Council U-turn means Sheffield’s trees will be saved

Sheffield City Council has cut down more than 5,000 trees since 2012 as part of its ‘Streets Ahead’ road improvement programme. Now, in a drastic U-turn, the council has changed its approach, publishing a report revealing most trees that were set for felling can now be saved.

Sheffield tree protestors with placards
Sheffield tree protestors with placards
Imogen Benson

A recent report, prepared for a Sheffield City Council (SCC) cabinet meeting on 17 July, has revealed that 99.5 per cent of street trees in the city can now be saved after more investigation and minor remedial work to kerbs, verges and pavements. 

A programme of tree-felling began in Sheffield in 2012 as part of the city’s ‘Streets Ahead’ road improvement project, a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal with contractor Amey Plc. The programme has consistently faced opposition from activists who said that in many cases, healthy trees were being cut down unnecessarily. Indeed, a survey of 309 street trees has now revealed that 191 trees can be retained indefinitely, with a further 26 trees requiring bespoke solutions, and 91 trees awaiting investigation.

SCC has now announced plans for a new Street Tree Strategy, which will ‘explore a number of issues such as the long-term aims for street tree numbers and canopy cover, management and maintenance of the tree stock, and how communities can become more involved in the future.’

These new plans follow mediated talks between the council, private contractor Amey and members of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), an umbrella group of multiple local campaign groups. Representatives from these groups, along with other stakeholders, will join the new Street Tree Strategy development group, to be headed by Liz Ballard, Chief Executive of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, and the strategy will be put forward for consideration in January 2020.

SCC Green Party Councillor Alison Teal said: “The report completely vindicates the view of Sheffield tree campaigners that thousands of healthy street trees have been unnecessarily felled in our city in recent years.

“This SCC report follows more than six months of investigation by Amey and SCC as to whether hundreds of street trees slated for the chop in 2019 really need to be. 

“This report has proven that they do not. And neither did the overwhelming majority of the 5,000-plus mostly healthy street trees felled before a March 2018 ‘pause’ in street tree felling following years of protest by residents.”

In March 2018, Amey and SCC were forced to temporarily suspend the felling of street trees following overwhelming pressure from protestors, who campaigned with non-violent direct action, standing peacefully under threatened trees to prevent them from being cut down.

Green campaigner Alan Story commented: “The same SCC cabinet member, Lewis Dagnall, is in charge of both street trees and of responding to the climate emergency. As a sign that he is serious about the latter, Cllr Dagnall should announce both a total ban on the further felling of healthy street trees and a fundamental rethink of this ruinous PFI deal.”

PFI deal “an economic disaster as well”

Campaigners have been heavily critical of the council’s £1.9 billion PFI deal with Spanish-owned highways contractor Amey, which had made plans to cut down 17,500 mostly healthy street trees. Only two weeks prior to the release of SCC’s report, it was announced that Birmingham City Council had dumped Amey from a very similar 25-year PFI street repairs deal. 

This followed the news in March that, after losing over £350 million in the last year, Amey sold its stakes in Sheffield’s PFI deal – a ‘ruinous’ deal that is costing residents £1.75 million per week.

Story explained: “Because Birmingham actually monitored its PFI contract with Amey and complained loudly, including in several court cases, about the shoddy quality of Amey’s road work, Ferrovial, Amey’s sole owner, had to pay the city £215 million to be freed from the PFI scheme.

“Amey’s recent ‘escape’ from Birmingham was the last barrier to the sale of Amey in the UK, numerous financial commentators have recently suggested. Amey is one of the biggest outsourcers in the UK. It employs about 19,000 people and its pending sell-off, first announced in December 2018 by Ferrovial, will have major consequences for Sheffield.

“It’s not as if SCC had not been warned about the dangers of this deal with Amey. In August 2016, when Councillor Bryan Lodge had responsibility for the Streets Ahead contract, he said that SCC had taken action against Amey, claiming £2 million in financial penalties because of poor work practices. Clearly SCC identified problems early in this lengthy contract that was originally negotiated by the Lib Dems when they last controlled SCC. As a result of re-financing, the cost of the work will not be fully paid off until 2057.”

SCC Green Party Councillor Douglas Johnson added: “Not only has the Streets Ahead contract been an environmental disaster for the city, but an economic disaster as well.”

“Unless this PFI deal is wound up, Sheffield residents will be paying for this £2 billion deal at the equivalent of £1.7 million a week for decades. Think of all the social care places and day care spaces that would pay for in the future.”

Although the Council’s new strategy can be seen as a victory for the campaigning residents, providing hope for the city’s trees, the Amey sale could result in lasting financial consequences for the people of Sheffield.