The Government’s new ‘tree champion’ is to make the controversial programme to replace thousands of street trees in Sheffield a priority in the wake of “unprecedented” strength of feeling from local residents.
Writing in The Yorkshire Post today, Sir William Worsley said one of his first steps since being appointed into the newly created role earlier this month has been “to request more information on what is happening in Sheffield”.
He also confirmed he was aware of the investigation by the Forestry Commission – the off-shoot of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which appointed him – into the tree-felling work that is being carried out under a £2.2bn highways maintenance programme between Sheffield Council and Amey. “I will let that process take its course and consider the findings of that investigation carefully,” he said.
Sir William, who is chairman of the National Forest Company and lives in North Yorkshire, said: “It’s clear to me just how passionately people feel about trees. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Sheffield, where the strength of feeling from local residents about their cherished green spaces has been unprecedented in scale. Citizens have, rightly, raised concerns about the sheer number of trees being felled locally, and the way this has been carried out.”
Sir William was appointed as tree champion earlier this month by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who has been a vocal critic of felling operations in Sheffield.
The remit of the new role, in addition to improving planting rates, includes a focus on “preventing the unnecessary felling of street trees”.
It is intended that he will work with local government leaders to prevent unnecessary felling, as well as supporting the introduction of a new duty for councils to properly consult with communities before they cut down trees, in a bid to prevent a repeat of the Sheffield saga elsewhere.
When Sir William was appointed, Defra said the decision had not been influenced by the situation in Sheffield and was instead linked to the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which was announced in January.
Protests against the removal of street trees in Sheffield came to a head earlier this year when dozens of police officers and security guards were sent out to support felling operations.
Work is on hold as a review takes place into how felling is carried out in future following a national outcry and the council has talked of finding ‘compromise’ with campaigners. New cabinet member for environment and streetscene Lewis Dagnall has been meeting with campaigners as a change in approach is considered.
It was revealed earlier this year that the Streets Ahead contract, which began in 2012, contains a target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees by the end of the deal in 2037.
The council have insisted the 17,500 figure is not a target and instead represents a form of ‘insurance’ should there be an unexpected outbreak of disease. It currently estimates about 10,000 will have to be replaced.
The council says that a ‘financial adjustment’ will take place at the end of the contract should fewer than 17,500 trees be felled but has been unable to explain how this would work and whether Amey or Sheffield Council would benefit from the change to the deal.
Sheffield Council said it did not wish to respond to Sir William's remarks.
Requirement for straight kerbs affects felling decisions
The Streets Ahead contract contains a requirement for straight pavement kerbs – affecting decisions on whether trees can be saved.
The highways contract, which also deals with street light, road and pavement upgrades, states that in relation to pavement kerbs, there must be “no undue deviation from line or level”.
Campaigners have suggested this has affected decisions on whether engineering solutions can be used to save otherwise healthy trees whose roots have displaced kerb stones.
A 2017 council report on tree-felling plans in Western Road said: “Any solutions that fall short of standard kerb installation and resurfacing the footway and carriageway with standard or normal highway maintenance materials in line with current guidelines and legislation, are not possible, as they would not be compliant with the contractual requirements between Amey and Sheffield City Council, therefore, incurring specific contractual variation, costs and formal instruction by Sheffield City Council.”