways to halt the chainsaws. The council repeats its mantra that felling is ‘the last resort” but with so little use of ‘alternative engineering’ solutions, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Perhaps the real reason is cost? “It’s more economic to cut down a tree than it is to maintain a mature tree for twenty years,” says Ian Rotherham, Professor of Environmental Geography at Sheffield Hallam University.

Environmental vandalism

“It’s also easier and more cost-effective for Amey to resurface the pavements if the trees are gone,” he says. “Sheffield City Council has long-since got rid of its full-time ecologists to save costs but this means there was no scientific input into the contract,” says Rotherham.

He calls the PFI contract between Amey and Sheffield County Council a “catastrophic disaster,” adding: “Sadly Sheffield - which was once known as a green city - is gaining a worldwide reputation as the place that hates trees.” Sheffield residents are now calling for the PFI contract between Amey and the City Council to be rescinded. 

Alison Teal, Nether Edge’s Green councillor said: “The StreetsAhead contract appears to consider highway trees as potential problems to be managed with no consideration of the myriad benefits to people, wildlife, or ecological factors in general.

"Smooth tarmac is prioritised to the detriment of a long list of factors such as carbon and pollution reduction, and residents who understand the sacrifices being made by the council to create level street surfaces are rightly outraged at the poor choices being made.

"We continue to oppose the felling of healthy trees because it's the only sensible response to environmental vandalism.”

This Author

Paul Miles writes regularly for The Ecologist on the joys - and otherwise - of his low impact lifestyle choices.

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