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 - an 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 currently 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 the unnecessary felling of street trees, 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 currently 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 in 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, with it currently estimating around 10,000 will have to be replaced.
It 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.