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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 June 2018

Sheffield Labour council "happy" to jail trees protesters

'Chainsaw massacre', Sheffield trees, photo Graham Turnbull, STAG

'Chainsaw massacre', Sheffield trees, photo Graham Turnbull, STAG   (Click to enlarge)

Calvin Payne, Sheffield trees campaigner

The long-running campaign over tree felling in Sheffield has been continuing apace. As a result of a secret 2.2 billion PFI contract between the Labour council and construction giant Amey, thousands of healthy street trees have been chopped down. But thousands more fellings have been prevented by protests.

Last summer the council gained a high court injunction against direct action on the streets. Since the new year there have been over 20 arrests for more and more farcical reasons (including for demonstrators playing plastic toy musical instruments). Increasingly chaotic scenes on the streets have led to a suspension of the felling programme since March.

In several council wards the issue was decisive in May's local elections. Labour lost seats to both the Green Party and Lib Dems in four wards directly affected by the controversy.

One Green councillor who was arrested at a protest as well as taken to court by the council - and cleared on both occasions - saw their majority rise from just eight to 1,394 votes! Following the election, the council cabinet member responsible for the policy was replaced by a Corbyn supporter. In public he talked about compromise and finding a solution to the issue.

The suggestion that there may be a change of approach by Sheffield council lasted just days. Four large city centre trees were felled at 6am on a Sunday morning. A few days later it was announced that four further cases from six months ago would be brought to court.

These proceedings were accompanied by stories in the local press about alleged violence by protesters. These stories were widely seen by campaigners as planted by the council with sympathetic local papers.

To date not a single protester has been convicted of any such offence. The Corbyn-supporting councillor now overseeing Sheffield's tree felling is under pressure to prevent the attempt to imprison peaceful campaigners.

In response council leaders have insisted that legal decisions are the responsibility of unelected officers and do not come under the job description of cabinet members. But in court council leader Julie Dore confirmed, via her legal team, that she was "happy" with the application before the court to imprison four people.

A three day hearing saw 100 supporters in attendance outside and many more in the public gallery. The actions of protesters in delaying or preventing felling were examined in court.

Scenes of security guards manhandling often elderly members of the public while police watched on were shown and debated. What was really being decided on was the right to protest. For the third time the high court found broadly against the campaign.

One charge, which hinges on the defence of going to the rescue of a female member of the public who was being forcibly removed from the work area, was delayed for further consideration. One convicted person was discharged without any punishment while two others had their two month prison sentences suspended.

The issue and controversy remains unsolved. Despite their public statements, a Labour council is still using South Yorkshire Police and the high court to criminalise and break anti-privatisation campaigners.

It is clear that any attempt to resume the fellings policy would lead to further mass action and a serious escalation. Campaigners have called for the national Labour leadership to get involved to change the attitude of the council leaders, and ultimately for the use of PFI contracts to run public services to be ended.

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Sheffield Labour council "happy" to jail trees protesters

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