A community whose elected representatives had embarked upon a series of decisions that put them at odds with those they were there to serve. On this visit I was both amazed and dismayed; amazed by the ability of those taking to the streets to support their cause, and dismayed by the decisions being made with little regard to the strong community opposition.
The catalyst for all this? Trees.
It seemed at the time an unlikely cause for city-wide outrage, but on closer inspection it became apparent why the people of Sheffield felt so strongly.
Some 5,474 trees were cut down as part of Sheffield City Council’s Streets Ahead programme, in a schedule of careless felling characterised by a lack of community consultation and a casual disregard for the urban environment. The campaign of felling seemed beyond logic, and the council’s justification – as I said at the time – was as flimsy as an Autumn leaf.
The Forestry Commission (FC), the Government’s independent regulator of forestry, was called in and what followed was a year-long investigation into potentially illegal tree felling by the council.
While the FC found insufficient evidence of law-breaking, it did find the council failed to follow good practice – and moreover failed to adequately consult with Sheffield’s residents.
In fact the community feeling was so strong about this issue that they formed the Sheffield Tree Action Group, who now regularly and reliably hold the council accountable for their actions when it comes to tree felling.
As a result of this determination in the face of often heavy-handed tactics by Sheffield City Council, the felling has been paused, a tree strategy for Sheffield is being drawn up and the council has apologised for misleading residents.
Our urban trees are constantly under threat, at odds with the fast-paced development that is under way in many towns and cities across the country. But we need our trees now more than ever. Trees are both carbon sinks and effective tools for cooling our streets. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, it will become obvious that we don’t just need to plant more trees, but we also need to afford better protections for those we already have. This is why earlier this year the Government consulted on a raft of measures designed to increase transparency and accountability in the process of felling street trees.
We plan to bring forward legislation later this year which will cement the importance of these vital natural assets, to ensure that councils across the country keep street trees – and the views of the communities that cherish them – front and centre when considering both maintenance and planning.
We are also investing in planting more urban trees, with the Urban Tree Challenge Fund now open for business.
This £11m fund will enable 130,000 urban trees to be planted across England over the next three years, providing match funding to individuals or groups looking to invest in the amazing natural resource that is trees.
We have also recently released an Urban Tree Manual, which provides advice to councils, community groups or anyone involved in the maintenance of urban trees on not only upkeep – but ensuring that, when planting, we put the right tree in the right place.
Unfortunately it’s too late for thousands of mature trees in Sheffield which have already faced the axe. However what we can do is ensure that this travesty is not forgotten.
There are many lessons to be learned from the events seen in Sheffield, and I implore councils across this country to pay close attention to what happened here – not only for the ongoing protection of our trees, but to ensure they maintain a collaborative relationship with their own greatest asset – the communities they serve.
Michael Gove MP is the Environment Secretary.