Sheffield Trees campaign, photo Sheffield Tree Action Groups, credit: Sheffield Tree Action Groups (uploaded 06/02/2019)
Sheffield Trees campaign, photo Sheffield Tree Action Groups, credit: Sheffield Tree Action Groups (uploaded 06/02/2019)

John Bunn, Sheffield South East Socialist Party

Sheffield Labour council’s apology over the tree felling fiasco of 2014-18 is long overdue. It highlights that they lied to the media, the courts and, most importantly, to the people of Sheffield. During this period a £2.2 billion PFI (Private Finance Initiative) deal was signed to replace 17,500 trees, despite consultants identifying only 1,000 trees that needed replacing. The council continually denied these figures.

Soon after the start of the contract it became clear to people in Sheffield it was not going to benefit them. PFI contracts tie councils into many years of high payments and remove local control, on top of the scandal of the scale of trees being felled.

Local disputes started over specific trees that were felled. On my own road, contractors came to cut down mature trees and replace them with saplings. A group of us got together, blocked the road and stopped the work. We demanded proper consultation over the plan. We were not against the replacement of infected trees but wanted to keep the majority of healthy trees that had many years of life left in them, keeping a mature canopy of trees in the road.

Over the next couple of years they turned up several times to carry out the tree replacements but were stopped by local people every time. We organised and had street meetings of up to 30 people. We stopped the actions by leafleting everyone in the street, giving updates on the dispute. We had a telephone tree and were able to mobilise people at short notice to stand under the trees, and to refuse permission to work over our properties. We only lost one healthy tree during the dispute.

These actions were happening city-wide and a coordinating group was formed – STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group). Various tactics were used against the campaign by the council, backed up by the local police and private security. There were always police on duty when major work was undertaken and people were arrested using legislation designed to deal with ‘flying pickets.’ Seven of the campaigners had their criminal charges dropped and have been paid compensation, while some have been left with criminal records. Many of the people involved are still in positions of power in the council.

A pledge has now been agreed between representatives of organisations including Sheffield City Council, and campaigners in STAG to ensure the continued maintenance of street trees around the city. However, this should also have included representatives of local trade unions.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from this campaign. When organised, local people can be a force for change. The council, the police and the legal system could not stop the people of Sheffield once organised.

This could have been avoided if we had a genuine democratic say over how our city is run. And a party which would fight in workers’ interests. During the campaign, Sheffield Council was Labour-controlled, but now a Labour-Green-Lib Dem coalition which, this year, has agreed cuts of £43 million to the social services budget.

We need a new mass workers’ party that is prepared to stand up and fight for the resources we need.