Over 130,000 new trees to be planted in cities and towns in wake of Sheffield felling saga

Michael Gove visited Sheffield in 2017 in relation to the city's tree-felling saga. Picture: Scott Merrylees.
Michael Gove visited Sheffield in 2017 in relation to the city's tree-felling saga. Picture: Scott Merrylees.
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More than 130,000 trees are to be planted across England’s towns and cities in a new £10m initiative in the wake of the Sheffield felling controversy.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a vocal critic of Sheffield Council’s controversial tree-felling programme which saw thousands of mature street trees removed and replaced with saplings as part of highways maintenance work, has announced the ‘Urban Tree Challenge Fund’ which will see grants made available over the next two years to help make urban areas more green.

Dozens of police officers were sent out to support council tree-felling work in early 2018. Picture: Scott Merrylees.

Dozens of police officers were sent out to support council tree-felling work in early 2018. Picture: Scott Merrylees.

Grants will fund the planting of trees and the first three years of their care. The scheme is part of a wider Government ambition to plant one million urban trees by 2022.

Mr Gove, who described the tree-felling work in Sheffield as ‘bonkers’ after visiting the city in 2017, said today: “Trees are vital in the fight against climate change, which is why we must go further and faster to increase planting rates.

“We need trees lining the streets of our cities and towns, not only to green and shade them but to ensure that we remain connected to the wonders of the natural world and the health and wellbeing benefits that it brings us.”

The scheme will be open to individuals, councils, charities and NGOs and is being administered by the Forestry Commission, which is separately continuing to investigate whether the tree-felling work carried out by Sheffield Council and Amey was done legally.

Government Tree Champion Sir William Worsley, who is chairman of the National Forest Company and lives in North Yorkshire, said: “Trees are the lifeblood of our nation, and it is more important than ever to ensure they are rooted not only in our countryside, but in our towns and cities too.

"The benefits of planting urban trees are endless, and I encourage anyone with the ability to apply for this fund to get involved and help green our towns and cities."

Sir William said last year he was making the Sheffield saga a priority after being appointed by Mr Gove with a view to “preventing the unnecessary felling of street trees”. Earlier this year the government consulted on proposals to give communities a greater say on whether street trees should be felled, with legislation to be brought forward later this year.

Tree-felling work was suspended in Sheffield in March 2018 following increasing protests and a new approach designed to reduce felling numbers earlier this year following months of talks with campaigners. It came after a national outcry at the use of dozens of police officers and private security guards to support the council's felling operations and multiple arrests of campaigners.

Paul Brooke, co-chair of the Sheffield Trees Action Groups said the Government has now adopted many of the same arguments campaigners had made in Sheffield against the felling.

He said: “Sadly it took years of bitter dispute, court battles, wrongful arrests and direct action by concerned citizens to halt the council’s misguided policy of tree removal.”

Mr Brooke added there needed to be some caution about today's announcement.

“If the objective of planting more urban trees is to be meaningful, we need existing mature urban trees to be protected. It would be a travesty if councils used funds to plant saplings whilst removing mature trees to reduce maintenance costs due to budget pressures. We need to see an obligation or duty on councils to preserve mature urban trees so that any new planting produces an demonstrable increase in the urban canopy.

“The lesson from Sheffield is that their policy of felling mature trees and replacing them on a one-to-one basis with saplings was short-sighted and hugely destructive to the local environment.”