A 73-year-old retired fireman and a French magician are among the unlikely people to be arrested at growing tree-felling protests in Sheffield. Chris Burn reports.
For Alan Simpson, it began with a solo attempt to prevent a tree outside his house in Sheffield being chopped down by council contractors. Less than a year later, the 73-year-old retired fireman has been arrested twice and is currently banned from being on any street in the city where felling is taking place.
Earlier this month, an online video of him being arrested for alleged witness intimidation of a security guard by four police officers who confiscated his phone and camera before putting in the back of a police van and taking him to custody was viewed by thousands of people.
Simpson has previously been arrested in February on suspicion of assaulting another security guard employed by Sheffield Council contractor Amey in January but insists he did nothing wrong in either case. However, he has now been given bail conditions that prevent him from being in attendance on any road where Amey is conducting any form of highways maintenance work in the city.
He says: “I live on a housing estate and at present Amey are doing pavement work. If I go out my door on Monday morning, I could be identified by somebody from Amey and I’d technically be in breach of my bail.”
For the past four weeks, there has been a greatly increased police presence at tree-felling operations in the city after work was paused in January following clashes between protesters and security staff working for Amey.
Sheffield’s increasingly-bitter tree-felling row, which The Sunday Times gave as its reason for striking the city off its annual Best Places to Live list at the weekend, is centred around the ongoing removal of thousands of its street trees and their replacement with saplings as part of a £2.2bn PFI highways improvement contract between Sheffield Council and Amey that has been running since 2012.
The council and Amey insist that only trees that are either dead, dying, diseased, dangerous or damaging are being felled. But campaigners say that many of the trees being removed are healthy and are being chopped down for contractual reasons.
The long-running saga took another dramatic twist a fortnight ago when the Information Commissioner forced the council to reveal a previously-redacted part of the contract containing a target to replace 17,500 trees by end of its term in 2037 - almost half of the 36,000 that were standing in the city at the start of the deal.
Simpson first got involved with the issue last summer when he wanted to save a Sycamore tree outside his house in the Gleadless Valley area of the city. He says he had written to Amey about the tree and was told he would have a full response within 28 days - only for workmen to turn up before then.
Simpson stood underneath the tree and refused to let them fell it - doing the same again when the workers turned up later the same day. “I did it because there is nothing wrong with the tree. The only problem with it is it the kerbstone where the tree is probably out of line by 60mm. They won’t put in a narrow-gauge kerb-stone - they would rather fell the tree and get it out the way. They have subsequently managed to get a few branches off but I stopped them again when they came back for a third time.”
Simpson then decided to join the wider Sheffield Tree Action Groups campaign. Campaigners became so successful at preventing fellings by standing underneath threatened trees that in June 2017 alone, 329 of 427 attempted tree-felling operations had to be abandoned.
Fourteen people had previously been arrested at such protests in late 2016 and early 2017 under trade union legislation, but all cases were dropped by the CPS and police commissioner Alan Billings admitted in March last year there was “no mileage” in further arrests of campaigners as prosecutors were “not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters”.
It led the council to get a High Court injunction in August making it an offence to protest directly underneath threatened trees inside safety barriers. Two men who breached the injunction were subsequently found to be in contempt of court and ordered to pay £27,000 in legal costs to Sheffield Council.
But protests, often involving campaigners wearing face coverings to hide their identities, continued and eventually led to Amey being allowed by the council and the police in January to introduce the use of a “specially-trained stewarding team” to forcibly remove protesters who refuse to leave the safety zones after being given a series of warnings.
However, work had to be put on hold just days later after clashes which saw both security staff and tree campaigners making allegations of assault. Felling resumed again in late February after police announced they would be attending operations in far greater numbers - with over 30 officers being deployed on some occasions.
The first investigation involving Simpson relates to an allegation that he assaulted a security guard on January 22. Simpson said he had been stood by park railings by a threatened tree when security guards tried to remove him. “I tried to grab the fence with both hands and then was pulled off. I was about two foot above street level. I let go with one hand and swung round trying to gain balance and that is when they say I struck one of the operatives who was wearing a helmet on the head. They pulled me off the railings and dragged me out of the work area and that was it.”
He says around four weeks later, four plain-clothes police officers arrived at his house at 7.30am. “I had no idea at all why they had come. When they said you are being arrested for alleged assault, I was in complete shock. My wife was really upset. I was taken to custody and interviewed and the outcome was I was bailed not to speak to four witnesses.”
Simpson says he does not know what the four witnesses look like. But it was in relation to this that his second arrest took place earlier this month at another protest.
He says he arrived after felling was finishing for the day and was about to leave when he was arrested for allegedly intimidating a security guard.
Simpson says he was told it was alleged he had arrived when somebody was being removed from a safety zone and that he started filming one security guard for several minutes. “I said I didn’t do that because when I arrived there was nobody in the zone, there was nothing for me to film. All I did was take a couple of photos of a campaigner outside the wall of the zone.”
He says he was subsequently bailed with a condition to avoid any street where Amey is conducting work.
Another person with an identical bail condition is Benoit Compin, a 37-year-old French magician. After living in Sheffield for over a decade, Compin had been back in his home country but after witnessing what was unfolding with the tree campaign through social media, he says he decided to come back to South Yorkshire to join the campaign.
“I was in France and I just thought, what is the point if people in my second home are living this? I felt really disgusted and had to express it. I like fairness and I can’t stand to see this happening on the streets of Sheffield.”
Compin says his past protest activities have involved him reading poetry and playing his guitar inside safety barriers but earlier this month he was arrested for allegedly assaulting three security guards. The allegation relates to a scuffle which also resulted in a female protester inside a safety zone at the same time being injured.
He denies any wrongdoing and says he had been acting in self-defence following a confrontation with security guards as they were trying to remove the woman from a safety zone.
Compin says the protests more generally involve a more important moral principle than following the terms of an injunction. “We are part of this planet, part of life and part of humanity, you have to see these things from a higher referential. “In a society where the authorities don’t listen to the people, then the people shouldn’t listen to the authorities."
There have been 14 arrests following the higher police presence. The difficult situation led South Yorkshire Police chief constable Stephen Watson to say earlier this month that it was regrettable the “high emotion” of the protests has meant “persons of previously good character coming into conflict with the law”.
But he added the force still had a duty to enforce the law. “Our most fervent desire is to facilitate lawful protest whilst seeking to persuade protesters to remain within the law. Ultimately however, the police cannot and will not permit individuals, however passionately they may feel about an issue, to act with impunity.”
Simpson says that although he is currently prevented from participating in protests, the ongoing situation is actually strengthening the resolve of campaigners.
“It has made a lot of people more determined. The reason for my involvement is simple - I don’t believe they are doing the right thing. They want to fell healthy trees, they are taking perfectly good trees with a quarter of their lives left and replacing them with a sapling that they don’t have to touch or look after for the rest of the contract.
“They are making our resolve even stronger and people are joining us every day.”
Amey staff 'suffering abuse and intimidation'
Amey says its staff have been subjected to “threats, abuse and physical intimidation” by tree campaigners during the increasingly bitter dispute about felling.
A spokeswoman for Amey said: “We would much rather be able to carry out our work without the need for extra help to keep our staff, the public and our work areas safe.
“Unfortunately, a small minority of people deliberately obstruct us and have shown continued disregard for the law.
“Our staff have also been subjected to threats, abuse and physical intimidation.
“Reluctantly we feel we have had no choice but to employ specially-trained professional security staff to ensure our lawful work on the highway can continue.”