Urban amenity trees ideally should be left in place for up to 300 years depending on the species to maximise their benefits, senior arboricultural consultant Jeremy Barrell has told a meeting of the Sheffield Trees Action Group (STAG). Giving what he called "an outsider's opinion" on the city council's street tree-felling programme being implemented by contractor Amey, he told 80 residents and campaigners: "How long they should live is the key question, to which we have been given the wrong answers. It's just scaremongering to say that most need to come out."
He explained that in forestry, his former specialism: "You want a regular sustained supply and you want to maximise the tree's value. In the urban environment we aren't interested in timber, we are interested in a lot of other things that are also related to the size of the tree such as buffering rainwater run-off and pollution, making people happier and healthier, moderating temperature extremes. And they don't grow as fast. They reach their peak after 40-50 years. But then they keep their value until they decline at maybe 300 years, which is the optimum time to fell them, not 80. Of course some won't make it, but many will."
Barrell says the council is also failing to heed the highway maintenance code of practice that urges workers to "avoid harm to the tree" and says "a reduced level of regularity may be acceptable" on pavements affected by tree roots. It has recently been revealed that even senior councillors have not seen the full unredacted version of the city's 7,000-page contract with Amey. "The council people are out of their depth trying to negotiate this kind of thing," adds Barrell.
Sheffield Hallam University professor of environmental geography Ian Rotherham has been part of the STAG campaign since it started in 2013. "The council are merely the custodians of these trees on our behalf," he says. "It's an issue of environmental democracy, transparency, accountability and economics. With a public-private partnership you no longer have access to information. Yet it's our resource being managed and our money being spent.
"Amey put remediation of a high-profile elm tree at more than £50,000 while a qualified arborist put it at £2,500-£3,500. The street tree debacle has had a huge impact on Sheffield PLC as well as on biodiversity and people's health and well-being."
STAG co-ordinator Dave Dillner says: "The main outcome for me was the complete dismantling of the council's whole argument for the felling of thousands of healthy mature street trees. We know we are in the right and that all the arboricultural, ecological, environmental and highway engineering arguments substantiate our campaign aims. Non-violent direct action on the streets will continue as events dictate, consisting of nothing more than concerned citizens standing quietly and peacefully next to healthy mature trees the chainsaw crews have come to fell."
Last month the city council announced "a series of commitments to the people of Sheffield" on future tree work, including publishing advice on individual trees by its independent tree panel at least a week in advance of any felling. "Streets Ahead represents our opportunity to replace trees where necessary so that they don't just last for the next 10 years but for the next hundred years," says cabinet member for the environment Bryan Lodge. "We won't get this chance again with public sector funding going the way it is. Most people in Sheffield do not want us to divert funds away from caring for those in need and into expensive alternative solutions for retaining street trees."
The council also plans to fell World War One memorial street trees. "We will work with local people as well as War Memorials Trust," Lodge insists. "By replanting and rededicating over the coming months we hope to unveil new memorial sites in time for Armistice Day this November." STAG will have further talks with Lodge and council leader Julie Dore "imminently".
Contest - Great Trees of Sheffield
Former members of Sheffield band Pulp including singer Jarvis Cocker, along with BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, are promoting a competition to find the city's greatest tree as part of a campaign to save trees threatened by the Streets Ahead programme. Great Trees of Sheffield 2017 is the brainchild of local campaigner Rob McBride. At its launch last month local MP and former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said his favourites are the 23 World War One memorial trees on Western Road. "If these trees were made of bricks and mortar they would be untouchable," he says. The competition is open for entries until 1 May, with results due in early June.