Sheffield Council to fell fewer street trees in bid to resolve bitter dispute

Sheffield Council has revealed plans to fell fewer street trees in a bid to end a long-running dispute about the controversial highways work following talks with campaigners.

Darren Butt from Amey, Cllr Lewis Dagnall, and Chris Rust, Co-Chair, STAG. Pic: Chris Etchells
Darren Butt from Amey, Cllr Lewis Dagnall, and Chris Rust, Co-Chair, STAG. Pic: Chris Etchells

The authority and its contractor Amey have put forward plans to retain around 100 of the 305 trees that had previously been earmarked to be felled by the end of 2017 as part of a 25-year PFI highways maintenance contract through the use of engineering solutions, regular monitoring and ongoing maintenance work.

The removal of around a further 100 will be phased over the next 10 years.

A new street tree strategy will also be developed early next year to cover the remainder of the contract, which is due to run until 2037.

Police officers and security guards were deployed at the height of the dispute earlier this year.

The announcement comes nine months after work was put on hold following a national outcry after dozens of police officers and security guards were deployed to support operations following growing protests by campaigners who argued healthy mature trees were being felled unnecessarily.

Around 5,500 trees have already been felled in the city and a Forestry Commission investigation into the legality of that work remains ongoing.

In August, Sheffield Council confirmed to The Yorkshire Post the contract it signed up involves paying for the replacement of 17,500 street trees - almost half of the 36,000 in the city - but said it had no obligation to fell that many. The council said today it has confirmed to campaigners there is no target for tree removals.

Work will now begin inspecting dozens of street trees previously identified for replacement, “with a view to retaining as many as possible”.

There have been substantial protests against the council's felling work.

Amey is to cover the extra costs associated with retaining trees and phasing removals over the next decade. The council said the move should allow for delayed resurfacing work on affected roads and footpaths to start next year.

Sheffield Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment and Street Scene, Councillor Lewis Dagnall said: “I’ve been in my position for just over six months, in which time I have been listening carefully to the range of views on how we can move forward.

“Having met with local groups of residents, key stakeholders and interested parties, I have been overwhelmed by the desire, on all sides, to see this issue resolved. There is a real appetite to come together to achieve the compromise we have been looking for, and I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in this process.

“What I have heard is that whilst many people value investment in our highways, its implications for street trees were too much, too soon, in some parts of the city. There was a feeling that proposals to replace mature trees with smaller trees in one process would have immediately changed the face of some streets.

Thousands of street trees are being felled and replaced with saplings as part of highways maintenance work.

“Our new proposal for compromise will see a large proportion of trees, including the Vernon Oak and the majority of memorial trees, retained. Future tree replacement work will also be done in a way which only removes a small number of trees at any one time, as far as possible, which will mean the character of streets won’t be altered in the way that was previously feared.

“Amey will now lead on a piece of work which involves speaking to local residents, on the streets affected, about the proposals. Their specialist tree team will soon start to carry out inspection and possible retention work on the trees, with a hope of retaining and phasing as many as possible. All resurfacing work on the affected streets will be completed during 2019.

“This issue has been ongoing for a number of years and we are under no illusions that it can be resolved overnight. However, I am hopeful that this plan is the first step towards working together with the overwhelming number of people and organisations across the city that have a passion and wealth of expertise to protect and enhance the proud green landscape that Sheffield is famous for.

“Our publication of these plans and our joint position statement with the STAG Steering Group is a step in the right direction and should be welcomed by all those who want to see this issue resolved and our city move forward together.”

The use of dozens of police officers to support operations received national criticism.

The new programme will roll out during the early part of next year.

The plans have been given a cautious welcome by Chris Rust, co-chair of Sheffield Tree Action groups.

He said the proposals “goes part of the way” towards ending the “unnecessary” felling.

“We hope that further work by Amey and STAG will result in an improved picture,” he said. “We welcome the commitment to reviewing phased fellings, giving everyone a few years to reflect before most of the decisions must be enacted or changed.

“We welcome the plan to develop a new strategy over the next few months in collaboration with several partners and under the guidance of an independent chair with relevant expertise. This will be a great opportunity for public policy to be debated and for everyone to develop a better understanding of the complex issues. It will be a great success if Sheffield ends up with a strategy that has widespread approval and other parts of the country will want to adopt for themselves.”

But he added he was disappointed that campaigners’ calls for an inquiry into the saga have been rejected by the council.

The contract with Amey also involves work on resurfacing pavements and roads.

“We believe that learning from what has gone wrong is vital for the success of future projects in the city as well as being an opportunity for reconciliation between all parties involved in this difficult dispute.”

Account Director at Amey Streets Ahead, Darren Butt said: “Our inspections team will be made up of trained and experienced tree and highways professionals equipped with specialist kit, and with independent input from STAG as requested.

“The team itself will not remove any trees, but will carry out on-site inspections and may carry out immediate highway remedial work there and then if it will retain a tree while maintaining agreed highway standards.

“Crucially, we’ll be working with residents and stakeholders whilst still delivering the long-term benefits of the Streets Ahead contract at no extra cost to Sheffield’s taxpayers.”

Trees which are irretrievably diseased, decaying or obstructing the road or pavements will be discussed with STAG for replacement in the first phase.

Talks between the parties will continue, with the current pause in tree felling continuing until early next year.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, who has overseen the recent talks between the different parties, added: “Trees matter. It’s no coincidence that they get a mention in the very first chapter of the Bible, and in the very last, and in almost every book of the Bible in between. Trees matter to the planet and they matter to communities.

“Trees certainly matter to Sheffield, the greenest of cities. They are part of what makes us proud of our place. That’s why we were all so distressed by the dispute which has raged over our street trees, and why it is such good news to receive this joint statement today. It is a real achievement and marks quite astonishing progress in just a few months.

“This joint position statement has not come about without a massive investment of time and hard work — from SCC, members of STAG and Amey. On behalf of the citizens of Sheffield I would like to record our thanks for the perseverance of all concerned and for their commitment to finding a way forward. They can be proud of the process as well as of the outcome.”