TWO WOMEN in their seventies were among three people arrested during a stand-off with police, after council contractors arrived at dawn to begin a controversial tree-felling programme in a residential street.
The operation was condemned by Sheffield Hallam MP and former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who called the council “pig-headed”, and said the contractors’ unexpected arrival, shortly after 4.30am, was “unjustifiable, underhand” and an “embarrassment” to the city.
One resident told The Yorkshire Post that police had used anti-picketing legislation, aimed at trade unions, to stop onlookers disrupting the work.
Dr Luke Seed, whose house is behind the one tree that remained standing when the workmen left, said: “It was like a police state. It had all the hallmarks of heavy-handed, idiotic policing.”
He said the numbers of officers was “more than you would expect at a decent-sized demonstration”.
Neighbour Chris Rust wrote on Facebook: “There was a very sneaky, small print road closure notice at each end of the road which enabled them to do this.”
Jenny Hockey, 70, a retired university professor, and neighbour Freda Brayshaw were among the three people taken into custody.
After her release, Mrs Hockey said she had been locked in a police cell for eight hours without food, and that she and Mrs Brayshaw, 71, were “cold, hungry and tired”.
She added: “I don’t want to face going back to my home and the fact that lovely tree is not going to be there and a huge mess will be in its place.”
The council has said it wants to replace the trees as part of a city-wide roads maintenance programme, but Mrs Hockey’s husband, Bob, 72, said: “They are cutting down healthy trees and ignoring the advice of a panel they set up to advise them.”
Mr Clegg said in a statement: “Whether you think the trees need to come down or not, the way the council have acted is inexcusable. Sheffield’s Labour leaders have shown that they are willing to go to any lengths in their tree felling mission against the wishes of the community, using disproportionate and underhand tactics to get their own way.
“It surely cannot be right that this felling has taken place at 5am, without the prior knowledge of local residents.”
The council defended its action, claiming that maintenance work on the street, whose elegant Victorian semis look out onto Endcliffe Park, was “vital”.
Coun Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for the environment, said “We need to replace eight out of the 30 existing trees, but we will plant 17, which means the road is gaining an extra nine trees. We understand that this will be a difficult day for the tree campaigners, but this work is absolutely essential to ensure that Sheffield has healthy street trees for future generations.”
Coun Lodge said the decision to begin felling trees while residents slept was taken on police advice.
He said: “We carried out the work very early in the morning, on the advice of the police, to make sure it could be done safely. This isn’t usually needed but in this case it was considered the best option for the safety of the public, protesters and the workers.”
South Yorkshire Police said they arrested three people “on suspicion of preventing lawful work” under the Trade Union and Relation Act 1992.
A spokesman said 12 officers “provided assistance at the request of the council”, and added: “We have a small presence to ensure the safety of local residents and contractors.”