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Sheffield tree fellings paused as bully Labour council feels pressure
Axe PFI, not trees!
Mark James, Unite Community secretary, South Yorkshire (personal capacity)
This week the 9,000 supporters of the Sheffield Trees Action Group (STAG) were celebrating the latest pause in the escalating battle over the future of the city's street trees.
For four years, campaigners have fought against the council's £2.2 billion Private Finance Initiative 'Streets Ahead' contract which has seen the Amey corporation cutting down healthy street trees because it's cheaper than maintaining the trees and repairing the pavements.
On the BBC's Daily Politics show, a BBC journalist suggested that the Labour council leader Julie Dore had finally caved in to the significant political pressure piling on her from all directions and was finally willing to open meaningful negotiations. However within a few hours, campaigners were left with a bitter taste in their mouths when a Sheffield City Council press release suggested that the fellings had been stopped because a review was being undertaken of how to fell the trees given the 'dangerous tactics' of some protesters.
As the Yorkshire Post suggested, this was Sheffield City Council having dug itself into a hole and it was simply solving its crisis by continuing to dig.
The campaign had shifted dramatically in the autumn when the case against Alison Teal, a local Green councillor, who was alleged to have breached the terms of a High Court injunction not to go inside the felling 'exclusion' zone, collapsed. Campaigners realised that the stakes were getting higher and this made people even more determined to resist the cuts!
Direct Action against the fellings escalated, campaigners patrolled the streets against so-called 'vampire arbs' who were attempting to fell trees in the middle of the night, including the felling of trees decorated with lights to fundraise for a local hospice.
And the 'No Stump City' group started to lobby Labour Party meetings arguing 'Axe PFI, not trees', building pressure on the council leadership from grassroots Labour members to stop the fellings.
Ward and constituency Labour branches started to pass a motion critical of the Labour group, and now the Trades Council has as well.
In January the fellings were paused after the so-called 'Battle of Meersbrook Park Road' which was sufficiently alarming for the local Labour MP Louise Haigh to see that the fellings and the policing around them were "unsustainable". Despite this, the fellings were restarted a month later with renewed vigour.
With protesters being faced with 30 security guards (Amey's hired muscle) and 30 members of South Yorkshire Police, tensions inevitably rose, stoked by the rhetoric coming from the council.
A number of protesters were hospitalised and there were some increasingly bizarre and alarming arrests. These included a woman who seems to have been playing a sparkly pink recorder, a trainee vicar with a tambourine and everyone's favourite: a women who played a toy trumpet into a policeman's ear.
Call for talks
Unsurprisingly local MPs had had enough, calling for talks to start, mediated by a shadow cabinet minister.
Anger rose when it was suggested in a part of the contract revealed in a Freedom of Information request that far from the target of 6,000 street trees to be felled, the number might be as high as 17,500 (half of all the street trees in the city). A figure that the council sort to rebuff by suggesting that it was a cushion against an unforeseen 'catastrophe'.
But no-one was convinced and tensions heightened accordingly as trust diminished even further.
Yet, at the time of writing, nothing has happened. Sheffield council seems to have retreated into its bunker. Whether it is genuinely worried about the upcoming local elections is a mute point but the leadership of Julie Dore is looking increasingly tenuous.
What started as a local campaign to save trees and protect the environment in a heavily polluted city has come to be part of the general fight against austerity and privatisation.
Perhaps more tellingly it has raised the debate about how to respond to Labour councils implementing Tory cuts and not challenging neoliberalism.
In London that has played out over housing, in Sheffield, the 'steel' and 'outdoor' city, where housing is still relatively cheap, it has played out over trees.
Sheffield council claims that it has no choice but to honour the contract and continue to fell the trees. It claims that it cannot afford to take the contract in house or pay for the extra engineering solutions to save the trees because that would eat into statutory provision like the social care budget.
Yet local residents are finding it difficult to see where the council is actually fighting any cuts. In fact, Amey workers themselves are currently balloting for industrial action against cuts to jobs, terms and conditions.
So we are left with the feeling that rather than fight the cuts, Sheffield council would rather continue to cut jobs and trees.
Walthamstow 'Save our Square' campaigners have linked up with the STAG campaign in Sheffield. For the latest info from the Walthamstow campaign click here.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 29 March 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.