Sheffield union leaders urge rethink on tree-felling in U-turn over protest campaign

Union leaders in Sheffield have reversed past criticism of tree campaigners to join growing calls for the city's Labour council to rethink the removal of thousands of street trees '“ and end the 'heavy-handed use' of private security guards and police officers in supporting felling operations.

Dozens of police officers have been overseeing tree-felling operations in Sheffield in recent weeks.

The Sheffield Trades Union Council has unanimously passed a motion calling on the Sheffield Labour group to pursue “an immediate, mediated settlement to the felling of Sheffield street trees” and added that the use of dozens of police officers and security guards at tree-felling operations has caused “appalling negative publicity nationally for the city”.

It comes little more than two years after TUC branch leaders co-signed a letter criticising tree campaigners for “an astonishing lack of perspective and navel-gazing” and suggesting “opposition to the tree-felling has as much to do with the protection of house prices in the leafy suburbs as it does with environmental protection”.

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Campaigners today said the change in position – which follows Labour shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman, supported by Jeremy Corbyn, offering to act as a ‘mediator’ in potential talks with residents – has left the council “with one less place to hide”.

Thousands of often-healthy trees are being removed in the city and replaced with saplings as part of a £2.2bn highways maintenance contract between Sheffield Council and private firm Amey.

In February 2016, Sheffield TUC president Bob Jeffery and secretary Martin Mayer were among 17 people to sign an open letter which said the city was facing “more pressing issues” than the tree campaign and strongly criticised then-Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg for describing the situation as a “national scandal”.

But earlier this week, the TUC unanimously passed a strongly-worded motion condemning the way the Streets Ahead contract with Amey is being conducted.

Last year the council won High Court injunctions banning direct action protests in which campaigners would stand directly underneath threatened trees, with Amey hiring private security guards to forcibly remove those who fail to leave ‘safety zones’ when requested. Clashes between protesters and the security guards led the police to send dozens of officers to attend daily felling operations in recent weeks.

A previously-secret clause in the Streets Ahead contract showing it contains a target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees was also revealed earlier this month. The situation led this week to the tree-felling work being partially put on hold following growing national condemnation.

The new TUC statement said the council should look to bring the highways maintenance work back “in house” as soon as possible.

It said: "Sheffield TUC opposed the consequences of the PFI deal for street improvements in Sheffield which has led to both widespread removal of the trees and the failure to meet the timescales for road improvements.

"If this work had been delivered in-house by a council service, the trees management programme could have been managed with a discussion with local residents and tree campaigners.

"The actions of Amey have both failed the council’s road improvement ambitions and undermined the reputation of Sheffield’s environmental credentials

"We welcome the recent decision to pause the tree-felling which is causing unacceptable levels of disputation.

"We call on the Sheffield Labour Group to support the immediate, mediated settlement to the felling of Sheffield’s street trees and a reappraisal of the Amey contract with a view to bringing it back in house as a municipally-owned direct works operation as soon as possible.

"We also call for an immediate cessation of the use of private security guards and police, particularly their use of heavy-handed tactics against protesters which has shocked not only Sheffield citizens, but has caused appalling negative publicity nationally for the city."

Earlier this week, South Yorkshire Police chief constable Stephen Watson spoke of his "regret" that 25 arrests have been made since January, involving "decent people who have found themselves coming into contact with the law".

He said the force was "between a rock and a hard place" and the situation was "not winning us any friends".

Sheffield Council, which insists the 17,500 figure in the contract is not a target and around 10,000 will be replaced, has said work has been put on hold because of the “increasingly dangerous tactics” of protesters. Council cabinet member Jack Scott has suggested the it would cost the authority £300m to terminate its contract with Amey.