Getting to the root of street trees problem

Tree Lined streets in Sheffield
Tree Lined streets in Sheffield
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Sheffield’s trees, the crowning glory of Britain’s greenest city.

Along with its seven hills, five rivers and unique industrial heritage, our estimated two million trees are part of what makes Sheffield special.

But, as high winds take down dozens of trees across the city, one of the world’s leading environmental experts based in the city reckons Sheffield is in danger of destroying swathes of its natural beauty.

In fact, he says we’re already doing it.

The city council says it is removing 250 trees through necessity and planting 750. They say they are re-planting and undertaking essential maintenance to ensure the future of the city’s greenery as part of an agreed 25-year conservation programme.

But when The Star’s letters page is bombarded with tree-related issues and people like Professor Ian Rotherham accuse the council of ‘speaking Eco-twaddle’, ‘absolutely outrageous behaviour’ and ‘ignoring people’s views’ in an ‘officious and bullying style’, it’s probably time to ask what’s going on.

So we did.

The Star put to the city council the fears and concerns expressed by our readers and Sheffield Hallam University’s Professor of Environmental Geography which include:

The loss of ancient trees in the Gleadless Valley

The removal of trees from the Meadowhead roundabout

Threats to Bowden Housteads Wood and Smithy Wood from developers

The perceived gradual erosion of long-standing conservation programmes

A lack of consultation over street tree removals

Jack Scott, Sheffield City council member for the environment, sees things differently.

“We are doing more work on conserving and looking after street trees than we have ever done,” he said.

“In regard to the older trees, they are the ones that by definition become diseased or start to die. We can’t afford to have unstable or dead and dying trees alongside the highway.

“We have to manage trees with safety as our primary concern, especially with older trees, and unfortunately the conservation pledge that Ian Rotherham refers to is not close to what authorities do across the country now. Our first duty is to keep the roads and pavements safe for people.

“We do consult with people but if trees need attention quickly we have to take action. We get more people complaining because we don’t cut trees down than those who complain that we do.

“We have arboriculturalists working for the council who are passionate about trees and they give their expert opinion as we try and work out what to do with a certain tree.”

“Regarding Bowden Housteads Wood there has not been a planning application submitted as far as I am aware but if there is it will have to comply with preservation requirements of the area which are still in place. Regarding the Meadowhead roundabout the trees had to come out anyway because the island will be smaller. We will plant 10 to 15-year-old trees when work is finished to replace those lost. We would never remove trees for convenience. People sometimes accuse us of removing trees to save money but it costs more to replace a tree than it does to patch one up. We don’t do it lightly.”

Mr Scott acknowledged the unique and irreplaceable nature of ancient trees but said: “The Smithy Wood development is in two parts. One application that has been made is for a coal washing plant on an area that is not designated ancient woodland. The other part is for an area that is ancient woodland and which will again have to comply with conservation conditions. That may mean a developer having to make commensurate improvement compensation to restore another green area or make a brownfield site green. However there is an application from local people to turn the wood into a village green – and to keep it as woodland.”

None of which impresses Professor Rotherham who was City Ecologist for Sheffield Council from 1984 to 1994 and helped write the Sheffield Nature Conservation Strategy in 1991.

“I have never had so many people coming to me with complaints who feel like they are being ignored,” he said.

“Sheffield is famous for its green suburbs and trees but the council don’t seem to understand the difference between consultation with people and simply telling them what they are about to do. That’s not consultation. They come out with their ‘eco-twaddle’ that sounds all right and that they know what they are talking about but it’s just ‘greenwash’. They are not conserving things, they are destroying them.

“I think the problem is that they just don’t have the expertise any more to know the value of the resource we have.

“Years of cutbacks have taken out the people who do know and who remember the agreements the council made in the past through people like David Blunkett, Peter Price and Clive Betts, who knew and cared about these issues.

“I think those agreements are being overlooked when it comes to practical decision- making. A 250-year-old tree cannot be replaced by a new one. It is an irreplaceable part of the city’s archaeology.

“I don’t think they see the difference between a tree planted by the Victorians in 1870 and a tree that is a 300-year-old marker of the city’s history and is irreplaceable. It seems to me the council has lost track of the promises it made 20 to 30 years ago.

“Trees can cause nuisance with their roots and leaf fall but that’s what happens with trees.

“People will make individual complaints and of course they have to be looked at but decisions were made as part of a democratic process and they should not be overturned because people have forgotten about them.

“There was no reason why the trees on Meadowhead roundabout had to be removed. I think they were cut down for convenience so the spoil from the work could be stored on there. To say the trees were diseased is complete hogwash.”

Bowden Housteads Wood – alongside the Parkway near the Handsworth turn-off – is an ancient wood listed as a conservation site. It is thought that an application is being prepared to site a new fire station there.

Smithy Wood, just off junction 35 of the M1, is recognised as an ancient wood by the Woodlands Trust but is the proposed site for a motorway service station.