Save the trees: the campaigner whose protest stopped felling

“What had been planned for the trees of Western Road symbolises much that was —  and still is —  wrong in neoliberal Britain: privatisation, austerity, national and local governments getting into bed with corporate capital, climate change denial, and ignoring what local communities want.” Alan Story reports for Green World on the campaigner Roy Millington and his efforts to ensure that the trees of Western Road were saved.

An image of Roy Millington
An image of Roy Millington

Image: Luis Arroyo

Image of Roy Millington

Alan Story

"Protest works." That would be an apt phrase to put onto the gravestone of Sheffield save the trees campaigner Roy Millington who died last week, aged 85.

To be more precise: "protest works" when you have a good cause, use politically effective tactics, are tenacious, and get support from others. 

This sums up what happened during 2018 in what became defining moments of Roy’s later life. That summer, he worked and protested, without respite, to save the healthy street trees on Western Road in the Crookes area of Sheffield. They had been destined for the chop. With the help of new friends and colleagues, Roy succeeded in spades; not a single tree was felled.     

As we huddle today behind closed doors in lockdown Britain, as we watch the cynical Dominic (I am the special one) Cummings sideshow unfold, and as some of us may be feeling down and depressed, it’s instructive and comforting to hear Roy Millington’s story of “peoples’ politics” winning one…for a change. 

Paul Brooke, Co-Chair of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), over this past weekend said: “I heard many people say that if Roy could stage his protest then they ought to do something as well. The arguments about felling urban trees are often complex and convoluted. Roy made it simple. You are not going to desecrate a living war memorial. End of."

What had been planned for the trees of Western Road symbolises much that was —  and still is —  wrong in neoliberal Britain: privatisation, austerity, national and local governments getting into bed with corporate capital, climate change denial, and ignoring what local communities want.

So Roy Millington decided to take a stand. Throughout the summer and autumn of 2018, this retired and quiet-spoken tiler in the building trades was an 83-year-old man on a proverbial mission. Even though he lived more than a mile away from Western Road, Roy had heard the story of the plans by the local Labour Council and the multinational contractor Amey PLC to chainsaw a total of 23 healthy memorial trees that lined both sides of this residential street. 

In fact by that time, the Sheffield trees struggle had become an international news story with The New York Times reporting on “Toxic Tea and Other Tales From an English Tree War.” 

“Keep the trees free from damage”

The trees on Western Road were planted in 1919 to remember 401 local lads from a neighbourhood school who had been involved in what is still often called “The Great War.” A total of 61 died.  At the war’s end, the Crookes community held fundraising events and used the money to plant more than 100 trees along the road in 1919. At a dedication ceremony that April, a Sheffield councillor called it “a magnificent scheme”, impressing on the pupils “the need to keep the trees free from damage.”  Later, the Imperial War Museum in London recognised the trees as a listed living war memorial. 

Skip ahead to 13 December 2017. I remember the day well because it was my 70th birthday and I live on Western Road. On that day, Sheffield City Council (SCC) cabinet decided these healthy street trees should be felled as part of a city-wide, 25-year Private Finance Initiative (PFI) worth £2 billion. So much for arboreal stewardship.  

The PFI scheme was aimed at improving the roads of Sheffield. But it gained notoriety after as many as 5000 mostly healthy street trees were chain-sawed in the process, in part, because this was supposedly cheaper than maintaining the trees. The Western Road memorial trees became exhibit number one in this plan.

It was no surprise then that Western Road was also chosen as the location to film a crowdfunding video when ‘Stump Up Sheffield’ succeeded in raising £28,000 in a month to pay the court costs that SCC had assigned to two tree campaigners. (The video, found here at the top of this March 2018 crowdfunder, also contains footage of the pitched battle that was fought out for months to save trees in many Sheffield neighbourhoods.) 

As Roy explains in another video, a television news clip also from that same year, the Council’s approved felling of war memorial trees was “sacrilegious”. So beginning in July 2018, he went down to the Town Hall —  home of SCC and located on a busy shopping street —  sat down beside the main steps twice a week for three to four hours, and held up a simple message: don't cut down the Western Road trees.

An image of Western Road trees
The trees of Western Road, Sheffield

I was a Western Road resident so joined his protest

“I was walking through the city centre one afternoon in July (2018) and saw Roy and his sign,” Arthur Baker told Green World  last week. “I had a chat with him, and told him that, as I was a Western Road resident, I would join his protest.” 

Arthur Baker was not the only one. Soon other tree campaigners from across the city joined in. And when other Western Road residents created a well-designed leaflet and produced a large banner that could be attached to a Town Hall balustrade, it was “game on” for one of the most effective protests many of us have ever seen. 

“Roy’s campaign was going on right in the face of Council Leader Julie Dore and other Labour councillors several times a week, “ says Baker.  “He was quite a stubborn chip-off-the-old-block type and had decided he was not going away until the Western Road trees were saved.” 

Roy was “an inspirational figure” in the trees campaign, says Green Party Councillor Alison Teal.  His dedication “went through all seasons” and “there’s no doubt he felt his own sacrifice of time spent on the cold, wet or windy steps of the Town Hall was a small price to pay to honour the WWI soldiers’ memory,” she continued. 

Tree campaigners lined up for the photo shoot of a national Sunday newspaper on Western Road.
Tree campaigners on Western Road

The game was up politically long before that

By September 2018, negotiations between SCC, Amey PLC and reps for STAG had concluded that the Western Road trees would all be saved as part of a city-wide tree management scheme. But SCC did not tell Roy. He and Arthur Baker and others kept protesting and leafleting in front of the Town Hall until Armistice Day. 

“We suspected the council would come out on that day with one of those ‘after-due-consideration-of-all-the-factors’ kinds of statements and inform the city that these trees would be saved,” explains Baker. “In fact, the game was up politically long before that. We know who saved these trees and it was not politicians.”  

In any event, SCC trees czar Lewis Dagnall was upstaged in making his 11 November announcement regarding Western Road trees after Councillor Teal leaked the news to the media 48 hours earlier. 

Roy joined the campaign after many months of confrontations between tree huggers —  the ‘action wing’ of the trees campaign —  and the police and after more than 25,000 leaflets had been distributed across the city by ‘the political wing.’ In the summer of 2018, tree felling had already been paused. His own protest made sure chain-sawing never started again.  

“Dominic thinks we’re for the chop” 

There is not the space here to do a wider analysis of the Sheffield tree saga and why it was such a disaster on so many fronts. A council cabinet member denied that maintaining street trees had any value in fighting climate change when experts have proved that trees play a valuable role in carbon capture and in cooling our cities. When you find a tree root cracking a bit of pavement or a curb by a few centimetres, the solution is not to chop the tree down; after all, Sheffield is an old city, it is not Milton Keynes, these things happen. Much of our tax money from this Sheffield PFI deal ends ups in offshore tax havens as this 2018 ‘No Stump City’ report reveals. And on the question of mental health: some of us really feel happier when we walk beneath lovely green canopies of street trees. 

As for Roy, he showed Sheffield that “old gits” are not some kind of useless “drain on the economy.” Reinforcing the same message, Dillie Keane celebrated her 68th birthday last week by releasing her timely “Song for Dominic Cummings” music video with its memorable lines such as “Say tutty bye to your granny” and “Dominic thinks we’re for the chop.” 

R.I.P. Roy. You were one of the special ones.  

Alan Story, a resident of Western Road, was a Sheffield tree campaigner and contributes regularly to Green World.