Mr Gove wrote to council leader Julie Dore and chief executive John Mothersole on Wednesday to ask for the felling programme to brought to an end over concerns about “the destruction of thousands of mature trees” and the transparency in the decision-making process about which trees are selected for removal.
In a three-page letter of response seen by The Yorkshire Post, Councillor Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for environment at the Labour-run council, today responded by saying it would not be feasible to simply stop the felling programme at this point, especially as it is interlinked with other road improvements work.
READ THE LETTER IN FULL: The entire letter Sheffield Council sent to Michael Gove
He said: “Failure to do anything, or to stop mid-way through the programme, would be morally reprehensible and penalise a majority of Sheffield residents at the behest of a vocal minority.
“This would create a two-tier system with some streets worked on and others neglected. This cannot be right.”
Around 6,000 trees are being removed from city streets as part of a 25-year £2bn highway maintenance programme based on a PFI contract signed with contractor Amey in 2012.
While the council insist only trees that are dead, dying, diseased or dangerous are being removed and then replaced, protesters argue that many do not need to be chopped down and the work is being carried out as a cost-cutting exercise.
Coun Lodge’s response to Mr Gove’s support for the campaign included a reference to the Environment Secretary’s remarks during the EU referendum campaign on ignoring expert opinion.
“There is a lot of misinformation around, and it is surprising that you would not seek a full understanding of an issue before announcing a position. I know that you have publicly stated that you believe ‘the country has had enough of experts’ but our council believes they still have a role to play,” he said.
“We would rather follow the robust workings of the many expert groups involved in the Streets Ahead programme, and deliver what the majority of Sheffield residents want us to, rather than follow the ill-informed whims of a Conservative minister.”
Coun Lodge also said that stopping the work now would have serious financial consequences for the council.
“The reality is that the consequences of withdrawal would, as you should be aware, represent profound financial imprudence, dire environmental consequences, be counter to what a majority of Sheffield residents want, and would put the council in neglect of our legal duties,” he said.
But Mr Gove’s intervention has won praise from the Sheffield Green Party.
Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said: “We are delighted that the British government is siding with tree campaigners. This latest development highlights how the council’s blinkered and relentless tree felling is a story of national embarrassment for our city. This Labour administration are responsible for Sheffield now being known globally as the city where they cut down trees.
“Contrary to what the council claim, their disastrous and ill-fated tree felling programme is not supported by residents, does not make Sheffield a greener or safer city, and is completely and utterly unnecessary. We hope that this latest intervention will force the council to abandon the felling of healthy street trees and get round the negotiation table.”