Two Labour MPs in Sheffield have called on the city’s Labour-run council to pause tree felling in the city, as protests grow over a controversial road maintenance contract that has resulted in thousands of trees being cut down and replaced with saplings.
A freedom of information request has revealed that the council’s 25-year private finance initiative (PFI) deal with the contractor Amey specifies that as many as 17,500 trees – half of the city’s 36,000 trees – could be felled as part of the work to maintain the city’s roads and pavements.
In a statement, Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, said she had been troubled by scenes taking place on the streets of Sheffield – with residents being arrested as they attempted to stop felling. She said it was “simply untenable for the fellings to continue in this way”.
“One thing is clear, this dispute cannot be solved by ramping up security,” she said. “That why I believe that the only possible solution is a halt in the fellings and meaningful mediation with local residents going forward.”
Paul Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central, also called for a pause in the work to allow for more discussion to resolve the current conflict, “putting the views of residents on affected streets first”. But he added that he recognised that the council’s options were limited by the terms of the PFI contract with Amey.
“The straitjacket created by these contracts is one of the reasons that I’ve long opposed PFIs,” he said. “In government, Labour would review all PFI contracts with a view to securing savings, but the council can only revoke or vary its contract at significant cost – and I don’t want to see money diverted from vital services which have been starved of funds by eight years of deep Tory cuts.”
Responding to the release of the contract details last week, Sheffield council’s cabinet member for environment, Bryan Lodge, said that around 6,000 trees has been felled so far as part of the scheme and that 65% of Sheffield’s roads had been upgraded. He said it was difficult to estimate how many more trees would be chopped down.
“Any suggestion that 17,500 trees is a target or a requirement is an incorrect interpretation of the contract, and indeed the high court was clear that the ‘objective of the council has been to retain trees where possible’,” he said.
Lodge added: “An independent survey as long ago as 2007 showed that 75% of our street trees were found to be mature or reaching maturity. The replacement trees will help shift the balance towards younger, more diverse street trees, which are not causing damage to the highway or private property and causing accessibility problems.”
South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, called on the council to find a “political solution” to the dispute. He said he was frustrated by the effect the dispute was having on the force’s reputation.
“The police response to tree felling in Sheffield has not changed: they must allow for peaceful protest on the one hand and enable people to go about their lawful business on the other. They must keep the peace and uphold law and order and act proportionately,” he said.
“What has changed, however, are the numbers of those protesting – as many as 90 on some days – and the decision by Sheffield city council to take out an injunction against the protesters, which they, and not the police, implement. This has raised the temperature and has meant that South Yorkshire police have had to deploy more officers.”
Ten tree protesters have been taken into police custody since November 2017. Three people have been arrested on suspicion of assault, one on suspicions of a public order offence and one on suspicion of criminal damage. Four have been arrested on suspicion of obstructing the highway and another for witness intimidation.
Dr Simon Crump, a tree campaigner and senior lecturer in creative writing at the university of Huddersfield, said he was waiting for court papers to be served on him for breaking a council injunction is attempting to stop trees being felled. He said he was willing to go to prison for his cause.
“I think that what’s happening here is that we have a PFI contract administered by a council who basically want to bully us and they’re using private security and the police to do that,” he said.
“We’ve got 30 police turning up at tree fellings … I’m prepared to put my head above the parapet and stand up to bullies. For me it’s about the right to peaceful and effective protest. If they can do this to us over some trees they can do this to us for anything.”
The move by MPs comes ahead of a sold-out fundraising gig at Sheffield City Hall on Friday night, organised by Sheffield-born musicians including Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley. Cocker will be joined by former Pulp bandmate Nick Banks and Jon McClure from the Reverend and the Makers.