Across our parks, woodlands, countryside – and, yes, our highways – we have over four and a half million trees. That’s more trees per head of population than any other city in Europe.
I make that point to underline the importance – recognised by all sides in the ongoing debate about tree replacement work – of finding sustainable solutions that let us move on as a city and ensure we celebrate our environment.
Finding those solutions will need compromise from the council, our contractor Amey and from campaigners. It won’t be easy, but I’m optimistic we can make significant progress.
Back in March, tree replacement work was paused, except where the condition of a tree poses a danger. This has given us space to listen and rethink our way forward. The pause will continue while we work out our next steps.
During this time we have been meeting with, and listening to, interested residents and groups about how we might move on. The vast majority of people we speak to are committed to constructive dialogue and working together to find a solution.
Some people have asked whether we can achieve what I’ve set out within the Streets Ahead programme. The answer is most certainly yes.
Despite calls to end the contract with Amey, ending the programme – which, overall, offers huge benefits and investment to Sheffield – is not a precondition to finding a sustainable compromise on tree replacement.
Indeed, with all parties willing to compromise, I’m confident we can find a solution within the programme – and realise the potential of Streets Ahead.
Right now, our contractor is exploring options for around 300 trees which have previously been identified for replacement. This includes looking to keep as many of those 300 as possible, while making the much needed improvements to our roads and pavements.
As part of any compromise, the contractor might have to go further with engineering solutions, and we might have to review our highway standards in some areas.
When this work is complete, we will present alternative proposals as a starting point for dialogue with residents and stakeholders about how we move on. A compromise by the council and the contractor which retains trees might also need an acceptance from campaigners that for some trees – even with additional engineering solutions – there can be no viable option for retention.
In recent years, the council has made a concerted effort to be as open as possible about the Streets Ahead programme. The programme has come under a huge amount of scrutiny and, as a result, much more information has been published than comparable contracts in other cities. But I would acknowledge that we need to act on the concerns I’ve heard about whether the council could do more. So I’d like to give reassurance that since being in post I have asked officers to do further work on releasing as much of the contract as we possibly can.
Finding a compromise for these 300 trees is just the first step. If we can make progress, we can move on to the bigger question: how do we look after Sheffield’s urban forest for the next 20 years of the programme, and beyond? I’m increasingly optimistic that we can turn a corner, and that a shared energy and passion for trees on both sides can be harnessed for the future of our environment in Sheffield.
So finally, it’s essential that over the summer we start to make significant progress. Our focus must be on using that shared endeavour and commitment for the benefit of all residents of our city. I believe we’ll come out of it stronger.
Councillor Lewis Dagnall is Sheffield City Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment.