Video: Michael Gove clashes with Sheffield MP Clive Betts in Commons over city's tree-felling programme

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A senior Government Minister has renewed his war of words with Sheffield council over its controversial tree-felling programme after advising a city MP to "have a word" with the authority about the scheme if it wanted to cut pollution levels.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove clashed with Labour's Clive Betts in the Commons as he was questioned about his package of new measures designed to cut harmful dirty air.

Mr Gove, who has previously accused the Labour-run Sheffield City Council of "environmental vandalism" over its £2.2bn highways maintenance contract with outsourcing firm Amey, said ending the scheme would help deal with local air pollution.

But veteran MP Mr Betts, the chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, angrily responded that the programme would result in more trees on the streets of Sheffield.

Mr Gove's clean air strategy, announced today, includes new legislation which will mean that only cleaner fuels and stoves will be sold for domestic heating, curbing polluting smoke and soot, under plans being put out for consultation.

Councils will be given new powers to bring in "clean air zones" to tackle poor air from sources such as wood burners, for example limiting what people can burn or bringing in "no-burn days", and from diesel-powered machinery.

Michael Gove renews calls for Sheffield Council to reconsider "unnecessary destruction of trees"

During Commons questions, Mr Betts said his Sheffield South East constituency had levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide above safe limits because it was next to the M1 motorway, asking: "What is the Government going to do about that other than add an extra lane to the motorway?"

He added that in the city centre, Sheffield station was a pollution hotspot, due to the number of diesel trains passing through, adding: "It is this government which has just cancelled the electrification of the Midland Mainline." The MP asked: "When are we going to get some joined-up thinking on this matter?"

In response, Mr Gove said he was a great admirer of Mr Betts's work in making the case for local authorities to have more funding and for environmental issues to be taken into account in planning decisions.

But he added: "There is one thing more he could do, which is to have a word with his colleagues on Sheffield City Council, to stop the tree-felling campaign on which it is engaged.

"If we want to deal effectively with air pollution one of the things we can do is to continue to ensure that the trees, which act not just as a source of natural wonder but also contribute in the fight against air pollution, survive rather than being cut down by a council that is in thrall to its own officers."

A few minutes later, Mr Betts asked to speak again and said: "I am sure the Secretary of State would not want to have an inaccurate statement uncorrected.

"He said Sheffield council was felling trees and that was adding to the pollution problems in the city. Can I just point out that the truth is that while there has been some contention about the removal and replacement of some trees and some streets, overall there will be more trees on the streets of Sheffield at the end of this programme than at the beginning, and the city will have low energy street lights which I hope the Secretary of State would welcome."

Around 6,000 trees have been felled so far in Sheffield as part of the £2.2bn highways maintenance contract with Amey, which contains a target to replace 17,500 trees by the end of its 25-year term.

Presiding over questions in the Commons, Speaker John Bercow appeared unaware of the headlines the ongoing row has generated across the country.

Speaking after Mr Betts's intervention, he said: "The honourable gentleman from Harrogate and Knaresborough (Tory Andrew Jones) chunters from a sedentary position that it is an explosive issue. I don't know."

Responding to a comment from an MP, he said: "Locally? That may well be."