Trade union leaders and academics have defended Sheffield Council’s tree felling programme and suggested campaigners are more worried about property prices than the environment.
A letter signed by representatives of several unions and a number of university lecturers and researchers accuses campaigners, including Nick Clegg, of an ‘astonishing lack of perspective’ and ‘navel-gazing’.
But campaigners have hit back, calling the letter ‘wholly misleading and unjust’ and saying they are fighting for the ‘health and well-being of Sheffielders now and in the future’ rather than profit-making.
The tree felling programme was stopped last week after the High Court granted a three-month injunction.
The letter, signed by 17 people including president of Sheffield Trades Union Council Bob Jeffery and president of the University of Sheffield Students Union Christy McMorrow, said the city council did not ‘hate the environment’.
Is said: “Sheffield has an estimated two million trees within its borders, giving it a strong claim to be the greenest city in Europe. The council is proposing felling and replacing 14 per cent of the 36,000 street trees, or 5,000 in total. After this process is complete, Sheffield will still have a strong claim to be the greenest city in Europe.”
The letter said the council was felling trees because professional tradespeople had deemed them to be in danger of falling down, damaging pavements and potentially hampering the mobility of the elderly and disabled.
It added: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that opposition to the tree felling has as much to do with the protection of house prices in the leafy suburbs as it does with environmental protection.”
And the letter called for perspective on the issue. It said: “We also want to contrast this issue with what we would see as some of the more pressing concerns facing the city of Sheffield at this time.
“The city has been badly hit by economic recession and ongoing government austerity that has seen £350 million slashed from the council’s budget. Many residents have been rendered destitute by a toxic cocktail of the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions and cruel and perverse medical assessments that have seen the terminally ill deemed fit for work. Air pollution deaths are estimated to stand at around 500 per year, overwhelmingly concentrated in Tinsley and the northeast of the city, and yet this had provoked no outcry from the residents of Dore and Totley.
“Emblematic of the astonishing lack of perspective and navel-gazing of those who would seek to make tree felling the defining issue of the moment is a certain Nick Clegg MP, who has recently gone on the record as stating that the council policy is a ‘national scandal’. This from the man who has the lowest attendance record of any Member of Parliament since the 2015 election, a man who has indebted an entire generation of students and has consistently shown to be no friend of the Sheffield ‘common people’.
“So please, while we are open to sensible debate about whether trees actually need to be removed and replaced, can we ask the people of Sheffield for a little more perspective on the issues facing our city.”
The letter is signed by the following, all in a ‘personal capacity’:
Bob Jeffery, president of Sheffield Trades Union Council; James Bangert, president of Sheffield College Students Union; Christy McMorrow, president of University of Sheffield Students Union; Abdul Galil Shaif Alshaibi, Sheffield Yemeni Community Association; Muna Abdi, doctoral researcher, University of Sheffield; Martin Mayer, secretary of Sheffield Trades Council; Andrew Yeardley, secretary of Unite bus drivers branch; Dave Smith, chairman of Unite bus drivers branch; Zahira Naz, Labour candidate for Darnall Ward; Sohail Mumtaz, Sheffield Muslim Community Forum; Jonathan Marsden, community organiser and Richmond resident; Cheryl Robertson, community worker, Drop the Knife; Simon Murch, branch secretary, National Union of Teachers; Daragh O’Neil, treasurer of Sheffield People’s Assembly; Peter Davies, GMB regional organiser; and Jonathan Dean, senior lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University.
But Save Our Roadside Trees campaigner Louise Wilcockson hit back at the letter. She said: “As a mixed heritage person, originally from Broomhall and from a single parent family, I find the statements in this letter to be wholly misleading and unjust. Over 15,000 people have so far signed the Save Our Rustlings Trees petition showing that this is far more than a neighbourhood situation.”
She added: “We are thinking of the health and well-being of Sheffielders now and in the future - and not short-term goals of convenience and profit making - only to have a costly health bills and other lasting consequences caused by the loss of our highway trees.
“We also object to the myth being perpetuated by Labour supporters and some of the Labour councillor that there is one choice - safety or the retention of our highway trees. They are not mutually exclusive - both are possible with good management.
“This is a £2.2bn PFI contract into which alternative specifications and other options should already have been factored. No one is suggesting the council should beg from Peter to pay Paul.”
Louise said campaigners were still waiting for the council to publish a breakdown of the ‘bizarre’ £26m figure given for potentially retaining Sheffield’s roadside trees, and for the council to ‘explain to the people of Sheffield how it is even possible that 200 trees will each cost up to £100,000.’
“It beggars belief and is arguably bad management on their part or exaggerated figures,” she said.
Deputy leader of the city council Lib Dem group Coun Penny Baker also responded in an open letter to council leader Julie Dore, claiming the letter was a political move by Labour. She said: “To label the tree campaigners as middle class people who only care about their house prices is wildly inaccurate and inflammatory. The tree campaign is fuelled by a variety of causes, concerns about not just street scenes, but air pollution, Sheffield’s heritage and more recently it has become a cause symbolic of a lack of democracy in this city and the way your council treats the opinions and feelings of the people they are elected to represent.
“I am appalled, along with many others, at the indifference and contempt the signatories of the letter appear to show for public opinion. Despite a barrage of complaints and petitions, including but not exclusive to a petition with 15,000 signatures from the Rustlings Road area, another with 6,000 signatures from Nether Edge and numerous individuals letters and fundraisers. Although this may have started in the so called ‘leafy suburbs’, the issue is now far more widespread than that.”
Cabinet member for environment and transport at Sheffield Council Terry Fox welcomed the letter. He said: “I’m pleased to see some perspective. We all want to keep Sheffield green, and we need to pull together as a city to do the best we can for our trees. We’ll work closely with communities to get this situation sorted out as quickly as possible.”