As a revolt against tree-felling in Sheffield grows, with campaigners even willing to risk prison, Chris Burn meets the man who sowed the seeds of a very British protest.
“Nobody wants to see any more arrests. But I think it is inevitable because people feel so strongly. The more arrests there are, the bigger the campaign will get.”
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, as the saying goes. And so it has proved with the fight to stop controversial tree-felling work in Sheffield, where work by a handful of campaigners has grown into a massive action group with over 5,000 members.
The strength of feeling runs so high that five people have been arrested for trying to stop trees being removed, with two of them facing court in March. Former actor Dave Dillner, who helped to form the Sheffield Tree Action Group, otherwise known as STAG, says membership of the group doubled in a week after a secretly-planned pre-dawn operation involving Sheffield Council, its contractor Amey and South Yorkshire Police in November.
In scenes that were compared by city MP Nick Clegg to ‘something you would expect to see in Putin’s Russia’, police woke residents on Rustlings Road at 5am to tell them to move their vehicles as trees were chopped down.
Three protesters - including two pensioners - were arrested, with the incident making international headlines.
“It has become about the right to democratic accountability and peaceful protest. The whole thing has gone way beyond people protecting trees,” Dillner says.
With Sheffield Council and its contractor Amey due to continue removing hundreds of trees throughout this year as part of the Streets Ahead road improvement programme, Dillner hopes a compromise can be reached, but it currently appears unlikely and more arrests could happen.
“Not all the trees that have gone are trees we would have fought to save. There are trees that needed to come down and be replaced - those that are dead and diseased and those that are obviously dangerous.”
But he says campaigners believe many trees are being removed unnecessarily to allow other elements of the Streets Ahead project, including pavement and road improvement work, to take place more quickly and cheaply. Campaigners are also concerned that the trees are not being replaced adequately.
The 70-year-old first became involved in campaigning in September 2014 after hearing of plans to cut down 188 trees in his area to allow for the creation of a new bus lane. Having previously never been involved in campaigning, he felt so strongly about the issue and what he perceived to be a lack of consultation about it he organised a public meeting and set up a Save The Trees group. The campaign was a success and the bus lane never went ahead.
Dillner became aware of other tree action groups in different areas of the city and suggested they all ‘unite under one banner’ - leading to the formation of STAG in early 2015. He even took the council to the High Court - with the help of £17,500 in donations from supporters - which resulted in a three-month injunction on the tree removals. But he ultimately lost the review and a subsequent appeal last year, with the work being restarted.
Dillner says the campaign ‘has taken over everything’ in his life and he now ‘eats, drinks and sleeps trees’, but adds the growth of the campaign has been ‘bittersweet’ as more people join the protest against the continuing tree-felling. It was particularly emotional when hundreds of people joined a protest rally in Endcliffe Park organised at short notice a few days after the controversial Rustlings Road operation.
“I spent most of that day in tears. They were all sorts of emotions, it was just astonishing. I was filled with pride at the people involved in this campaign. People who have put their liberty at risk, got themselves arrested. You can’t legislate for that level of commitment.”
Dillner accepts there are bigger problems in the world, but believes this to be an important environmental issue - particularly given the huge health problems in Sheffield associated with poor air quality.
“I want the council to be big enough to stand up and say we got it wrong, let’s work together on this. What is happening is wrong.”
Previous council reports have stated that poor air quality is prematurely killing around 500 people a year in Sheffield and costing the local NHS about £160m in treatment - and campaigners say removing established trees and replacing them with saplings may make the issue worse.
On March 9, two tree campaigners - Simon Crump and Calvin Payne - will go on trial at Sheffield Magistrates Court for trying to prevent the removal of a 100-year-old tree on Marden Road in Nether Edge last year.
After being arrested under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the pair say they were kept in police custody for eight hours because the legislation was so obscure the police had difficulty being able to charge them.
Dr Crump, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Huddersfield, says: “It was this kind of Kafkaesque situation where they couldn’t charge us because they couldn’t get the code on the police computer. So we were locked in a cell for eight hours.”
The act they have been charged under carries a potential six-month prison sentence but their case is understood to be at the less-serious end of the offence. The 56-year-old Green Party member says they intend to use a defence under the Human Rights Act.
“Obviously, the trees are a major issue. But if we get convicted under this act our right to peaceful protest about anything has gone.”
In contrast to Crump, who was on his first tree protest when he was arrested, fellow defendant, 44 year old Calvin Payne had been involved in around a dozen similar protests before, with several successfully resulting in contractors being unable to chop down trees.
“They spent a year trying to say we were middle-class ‘nimby’ house owners who didn’t care about anyone else,” says Payne. “When that didn’t work, they called us a bunch of hooligans.”
Helen McIllroy, a 58-year-old former teacher, is another campaigner driven to extreme measures. In 2015 she camped out for a month by the threatened Rustlings Road trees that were eventually removed a year later.
“It started off about the trees. We need our trees and love our trees. But it has really opened my eyes to local democracy or the lack of it and the way the city is run. We are all ordinary people driven to this issue because it affects ordinary people. It is about our local environment.”
Dillner says 2017 will be a critical year for the campaign. “We don’t see ourselves as being in existence for that much longer. If we are here in two years’ time, basically we have failed. If we are here in 12 months, a lot of trees will have disappeared.”
Why are Sheffield’s trees being axed?
Sheffield Council says its controversial tree replacement programme is designed to prevent a ‘catastrophic decline’ in the city’s street trees.
It maintains 36,000 street trees across the city, many of which were planted in the Victorian era and have reached maturity. A council study done a decade ago found that only five per cent of street trees in the city could be classed as ‘young’.
As part of its 25-year Streets Ahead contract with Amey, replacement work is taking place in a scheme which the council claims will ensure there are trees ‘for future generations’ to enjoy. It says the majority that have been removed are either ‘dangerous, dead, dying or diseased’.