Massed ranks of police and security guards are making residents in a leafy Sheffield suburb even more determined to save their tree-lined avenues from the chop. Chris Burn reports.
South Yorkshire Police officers in riot gear carried the struggling man through an angry crowd shouting ‘Shame’, ‘Disgrace’, and ‘Orgreave’ at them towards the waiting van ready to whisk him away to custody. Yet another affluent Sheffield suburban street had become a hostile battleground in the city’s ongoing fight over the felling of thousands of street trees between the local council and campaigners.
The arrested man had been crouched under a mobile cherry-picker for two hours after jumping over security fencing and evading guards in a bid to prevent felling work starting on a tree on Kenwood Road in Nether Edge, part of the city which was designated a conservation area in 2002 and where feelings are running particularly high.
Sheffield tree saga: How did we get to this point?
The simple reason why the loss of trees is hitting especially hard in Nether Edge is ironically best explained in Sheffield Council’s own words about the area’s conservation status. It says: “The essential image of the area is of a leafy suburb, with fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings, many located on tree-lined avenues providing an attractive and desirable residential environment. The area is one of a number that help give the city its distinctively green quality."
Just a few years after that report was written, police officers wearing riot helmets to protect their heads from the prospect of the partly-raised cherry picker vehicle falling on them were wrestling the masked man from out under a vehicle as a crowd of around 100 people booed and heckled them from behind the fencing covering much of the street. Minutes later, a chainsaw was taken to the healthy tree, being axed because it was deemed to be damaging the road surface, as felling began.
His was not the first arrest of the day. Another campaigner who got over the barriers and laid on the street had been removed and arrested around an hour before. Both men were arrested under section 303 of the Highways Act 1980, a rarely-used offence which carries a maximum fine of £200.
The ongoing removal of 6,000 of the city’s 36,000 street trees, and their replacement with saplings, as part of a £2.2bn PFI highways improvement contract between Sheffield Council and private company Amey has been a fight growing in bitterness and intensity for the last few years, with multiple arrests, court cases and even an extraordinary allegation of a ‘tea poisoning plot’ in which workmen supposedly fell ill after accepting drinks from disgruntled local residents on a street they were working on.
But in the past fortnight, the situation has moved into an even more extreme phase after the police announced they would be providing a higher-profile presence at felling sites. That follows a ‘pause’ in work ordered at the end of January after clashes between protesters and private security guards hired by Amey.
In the most high-profile incident on Monday, a male campaigner was arrested for assault and a female protester injured to the point of requiring hospital treatment following a chaotic fracas on Abbeydale Park Rise in Dore. Despite the massed presence of dozens of police officers and security guards, no felling was successfully completed that day as some protesters climbed on threatened trees to prevent work starting.
There can be little doubt that efforts to hold up the work have had an effect. Officials running what is known as ‘Streets Ahead’ had targeted the felling of the 6,000 trees by the end of 2017, the date which marked the end of the first five years of the contract and which had been due to pave the way for work to move in a less-active ‘maintenance’ phase.
But three months later, campaigners believe around 350 trees are still yet to be felled in the city, including many of those they are most desperate to save and around 160 in the Nether Edge area.
After winning a High Court injunction making protests in which campaigners stand directly under threatened trees unlawful, Sheffield Council initially claimed in August they would face “catastrophic financial consequences” if the felling work was not completed in time, only to climb down a week later when The Yorkshire Post revealed the contract makes clear any costs relating to protesters should fall on Amey and not taxpayers.
The council signed up to the PFI deal with Amey back in 2012, when it was the only way it could access over £1bn of Government funding for desperately road improvements in the city.
But while the contract also includes road resurfacing work and street light replacement, almost all of the controversy surrounding it relates to the removal and replacement of trees.
Campaigners fear that eventually as many as 18,000 trees could be chopped down – pointing to a report shortly after the contract was signed which suggested this number could be replaced with “more highway-friendly alternatives”.
The council and Amey insist that only dead, dying, diseased and damaging trees are being removed. But campaigners say that many of the trees being removed are healthy and do not need to go – claiming the option is being taken for cost rather than environmental or health and safety reasons.
More than 8,000 people are now members of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), a collection of local campaigns from across the city who joined forces in 2015 when they realised they were all fighting plans in their local areas.
For the most committed members, this has led to a rather unusual daily routine; patrolling their local streets for signs that tree-felling crews, and the security guards and police officers that now accompany them, are heading their way that day. When a sighting of a likely vehicle is confirmed, details are posted on social media and fellow activists make their way as quickly as possible to the location in a bid to prevent work starting.
At noon yesterday, the felling team swept into Kenwood Road, accompanied by police and security guards. Their arrival was witnessed by a handful of campaigners who had been alerted to an Amey truck parked up in the area.
While it is clear the campaigners who quickly gathered in large numbers – the vast majority of whom were local residents living just yards away – are angry, frustrated and disbelieving about what has been unfolding in their neighbourhood, an unexpected consequence of the situation is the increased sense of community it has engendered, with neighbours who previously knew little of each other chatting away and signing together by the barriers.
Patty Claxton, who lives on the street, said she had moved to the area just before Christmas, partly because of the beauty of the local area.
"It is heart-breaking. We had heard about the tree-felling but until you get here, you don't realise how bad it is. It seems to be all about money and it is so upsetting."
Annette Taberner said the tree-felling and associated protests are having a major impact on people's lives.
"It is horrendous. You would think 30-odd police officers who have other things to do. For everybody being involved in this day after day, it is not good for your mental health. It is the last thing many people think of when they go to bed at night and the first thing they think of when they wake up."
Alison Foster said Nether Edge's conservation area status means there is now a bizarre situation where residents have fewer rights to remove trees from their own gardens than Amey do from the streets.
"If I wanted to take down a tree in my garden, I would have to get planning permission from Sheffield City Council. But they don't need planning permission for this."
Grandmother Maxine Parkin said it is particularly galling to see so many police officers on the street when it is a struggle to get them out for other matters.
“Real criminals are out committing crime and when you ring the police they don’t come. It makes me feel angry to see this. I know people who have reported criminals selling drugs on their street and nothing gets done. They have cut the police force to the bone. But at a peaceful protest, this is the turnout.”
Campaigners say the new police tactics have increased people’s sense of determination to challenge the felling plans, despite the odds being against them. One says it is their version of ‘Blitz Spirit’.
Looking down the tree-lined avenues where yellow ribbons are tied to those which have been earmarked for destruction, it seems that spirit will be needed in the months ahead, particularly if the current police tactics continue.
As one resident, David Pierce, puts it: “People around here respect the police. But this is doing great damage to the respect the residents have for the police. Like most people, I’m not here for anti-PFI reasons, that is just background stuff. We just want to keep the lovely trees. You just run out of words to describe your frustration and your anger.”
Urgent review of policing tactics ordered
Crime commissioner Alan Billings has ordered an urgent review of policing tactics at tree-felling protests in Sheffield.
Dr Billings, who observed some of the events on Kenwood Road yesterday but left before arrests were made, said an independent ‘Policing Protest’ panel, originally set up to analyse how to handle far-right marches in Rotherham, are due to make an interim report on the tree issue within around a week.
He said he hopes the panel’s members will be able to produce a more detailed report at a later date.
Dr Billings said he didn’t believe the police had “any choice” but to deploy the officers numbers they were currently using. “If the work is going to continue, we have to react accordingly.”