Clive Anderson: Sheffield needlessly takes an axe to its own reputation

Sheffield tree protesters.
Sheffield tree protesters.
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AS an enthusiastic tree-hugger – I have been President of the Woodland Trust for more than 12 years – I have found the unhappy saga of Sheffield taking an axe to so many of its roadside trees hard to countenance and even harder to understand.

If the answer to improving your city is to do away with more or less 50 per cent of the mature trees lining your residential streets, perhaps you’re asking the wrong question. Especially as by doing so, Sheffield is trashing its reputation as one of Europe’s greenest cities, just as a few Australian cricketers sandpapering a cricket ball have trashed their country’s reputation for sportsmanship.

United in opposition to Sheffield’s radical tree surgery – or should the word be butchery? – are any number of local residents, national charities, eco-warriors, nature lovers, young and old, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Clegg and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove. Quite a coalition, now joined by Gove’s shadow, Labour’s Sue Hayman. All want the destruction to be stopped or at any rate put on hold while a better solution is found.

And like Christmas 1914 on the Western Front, a truce was declared over the Easter holiday, but, as in the First World War, the fear is the battle will resume afterwards.

And battle is the right word, as activists have taken to forming human shields to thwart the chainsaws, and police officers and security are deployed to hold back enraged residents as contractors do their worst.

One of the main aims of the Woodland Trust is to preserve ancient woodland – areas of land on which trees have been growing for at least 400 years. In addition, the trust plants, and encourages others to plant, millions of new trees to increase the overall tree cover in the countryside.

But it is in towns and cities that most people come across trees in their everyday life. The beauty of a leafy suburb is more or less defined by its trees. In more urban areas, plenty of trees take their chance on the mean streets of the inner city, often locked up in metal cages for their own protection.

A haven for birds, and other wildlife, trees improve air quality, provide shade in the summer and alleviate flooding in wet weather. They are good for human health and are a joy to behold. You don’t need to be a tree-obsessive to appreciate the trees you see near your home or on your way to work.

Of course, this comes at a cost. But the cost of keeping
long-established trees, as calculated by Sheffield City Council and its contractor Amey, is incredibly high. Or maybe just incredible.

Councillors are determined to remove thousands of mature trees because it – they calculate – is much cheaper to replace them with easier-to-manage whips and saplings. A pretty hard-hearted calculation, in any event, but are their calculations to be relied on, anyway?

Best known of the mature trees facing the chop is the Vernon Oak which has been growing in what is now a quiet cul-de-sac in Dore for about 150 years. Once upon a time it was surrounded by fields. Now it grows hard against the road.

For disturbing some kerbstones and other infrastructure infractions it has been sentenced to death.

Otherwise, the council says, something like £10,000 would have to be spent accommodating its needs to the requirements of road traffic and pedestrians. In a cul-de-sac. Can this be right?

Last week, in a bid to save this particular tree, the Woodland Trust and Trees for Cities released a report, based on independent research conducted by a nationally reputed engineer, which concluded that the Vernon Oak, a healthy tree, did not need to be felled, and required no measures to retain it at all. This makes the council’s £10,000 a wild overestimation.

So how many other healthy specimens have been wrongly condemned, based on similar miscalculations and faulty reasoning? Overall, how can the leaders of a major city find themselves locked into a PFI deal with their commercial partners which results in such wanton destruction of a precious natural resource? Everyone but the council and their contractors is desperate to save Sheffield’s trees. The council just seems desperate.

Trees do need a certain amount of maintenance. They shed leaves every year, which have to be swept up, and trees which are diseased, dangerous or dead have to be cut back or even cut down. But avoiding those costs by getting rid of trees now is to elevate financial considerations above everything else. Plastic trees or no trees at 
all might be cheaper still, but I don’t want to put ideas into anybody’s head.

Around the world trees are being lost through climate change, logging and deforestation.

Trees in this country are threatened by a catalogue of new diseases, pathogens and conditions such as ash dieback, acute oak decline, sudden oak death, the oak processionary moth, plane tree wilt, red band needle blight, the pine tree lappet moth, Asian longhorn beetle, bleeding chestnut canker and so on.

A pretty gruesome list which, sadly, Sheffield City Council seems determined to join.

Clive Anderson is a broadcaster and president of the Woodland Trust.