Sheffield Council has tonight blamed the “increasingly dangerous tactics” of campaigners as it confirmed controversial work to fell thousands of Sheffield’s street trees has been partly put on hold following growing street protests and major political pressure.
It follows several weeks in which dozens of police officers have been accompanying private security guards to felling operations, with almost 20 arrests of campaigners protesting against the removal of trees.
Police wearing riot gear were deployed earlier this month to remove one protester who was crouching under a partially-raised cherry picker truck due to be used in a tree-felling operation, with other arrests for alleged assault and criminal damage.
A 73-year-old retired fireman was arrested on suspicion of witness intimidation of a security guard in relation to a previous assault allegation, while last week a woman was arrested for blowing a toy horn under the Public Order Act. The following day, a vicar carrying a tambourine and a woman with a pink recorder were arrested, one for obstructing the highway and the other on suspicion of obstructing a constable.
On Friday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned of potential Government intervention while The Yorkshire Post revealed that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was fully supporting calls by his Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman for the work to be put on hold and talks to take place between the council and campaigners.
Earlier this month, a year-long Freedom of Information battle by campaigners resulted in Sheffield Council being ordered by the Information Commissioner to reveal its contract with private firm Amey contains a target to fell 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees and replace them with saplings by the end of the contract in 2037.
After the news that work was to be temporarily ‘paused’ became public at lunchtime, campaigners said they hoped negotiations could begin.
But a statement issued by Sheffield Council this evening said work was only being put on hold so Amey could review how felling is conducted. It said the move follows “increasingly dangerous tactics” from campaigners in recent months and added trees deemed to be dangerous will still be removed as the review takes place.
No timescale has been given for how long the ‘pause’ will last for and Amey is yet to comment.
A council spokeswoman said: “Since 2012 we have been carrying out the biggest investment Sheffield’s highway network has ever seen, resurfacing the majority of roads and pavements across the city.
“However, in the past year or so the actions of a handful of people unlawfully entering the safety zones where tree replacement work is being carried out has meant that it has become increasingly difficult for Amey to complete the programme without danger to staff and members of the public
“Given the increasingly dangerous tactics that have been seen in recent months, Amey have had to employ security staff at tree replacement sites.
“In the interests of both residents and staff, Amey are exploring options for completing the work and will present these options to the council. During this review period, only trees which are dangerous will be worked on.
“Any necessary emergency work will continue to be carried out in this time and the wider programme will resume once this review is complete.”
Three Sheffield MPs - Labour’s Louise Haigh and Paul Blomfield, as well as Jared O’Mara, who is currently suspended from the party - have all called on the council to put the work on hold in the past few weeks.
But Councillor Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for environment at Sheffield Council, said on Friday that the contract was “delivering what the people of Sheffield want”.
Earlier today, Shaffaq Mohammed, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group on Sheffield Council, welcomed news of the pause and said he hoped the time could be used constructively.
“The street tree scandal has made Sheffield hit the national headlines for all the wrong reasons and I really think our city needs to move forward,” he said.
“I hope Sheffield City Council uses this time wisely. We have a real opportunity to sit down and sort this out. They can’t just carry on business as usual after the pause. The way the council have handled the street tree situation really lacks trust and transparency. Sheffield City Council can now use this pause to sit down with tree campaigners to come up with a solution which works for the whole of the city.
“I will continue to watch this closely to make sure we leave the bad headlines in the past. I really do hope this pause brings real change into how the council handles street trees.”
The halt is the second time works have been paused in the last few months.
Amey didn’t carry out any tree felling for around four weeks following clashes between protesters and security staff on Meersbrook Park Road on January 22.
It follows the council winning a High Court injunction last year banning direct action protests in which people stood directly under threatened trees. In January, Amey announced it would be bringing in a “specially-trained stewarding team” to forcibly remove protesters who broke the injunction. The security team had been working for less than two weeks before clashes on Meersbrook Park Road resulted in both staff and protesters making assault allegations.
Work only resumed in late February after South Yorkshire Police agreed to provide a higher police presence - leading to over 30 officers being deployed to tree-felling operations in recent weeks.
The council says the trees that are felled are either dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging to the highway or ‘discriminatory’ - affecting the ability of people to use the pavement. But campaigners argue felling is being carried out for contractual rather than environmental or health and safety reasons.
Sheffield Council insist the 17,500 figure contained in the contract is not a target and it estimates 10,000 trees will be removed and replaced with saplings over the course of the contract, which has been in operation since 2012.