Determined residents fighting against trees being cut down across Sheffield today vowed to continue their battle into 2016.
Bitter protests have sprung up around the city since May opposing plans to axe trees as part of Sheffield Council’s Streets Ahead contract with Amey to upgrade the city streets.
More than 14,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to the felling.
And the high-profile campaign has attracted support from celebrities, including music star Toddla T, and raised questions about Sheffield’s reputation as a green city.
“The campaign is very much going to stay in place all the way into 2016,” pledged Louise Wilcockson, of Save Our Roadside Trees.
“We will also look to explore our legal options, push for vital questions to be answered on behalf of our city’s people in a meaningful way and if they remain unanswered no doubt many campaigners will take direct peaceful action.”
Felling notices on trees lining Rustlings Road, next to Endcliffe Park, in May sparked concerns from nearby residents who launched a campaign in a desperate bid to save them.
It is a people power campaign that has spread across much of the city – known for being among Europe’s greenest.
There have been many protests at the spot where trees are threatened – and angry scenes inside Sheffield Town Hall.
National coverage, viral YouTube videos and grassroots action groups followed and campaigners even pitched a tent in Endcliffe Park for a month.
It is likely the row will feature in May’s all-out elections, with one independent candidate already standing on the issue.
“It started out as an acorn and we never imagined it would grow to this,” said Louise Wilcockson, of Save Our Roadside Trees, one of the first residents to take action.
“I think it is extremely naive of the council to think this is just about trees, this is about democracy.
“At the moment this is bringing into question whether the council can act on what is right for the people who have elected them.
“I don’t think the council has been listening to people and that will at some stage turn around and bite them.”
Chief among concerns raised is that many trees felled are healthy.
The council insists they need to go because there has been a historic lack of maintenance and trees are now damaging pavements or roads to the extent they have become obstructions, particularly to disabled people.
Trees are replaced, although not necessarily in the same location, and the council has repeatedly pointed out there are 2.2 million trees in Sheffield managed by the authority, of which 36,000 are on the highway.
Other trees earmarked for the axe are said to be dead, diseased or dangerous.
But residents say there are alternative methods which could be used, there is no replacement for the benefits which mature trees bring and the authority has discretion in how it meets legal requirements.
In August, The Star asked the council how many people had complained of being unable to use a road or pavement because of overgrown trees – but it did not answer.
It was confirmed just three falls have been recorded on Rustlings Road in three years.
Campaigners stress they are not anti-improvement but want the benefit of mature trees to be taken into account and a formal strategy implemented.
Felling, apart from on dead or dangerous trees, is currently halted while surveys are sent out to residents across the city to ask their views.
Where half of responses are against felling, an independent tree panel will review the work.
Louise added: “We would like to see in detail the alternative specifications that we have been asking for since May.
“There is enough money in this £2.2 billion PFI to retain these healthy, mature roadside trees and make all the necessary improvements to the pavements and roadsides.”
Householders in leafy Nether Edge enlisted the support of Sheffield music star Toddla T and are also planning to battle on.
Campaigner Carly Mountain said: “We are determined to continue.
“We have an increasing number of people signed up to look out for trees on their streets and more people trying to find out what is going on because there is a complete lack of transparency.”
In Crookes, one of three lining Western Road planted in memory of World War One heroes has become another symbol of protest.
Three different experts concluded the tree does not need felling – although the city council’s Streets Ahead team insist it does as it has a structural fault.
The tree, affected by high winds in January, was also at the centre of a different storm.
The council was forced to apologise for offence caused after comments from Steve Robinson, head of highway maintenance, were recorded by a whistleblower in September.
He was heard to say ‘we’re not interested’ in the ‘nonsense’ reasons people come up with on why individual trees should be saved from being removed and replaced.
The recordings were made on the same day The Star enquired about the felling of the Western Road tree.
A different council manager is now running the trees strand of Streets Ahead.
Residents say deeper issues, also including transparency and credibility, have been dug out in the campaign.
Louise added: “As we started to uncover things this has become more about the council and the huge city-wide implications of it.”
TREE STRATEGY SET TO BEGIN NEXT YEAR
Development of a Sheffield tree and woodland strategy will begin next year, a council chief says.
Campaigners called for such a plan and it was expected in December at the next highways trees forum – but both were delayed.
Coun Terry Fox, cabinet member for environment, said: “A scoping event for the development of the Sheffield tree and woodland strategy will be held in January or February 2016.
“The public will be asked for suggestions about content and initial comments will be used to developed a draft which will then be consulted upon. We will make final details public when they are in place.”
While the council has paused felling – apart from dead and dangerous trees – while street surveys are sent out, some highway trees have still been axed in recent weeks. Residents have questioned why, as council chiefs have previously said that dangerous trees were taken down at the beginning of the contract.
Coun Fox added: “We are an open and transparent council and that is why we have established the independent tree panel, to help us listen to residents’ views.
“Some reports suggest campaigners have tried to stop felling teams from removing dangerous trees. We strongly ask them not to do this as campaigners put themselves, the general public and teams in danger.”
Coun Fox also said solutions put forward by campaigners were ‘already used’ including flexi paving which has on 143 occasions retained trees.
He said any other tree works would have to be assessed to see if they complied with highway legislation, caused risks to safety or affected the ‘fixed unitary charge’ paid by the council over the life of the contract.
WHAT THE STAR ASKED SHEFFIELD COUNCIL ABOUT TREES
The Star put these questions to Streets Ahead.
Q: How many trees have been felled so far?
A: Since August 2012, 3,068 trees.
Q: How many have been replaced?
A: By March 2016, 3625 trees will have been replanted.
Q: How many have been replaced in the same location?
A: Information not held
Q: How many have been saved by alternative methods?
A:Information not held