By Toby Pillatt

Residents in Sheffield have been engaged in a protracted battle with the city council and its highway maintenance contractor over the felling of healthy street trees. While in the past trees were often managed principally for economic reasons, the current debate suggests that such a mercenary approach is no longer acceptable.

In 2012 Sheffield City Council signed a 25 year contract for highway, pavement and street light renewal. Costing £2.2 billion, the contract also included management of Sheffield’s many street trees. As part of this management, over 5000 trees have been felled, and after a battle with the Information Commissioner it was revealed recently that the contract specifies the replacement of 17,500 trees. Amey, the company contracted to undertake the work, say that they only remove (and replace) trees that are dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging or discriminatory (in that they affect the evenness of the pavement). These latter two categories are controversial as they have caused the felling or scheduled felling of healthy mature trees, including veteran oak trees, survivor elms, trees originally paid for by local residents, and trees planted as war memorials. Since 2015 there have been regular protests against the work, which have slowed it considerably. The protests led to Sheffield City Council applying for a High Court injunction against some prominent campaigners and ‘persons unknown’ to restrict the legal options for direct action. And yet the protests continue to escalate – despite pleas from the Police and Crime Commissioner for a political solution, South Yorkshire Police have regularly deployed over 30 officers to felling sites.

At the centre of the debate is a lengthy contract that has largely (and controversially) remained secret. Nevertheless, it seems clear that it contains a complex mechanism of fines designed to ensure the parties stay true to its terms, no matter how public opinion shifts. For Amey, there are financial incentives to removing mature trees early in the course of the contract, as they are expensive and time consuming to manage. The council, suffering like many others from large reductions in central government funding, claim that there is simply no money to spend on tree retention outside the existing terms of the contract. The trees, then, are reduced to numbers on the balance sheet; money rules.

In historical context, this is unsurprising. My research with Tom Williamson and Gerry Barnes has shown that in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the nation’s tree population was heavily managed for economic reasons; so much so, that the age structure and species composition that we see today is largely a result of human action. In the past, intensive management often brought debate, disagreements and conflicts: how many trees should be planted in hedgerows? How should trees be managed? What trees should be encouraged, and what trees should be cut down? Trespass and theft were perennial problems, and in response, contracts were drawn up to define rights and obligations. On the Temple Newsam estate near Leeds, for example, from as early as 1608 farm leases demanded that tenants plant hedgerow trees. The most detailed contracts tended to concern the cropping of coppices – woodlands regularly cropped to near ground level. Specialist contractors were bound to “fairly spring fell and cut down with axes or hatchets for the best advantage of the wet growth”, promising another profitable growing cycle. A fairly typical lease agreement from Arthington Hall further details that trees were to be cut “sloping … so that the water cannot nor do stay upon the stovens (coppice stool)”, which was thought damage the tree.

Trespass notice from Sowerby, 1821. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service, STN356.
Trespass notice from Sowerby, 1809. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service, STN159

The historical emphasis on future growth is pertinent to the current debates about whether Amey and Sheffield City Council take seriously their obligations in this regard. While it is true that many new trees have been planted, there are concerns over the quality of Amey’s work, and whether the saplings will survive to maturity. Such concerns are all the more acute because much of Amey’s work is ‘self monitored’ – despite the huge sums of money involved, there is very little oversight from the council.

So why do all this? The council claim that their programme of replacements will leave Sheffield’s street tree population younger, more manageable, more diverse, and therefore more able to resist disease in the future. Our research has shown that the historical-ecological consequences of past tree management, and its decline from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, mean that it is desirable that new planting rejuvenates and diversifies the rural tree population. However, at no point do we advocate the felling of healthy trees to achieve these aims. Moreover, the management of trees in urban areas necessitates a broader set of considerations. It has long been recognised that historic ‘character’ – a term encompassing emotive as well as aesthetic connections with the past – is an important part of what people value about place. It therefore comes as no surprise that people are furious about this process that is fundamentally damaging the character of some of Sheffield’s most attractive streets. Despite ongoing research looking at the relationship between well-being and urban greenspace, these intangible attachments to place are hard to articulate and quantify. It is therefore understandable that, with the notable exception of memorial trees, much of the anti-felling campaign has shied away from heritage, choosing to focus instead on environmental and ecological issues, as well as the secretive contract at the centre of the controversy.

There are perhaps two lessons from history that can point us a way out of this mess. Firstly, it is important to recognise that contracts can break down: in a large and complicated sale of wood at Burton Constable in 1799, involving a very detailed contract with buy-back mechanisms and unusually precise stipulations on cutting and transporting the wood, for example, the purchasers missed a payment deadline. Although the principal contractors were already insolvent, the landowner threatened one of the contractors’ sons – newly come of age – with debt proceedings. Secondly, we must acknowledge that with tree management, public opinion matters: whether it be in the fervour of Improvement, the fashions of landscape gardening, or the concerns of resource availability bred by war, influential individuals have successfully changed the way in which we perceive and manage our trees. Rising protester numbers, upcoming elections, and a recent flurry of people speaking out against the felling, including Jarvis Cocker, George Monbiot, Michael Gove and three of Sheffield’s MPs, have secured a temporary halt to the fellings. Although this gives campaigners hope that the council will eventually be forced to extricate itself from the contract, it remains to be seen whether the persistent questions about the quality and pace of Amey’s work, and their alleged failure to reveal serious health and safety breaches before the contract was signed, will enable that extrication to be done at little or no additional cost to city.

Toby Pillatt is a Research and Teaching Associate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of Trees in England: Management and disease since 1600.

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