Like fracking in Lancashire, tree felling in Sheffield rides roughshod over local opposition

The Labour council in Sheffield have already cut down 4,500 trees in the city, earning it the international reputation of "the city that cuts down trees". It must stop.

Sheffield City Council are on a tree-cutting rampage — they’ve felled over 4,000 already — and now a private contractor has been brought in to finish off the job. Like fracking, it’s just another example of politics running rampant over the wishes of local people, writes Natalie Bennett. 

When Sheffield City Council won its case in the High Court earlier this month, securing an injunction against residents protesting against the felling of healthy trees in the city (including one of its own councillors), it seemed to take this as a sign it had won some sort of victory.

There have been years of peaceful protest, three separate council chamber debates, several petitions containing thousands of signatures, international outrage over its dawn raids on Rustling Roads, and the shame of earning Sheffield the name “the city that cuts down trees”.

Now they intend to let lose contractors Amey on the streets to take out the remaining 500 trees on its condemned list (with 4,500 already lost), without opposition.

Any notions they had that this might be a smooth process have, however, been completely washed away.

The morning the injunction came into force, Amey’s depot was politely, legally, blockaded by the tree protectors, who’d let out any vehicle, except the chippers essential to tree-felling operations. As I watched the reaction of a senior Amey staff member, the surprise was obvious.

What shouldn’t have been a surprise was the high level of support from passing motorists, bus drivers, and passengers.

It was, however, a one-day tactic, as the protectors knew it would be. The council moved the chippers out overnight, and the next day felling resumed.

But the council has only won a single battle, not the war. Everywhere we look new fronts are being opened up.

One by a Sheffield resident who has started a petition calling on Jeremy Corbyn to intervene, because, to the bemusement of many Tweeters who’ve asked me “this has to be Tory council doing this, doesn’t it?”, Sheffield is a Labour controlled council.

It’s not just petitions. A “yarnstorming” campaign is in full flow and thousands have taken to Twitter under the hashtag #saveshefftrees.

It’s a reflection of how these trees enhance the life of this city and provide practical benefits too – reducing air pollution, cutting flooding, and enhancing human health and wellbeing.

The only recent political test within Sheffield of the Labour council’s actions was the Nether Edge and Sharrow byelection, called by Labour two weeks after the general election, a time of minimum political attention.

Yet Greens and Lib Dems, who both stood primarily on stopping the felling, won significantly more votes than the Labour candidate – but our first-past-the-post electoral system meant another Labour councillor was elected anyway.

Is it any wonder there’s widespread disillusion, frustration, confusion, about politics?

The people of Sheffield want control of their streets, want decisions about the fate of healthy trees (and 86% of those that have been felled have been healthy – no one is protesting the felling of dead or badly diseased trees) to be made for the public good, for the beauty of the streets and the health of the population to be protected.

Which Labour Party do we have in Britain? If Jeremy Corbyn wants to make it clear that his Labour party is opposed to privatisation of public services and PFI, he should rein in his Labour councillors in Sheffield. And what Tory party?

Michael Gove, he of a party that supports fracking and rampant airport expansion, has written himself to the Labour council asking them to stop felling trees. Oh the irony.

I wouldn’t claim it is easy for either man. First-past-the post has created two extremely broad, fractious, unhappy, politically incoherent political organisations in Britain.

Labour and Tory as labels, as models, don’t make sense any more. Both men – and all of us – are currently trapped with that model.

But in the cases of Sheffield trees and Lancashire fracking, and many others, the ideology doesn’t really matter. What could happen is that the evidence, the facts, the clear choice for the wellbeing of the people could be made.

Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party and a Sheffield resident. She tweets here.

(Photo courtesy of Natalie Bennett)

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