“I really like talking about trees,” said councillor Lewis Dagnall, the third to take on the role of cabinet member for streetscene and environment at Sheffield City Council since the start of the tree saga.
The job among, other things, involves dealing with one of the most controversial topics in the council’s history, the felling of thousands of street trees under a £2.2 billion PFI contract. The previous councillor to take up the position resigned after facing too much ‘abuse and stress’.
On a rainy day at Heeley City Farm, where Coun Dagnall is a trustee, he chatted about everything from trees, dogs and Dr Who to learning Ancient Greek, improving ‘Victorian’ flats and introducing brown bins.
He grew up in Manchester and joined the Labour Party at 16. Coun Dagnall said it was seeing the impact of austerity that made him want to get directly involved in local politics.
After graduating from the University of Sheffield in history and politics, he ran in his local elections in 2014, and has been on the cabinet since May this year.
Coun Dagnall was still doing his GCSE’s when the Streets Ahead contract to improve the highways was being planned. Since, the chopping of street trees has caused high-profile protests, arrests and attention from celebrities like Jarvis Cocker, Chris Packham and Bianca Jagger.
“I totally appreciate the gravity of this issue for those who are concerned about it. What I have tried to do is communicate that actually there is a lot of common ground, the council is one of the few which has set aside money to plant new trees and maintain them,” Coun Dagnall said.
“You can have a lively debate, which at times got too serious and went too far, about what you do about street trees but you are still living in one of the greenest cities.”
A pause on felling was put in place earlier this year and over the past few months, Coun Dagnall has had mediated talks with Sheffield Tree Action Group to decide on the best way forward.
He said: “I’m pleased that we are starting to reset things on trees and build a good working relationship with stakeholders in civil society, including STAG who we have been having our talks with, and things have been feeling a lot calmer.
“We are starting to see some of the unease melt away and rebuild trust.
“Given how many people are concerned about the trees it’s right that the cabinet are paying attention to it and putting in the time to get it right.
“We have a proposal that will see fewer trees come down and those that are coming down, phased over a longer period, that seems a compromise people want.”
He said his dad is often his ‘compass’ when dealing with tree-related issues. He worked for Sheffield Council in the 1980s and planted some of those on the streets.
He said: “When I go out with my dad in Sheffield he often spots trees he planted.
“He’s very keen on nature so I use him as a compass for a lot of it, so I try to imagine if my dad was living on that street, would he put up with this?”
He also oversees bins, fly-tipping and a range of environmental regulation services such as kennels and food hygiene. With such a wide variety of issues, Coun Dagnall said he learns new things all the time, which complements his other career as an academic.
“And as a councillor you are learning a lot, so like with that Dr Who episode with the spiders I was sadly sat there saying ‘well, under the environmental law it’s the owner’s responsibility to get rid of the waste you dispose of’. You learn quite a lot about things that are quite random, which I find interesting.
“It’s a very stimulating environment to work in because you’ve got your colleagues on cabinet, councillors around the city, officers with all of their expertise and experience, constituents and members of the community and party members as well. So it makes you feel like part of a team and gives you a lot of experience to draw on.
“The beauty of the system is you shouldn’t be an expert, you should just be able to be an ordinary person with a team around you to put your ideas into practise.”
He is also currently undertaking a PhD in Roman History and will be teaching on an undergraduate course for the first time next term. As a result he has had to learn Ancient Greek, a ‘moderate’ amount of German and some Latin.
“The benefit of being an academic and a councillor is I do two things that are both as long as a piece of string, so you can just about make those two pieces of string match up,” he said.
“There are a few councillors who still work full-time and I think it’s really important that we have that flexibility because then you get people with different life experiences.”
But he also said this leaves very little time for personal life and quoted Oscar Wilde when he said ‘the problem with socialism is there’s only so many evenings’.
Coun Daganall lives in Upperthorpe with his partner, and fellow cabinet member, Olivia Blake, and their dog Arthur. To relax he takes Arthur on big walks and to dog-friendly pubs in Kelham Island.
As well as looking after Arthur, Coun Dagnall has helped change tenancy conditions to make it simpler for renters of council homes to have a pet.
He said: “It was an issue of social justice for me, you shouldn’t have to buy a house to have a dog. I know there’s a lot of people who want to ban them altogether, and private landlords who do, but I don’t think that’s right.”
He is also proud of introducing selective licensing on London, Chesterfield and Abbeydale roads and progressing the Gleadless Valley masterplan to regenerate his ward.
“I remember going out leafleting around the flats at the back of London Road and being told ‘you will be appalled at how Victorian they are.’ It was true. You go and there’s bags of concrete, vats of oil, rickety, rusting stairs up to flats which are fire traps,” he said.
“There was a reasonably lively debate about whether we should do it or not but I’m really pleased we have. So over the next few months you will see landlords having to make their properties legally safe to live in.”
Going forward, Coun Dagnall hopes to continue turning the energy from disputes over things like trees and selective licensing into something beneficial for the city.
He said: “Heeley City Farm came from one of the most bitter community disputes in the history of this neighbourhood, when the council wanted to build Heeley bypass.
“Out of that adversity has come one of the best community assets, it’s a brilliant farm where people from all walks of life have a great experience. When I say to people we are optimistic that you can get something good out of the tree saga, that is the evidence that it can happen.”