Doncaster Council suspends tree felling after backlash and battle over suburban street

Doncaster Council has made a significant U-turn on the issue of tree felling after protests were held on a suburban street.

The Middlefield Road limes in full leaf

The council has opted to suspend tree removal across the borough after a public backlash against their decision to fell 64 healthy limes on Middlefield Road, in the affluent suburb of Bessacarr.

The mature trees were due to be chopped down and replaced with Japanese maples as their roots were causing damage to the pavements.

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Demonstrators gathered on the street to object and work was halted pending legal advice. Nine trees are still standing.

Fresh questions for Sheffield Council over tree felling sagaCampaigners likened the situation to the notorious Sheffield tree felling saga, which turned into a PR disaster for Sheffield City Council.

A top barrister even claimed that the Middlefield Road work could be illegal - although the Forestry Commission had granted the council exemption from requiring a felling licence on health and safety grounds.

It was also alleged that only residents living on Middlefield Road were informed about the plans and that neighbours were left in the dark.

The council's statement, released today, makes reference to further tree planting on streets surrounding Middlefield Road, suggesting that other mature trees could be removed in future.

The full statement from Doncaster Council's director of economy and environment, Peter Dale

"Given the importance of our climate change and biodiversity agenda, and our plans to align our tree policy to our draft Environmental Strategy, we have decided to have a short-term pause of all street tree works across the borough, subject to exceptional circumstances, such as health and safety risks.

"While no further trees will be removed on Middlefield Road during this period of time, we are very mindful of, and respect the views of the residents expressed in a series of consultations, which were very supportive of the tree replacement scheme. Therefore, our teams will continue to remove existing stumps from the ground and replant the more suitable maple trees which were identified for the area.

"Removing the existing paving flags, installing a root barrier and the laying of new tarmac on footways, next to the replacement trees, will also continue as planned. We will be setting up a Resident Liaison Group to better engage as this work progresses.

"While the Middlefield Road tree replacement and footway resurfacing scheme was carefully thought through, there are some lessons to be learned. It became clear some local residents and external parties felt very strongly about this subject and on reflection, there are areas we can improve such as the time between consultation and action. We also recognise the need to take stock and review our tree policy, which acts in the best interests of trees across Doncaster.

"The current Doncaster Council tree policy seeks to preserve trees and, therefore, removal is not a default position. When this is done for reasons such as decay, disease and other risks such as damage to the highway, we plant at least twice as many trees each year as are removed. A future scheme for planting in nearby streets to Middlefield Road, where appropriate and subject to consultation with local residents will be put in place. We want to develop a Sustainable Urban Forest and when selecting trees will strive to select the most appropriate trees so that they can thrive.

Michael Gove: We need trees now more than ever"We would like to invite all parties concerned to discuss our tree policyand how this links in with our climate change and biodiversity agenda across the borough when considering future works.

"To do this, we are setting up a borough-wide Street Tree Liaison Group to contribute to the review of street tree management. We are asking local residents to come forward and engage with the group’s senior chair and independent advisor who will ultimately report in to the council’s scrutiny panel, so we, ourselves, are accountable on this matter.

"We want to look at how we can support initiatives like the Northern Forest by planting more trees, and explore re-wilding opportunities to support and enhance our biodiversity."

What is the legal situation?

Paul Powlesland of Ely Chambers in London, who successfully represented tree campaigners in Sheffield, has provided pro-bono advice to residents of Bessacarr.

A council spokesman said they had received the documents from Mr Powlesland and in turn would suspend felling while taking legal advice.

The barrister said the council ‘do not have a felling licence’ from the Forestry Commission to fell the trees and the authority had ‘not provided any evidence’ there are defects in the adjacent pavement that would make them breach their duty to maintain the highway.

He added it was ‘not sufficient’ for the council to say that because some trees have actionable defects on the pavement beside them that it is justified to use legal exception for all the trees on the street.

Residents have been advised that they could apply for an injunction but warned the process would cost thousands of pounds and also said there was a risk of having to pay the council’s legal fees if unsuccessful.

But Mr Powlesland urged campaigners to ‘peacefully stand’ under the trees to prevent them being felled while lobbyin the council to change course.

“Although it appears likely on the current evidence that the council may have committed a criminal offence under the FA 1967, the Forestry Commission do not, in correspondence that I have been given, appear to wish to take any action,” Mr Powlesland said.

“In any case, once the trees are felled, they cannot be replaced by mature trees again for many decades. This was seen in Sheffield, where although Sheffield City Council likely felled trees in breach of the licensing requirements.”

In their latest statement, the council confirmed that they had been advised by the Forestry Commission that they were exempt from having to apply for a felling licence under a section of the Highways Act which permits exemptions on grounds of health and safety.

What happens next on Middlefield Road?

On February 17, stump grinding and tree planting will begin on Middlefield Road and take up to five days. Footway replacement will then start from February 24 and continue until early April.