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What was the ‘Sheffield chainsaw massacre’?

Greater Sheffield is one of the leafiest areas in Great Britain. There are around 100,000 trees in the city’s parks and green spaces, and another 35,000 lining its streets: mostly cherry, sycamore, lime, ash and rowan, many dating to Victorian times.

However, for reasons that are still unclear, in 2012 Sheffield City Council agreed a contract with infrastructure company Amey to remove half of these street trees and replace them with saplings.

Work began in late 2012 and thousands have been removed, much to the dismay of many residents. It began a bitter five-year battle that saw angry protests to protect endangered trees. Between 2016 and 2018, police attended 40 tree protests and arrested 41 people.

Last year, an independent inquiry was set up to look into the issue, chaired by former UN official Sir Mark Lowcock. He issued a damning report earlier this month.

Why did the council decide to cut down the trees?

In the first decade of the century, Sheffield’s roads were in a deplorable state (potholes were a particular problem) and the city’s many trees contributed to this.

In 2012, during the period of austerity, and in the absence of other funding options, the Labor council signed a £2.2bn, 25-year Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract with Amey to run its streets, called Streets Ahead.

In 2007, arborist Elliott Consultancy had submitted a report on Sheffield’s street trees and found that 1,000 of the city’s 35,057 needed felling and a further 9,000 needed repair work; classified 74% as “mature” or “overmature”, which in itself does not indicate the need for removal.

Somehow this report was misinterpreted by the council to mean that around half of all trees “were ready for replacement”; it seems that the city’s road engineers thought this would make it easier to maintain the roads. Amey agreed to withdraw and replace 17,500.

When did the moves start?

The first trees, those marked “dangerous,” were felled in late 2012. Many others would follow: residents found logging notices attached to trees in their areas, or simply discovered that they had been felled.

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In early 2014, the 450-year-old “Melbourne Oak” in Stocksbridge, in the north-west of the city, was removed, although a survey showed it to be “uncompromised”.

Before long, the resistance erupted into a well-organized campaign against what was termed a “chainsaw massacre.” Lobby groups and an umbrella organization were formed: the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (Stag).

Petitions were posted and thousands of signatures were collected. In 2016, an application for judicial review was filed in the High Court, which was rejected on the grounds that the council had acted within its legal authority.

Why did it turn so bitter?

After the judicial review, both sides became more militant. The council developed a “bunker mentality,” according to Lowcock’s report.

The protesters began using nonviolent direct action: conducting morning patrols for Amey’s logging crews and creating a “flying squad,” a small group of residents who roamed the city to stand under trees or obstruct construction wherever they went. They will be carried out.

The nadir was reached in November 2016, when police woke up Rustlings Road residents at 5 a.m. to order them to move their cars before tree trimmers arrived.

Two retirees, Jenny Hockey, 70, and Freda Brayshaw, 71, were arrested after a confrontation with police. Then Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg likened the scene to something out of “Putin’s Russia”.

How was the dispute resolved?

By early 2018, Lowcock reported, “the council had rallied almost everyone against it.” He had issued an injunction against one of his own green councilors and was hounding protesters with claims for damages that could have bankrupted them.

By then he had endured years of negative headlines, both from the national and local media.

The logging project had been condemned by figures from Michael Gove to Jarvis Cocker. The council’s public relations team was issuing internal warnings about the reputational damage involved.

“Simply put, there is not a good picture of arrested older residents. There is no good way to photograph a tree lying on the street, ”wrote his media manager.

The program was eventually halted in March 2018, and following local elections in early May, a new cabinet member was appointed to handle matters. The council entered into mediation with the activists and the policy was moderated.

What did the consultation conclude?

That the council’s approach to street trees was “misguided” and that the decision to remove the trees was “misjudged”. Lowcock discovered that he had ignored sensible recommendations, including from his own Independent Panel of Trees.

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He had also misled the public and the courts about the details of his tree program, consistently denying that a 17,500 removal policy existed.

In fact, the council also deceived itself: the “deceived” officials convinced themselves that “everything was fine”. Officials even considered killing healthy trees by removing the bark so that “Stag could no longer claim they were defending ‘healthy’ trees.”

What damage was done?

“Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost,” the report found. In all, some 5,600 trees were removed, although a similar number of saplings were planted.

Public confidence in the council was undermined. Council staff, activists and contractors were negatively affected by stress and bad feelings. (Some activists behaved in “unacceptable” ways “including abusing and harassing public officials.”)

The inquiry described it as “a dark episode” in Sheffield’s recent history. On the plus side, however, the Lowcock report concluded that “roads, sidewalks and lighting in most parts of the city” are now “much better.”


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