The destruction and removal of thousands of healthy trees in Sheffield sparked protests and recriminations that lasted for years and whose effects are still being felt in the city. Will the publication of the independent investigation report put an end to the controversy? reports James Fisher.
The independent inquiry into the Sheffield ‘chainsaw massacre’ found that South Yorkshire city councilors behaved dishonestly and destroyed public trust. In a 227-page report, Sir Mark Lowcock, chair of the inquiry, found that the council’s behavior around the incident, which began in 2012, “tantamount to a serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership.” His report also concluded that the council “lacked transparency and repeatedly said things that were cheap with the truth, misleading and, in some cases, were ultimately exposed as dishonest.”
“The dispute was a dark episode in Sheffield,” Sir Mark writes in the report. People on both sides of the dispute suffered: “Many report illness, stress, mistrust and sacrifice,” the report adds in its section on “Damage” caused by the events. Tempers flared, rude and confrontational encounters ensued. There were no more shared jokes or cups of tea. The protests became confrontational, loud and crowded and the atmosphere feverish.’
The scandal began when Sheffield City Council signed a 25-year contract with infrastructure support service provider Amey, which included the removal and replacement of 17,500 street trees. Public opposition against the logging grew, reaching a climax in 2016 when South Yorkshire Police arrested activists and residents. More arrests were made when eight trees were cut down at 4:30 am. Two residents, Freda Brayshaw and Jenny Hockey, aged 71 and 70 respectively, were among those arrested. Both were later released and the charges dropped. Nick Clegg, then an MP for Sheffield Hallam, described the scenes as “something you would see in Putin’s Russia”. Other disputes continued until 2020, when a “peace deal” was reached between Sheffield City Council and the protesters.
The inquiry heard that, in 2018, councilors considered killing thousands of healthy trees to justify cutting them down. In emails released in the investigation, councilors watched trees ‘barking’ to ‘defeat’ protesters. Ring bark is a method of killing healthy trees by removing bark around the circumference of the trunk. “The tree is killed and dies for several months,” the email said. “It would move all trees to the ‘dying’ category and would mean STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group) could no longer claim to be defending ‘healthy’ trees.”
“Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost. There could have been many more. Sheffield’s reputation was damaged. Public trust and trust in the council were undermined.”
Other statements reveal that the council misled the High Court, although Sir Mark added that no perjury had been committed. The council was also accused of putting pressure on South Yorkshire Police to continue arresting protesters, something the force wanted to stop doing because it was taking up too much of their time. Police came under fire at the time for using an obscure clause in union law to make arrests, which the police watchdog later ruled was misapplied.
Sir Mark concluded by writing: ‘The dispute caused significant damage. Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost. There could have been many more. Sheffield’s reputation was damaged. Public trust and trust in the council were undermined. It has not been completely rebuilt.
In a statement, Sheffield City Council said: “The council has already recognized that it was wrong about many things in its handling of the street tree dispute, and we wish to reiterate our previous apologies for our failings.” We have already taken great steps to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, and we hope that the publication of this report will help us learn lessons as we move forward.”
The publication of the inquiry coincided with a new dispute in Plymouth, Devon, in which 100 mature trees were felled last week, despite opposition from residents. The council reportedly cordoned off trees in the center of town, dispatched security guards and, under cover of darkness, destroyed more than 100 trees with chainsaws.
A petition to save the trees, which line the Armada Walkway to the sea, had garnered 16,000 signatures by the time it went to press. In February, the council agreed to engage with the community about the trees, but the chainsaws went in anyway. At 1 a.m. that night, Save the Trees of Armada Way (Straw) obtained a court order and saved 15 trees.
“We wrote to the council and drew the parallels between what was happening here and in Sheffield,” Straw’s Alison White said.
But they said it was not a comparable situation. How is it not comparable? They have unnecessarily felled healthy and mature trees. The people of Plymouth could not have made their point of view more clear that they were against this. That is a misfortune.
Luke Pollard, Labor MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, described the logging as a “scene of environmental devastation and outright council hooliganism”. I am appalled by the actions of the tory council. They haven’t listened to the local people.’
Plymouth City Council said: “Contractors moved to the site…to prepare for the Armada Way project…This work involved a plan to remove 129 trees, retain 24 existing trees and leave a further three trees that had been earmarked for be removed, but they had been identified as having birds nesting in them.
“For reasons of public safety and impact on the city center, and given the size of the tree machinery… we schedule the work to be done at night.” The council also added that, following the community engagement programme, plans for the site would now include the planting of 169 semi-mature trees and a commitment to investigate further tree plantings in the city centre.
Similar disputes are taking place in Northamptonshire, Haringey in London and elsewhere.