The ongoing dispute between Sheffield City Council and residents' groups over the local authority's tree-felling programme has intensified over the past month, with the council and its contractor Amey insisting they will continue to fell earmarked trees, while campaigners claim that concerted protests have so far spared high-profile trees from felling.
A total of 92 trees on 18 streets in the Nether Edge area, south-west of the city centre, are under threat of imminent felling, according to an online petition that has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures. Under council policy, any petition of more than 5,000 signatures has to be debated by the council.
Campaigner Deepa Shetty said: "We are pushing for another 2,000 in the next few weeks. At 5,000 we trigger another debate at full council in February and can directly challenge the way the Streets Ahead programme has been managed."
The petition, supported by references from academic literature, claims that the threatened large mature trees provide health, water management and ecological services as well as heritage and visual amenity. It adds that the claim of footway disturbance cited by contractors "is an insignificant reason to fell these big old trees" and calls for "sensitive engineering solutions" as an alternative to felling.
An earlier petition to protect trees on the city's Rustlings Road (HW, 29 May 2015) succeeded in prompting a council debate, where members recommitted to felling them but also called for a "highways tree forum" to be set up "so that we can have strategic conversations with representative bodies, also allowing residents to have a say in their own neighbourhoods".
Similarly, a mature memorial London plane in the Crookes area of the city is still slated for felling despite an independent arboriculturist's assessment, paid for by a local resident, finding it was "in reasonable health" and could be retained. Contractor Amey had said it was "decayed" and a "health and safety risk", and insisted that it would go ahead with its plan to replace it with a 10-year-old tree this winter.
According to Sheffield Tree Action Group co- ordinator Dave Dillner, both the Crookes and Rustlings Road trees still stand as of mid January. However, the last meeting of the bimonthly Tree Advisory Forum was in September "and the council continues to proffer reasons/excuses for the delay, which have changed over time", he told HW.
Dillner added: "The council and Amey persist in making statements of intransigence in the local press and radio but also continue to avoid going anywhere near the highest-profile trees in our campaign so I would say the efforts we are making are having an effect."
Meanwhile, every city councillor must face voters in May's local elections, he pointed out. "We are using this to our advantage as much as possible because we know they do not want to see much more adverse publicity on this issue."
Residents' strength of feeling was apparent on 2 January when more than 100 gathered to protest against the felling of a single mature elm tree in Nether Edge. The local authority said the tree is now being "reassessed" and the council is consulting further with residents.
The consultation process has itself been the source of much controversy, with residents complaining of response deadlines being impractically short or simply not given, and of being given misleading web addresses to follow. One Nether Edge resident told a BBC Radio Sheffield phone-in last month: "We have a farcical situation of people receiving consultation letters after trees have been felled. It has caused outrage."
Leader of the Labour-run council Julie Dore responded: "I accept your outrage. But we only fell trees where they meet our 'six Ds' policy - damaging, diseased, dead, dying, discriminatory (also dangerous) - we wouldn't propose to fell a tree that didn't meet those criteria. If it does meet those criteria and people on the street still want to keep it, we bring in some independents to advise the council on whether there is anything else we can do other than fell that tree.
"We have as many requests to fell trees as we have to save them. They believe they are dangerous, dying or restrict people with disabilities. We have to take that just as much into account."
Barrell Tree Consultancy managing director Jeremy Barrell, who recently visited Sheffield to see some of the disputed trees for himself, said: "There seemed to be a very low threshold for felling, with any damage being used to justify taking the tree down. Maintaining the value of the trees probably wasn't built into the contract. I don't think (the council) saw this coming and now they are being found out."