Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made an extraordinary intervention in the Sheffield tree-felling saga, writing to council leader Julie Dore and chief executive John Mothersole to demand an end to the controversial programme.
In a letter seen by The Yorkshire Post, Mr Gove warns “the destruction of thousands of mature trees from the Steel City will surely damage our children’s rightful inheritance” to an improved environment and highlights concerns about the “transparency in the decision-making process” around which trees are felled.
Sheffield Council has responded with a strongly-worded statement describing the Environment Secretary’s letter as being “full of inaccuracies”.
Around 6,000 trees are being removed from city streets as part of a 25-year £2bn highway maintenance programme based on a PFI contract signed with contractor Amey in 2012.
While the council insist only trees that are dead, dying, diseased or dangerous are being removed and then replaced, protesters argue that many do not need to be chopped down and the work is being carried out as a cost-cutting exercise.
Mr Gove says: “I would call on the council to listen to the people of Sheffield and end the tree-felling and replacement programme.”
Mr Gove’s intervention came after The Yorkshire Post highlighted the ongoing concerns around tree removals in Sheffield to him.
Dave Dillner, founder of the Sheffield Trees Action Groups, said: “I never thought I would have wanted to hug Michael Gove, I’m knocked sideways. I can only hope this is a game-changer. It will certainly add to the pressure on the council and the pressure really is mounting.”
But Sheffield Council today strongly criticised the Environment Secretary and said “only a very small minority of people in Sheffield object to the tree replacement programme”, while expressing surprise Mr Gove had not contacted them about the issue prior to sending the letter.
Mr Gove’s intervention is the latest development in an increasingly-bitter battle between Sheffield Council and campaigners.
The Labour-led council will find out next week whether it has been successful in winning High Court injunctions against three protesters, including Mr Dillner and Green Party councillor Alison Teal, to prevent them participating in future ‘direct action’ to stop the removal of trees.
If the injunctions are granted, those involved could be chased for damages or even face the prospect of jail should they disobey the orders. The council claims the action is a last resort after months of disruption to the felling programme, with protesters’ tactics including standing directly under trees scheduled for removal.
Several other campaigners sent legal letters have already signed undertakings pledging not to take part in direct action protests.
Coun Teal today said: “Despite our political differences, I am delighted that the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, is calling upon Sheffield Council to end the tree-felling programme.
"I am embarrassed to be a member of a council that is being criticised on a national level for such woeful standards of community engagement and transparency. Thousands of residents have objected to the council spending millions cutting down our city’s most beautiful and beneficial assets.”
The ongoing row has previously seen 14 people arrested but no charges brought after the CPS dropped all cases.
In November, a controversial pre-dawn raid on Rustlings Road saw tree-fellers arrive at 5am to remove eight trees, with local residents woken by police to move their cars.
The incident, which resulted in the arrest of three people, including two pensioners, was later described by former deputy prime minister and Sheffield MP Nick Clegg as “scenes you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia”.
In March, police commissioner Alan Billings said there would be no further arrests as “the CPS are not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters”.
In his letter, Mr Gove says: “On my trip to Yorkshire last month, the matter was raised with me directly.
“It is clear that many of Sheffield’s residents are deeply frustrated and angry at the decision to remove a large number of trees from local streets.
“Understandably, local people place a significant value on their green spaces and their local environment, and these trees are a really important part of that. We know trees and leafy streets make places healthier, cleaner and more desirable places to live.
“So you can understand why this issue has caused me such grave concern.
“Despite the strength of local feeling, and some persistent and persuasive campaigning by The Yorkshire Post, the call from local residents to end the felling appears to have gone unanswered.
“They feel that the council has not provided transparency in the decision-making process, which would seem to me a minimum for any elected body dealing with such a highly-contested policy decision.
“If our aim is to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, we must examine how our actions impact the next generation. The destruction of thousands of mature trees from the Steel City will surely damage our children’s rightful inheritance.
“To that end, I would call on the council to listen to the people of Sheffield and end the tree-felling and replacement programme.”
Paul Billington, Director of Culture and Environment at Sheffield City Council, said: “We were surprised to receive a letter from Michael Gove that is full of inaccuracies, and seems to call for us to breach the terms of the Streets Ahead contract.
"The Government, through the Department for Transport, are party to the contract, and it was at central government’s instruction that the PFI model was used to finance this programme of work.
“It is a shame that during his recent trip to Yorkshire, Mr Gove did not try to contact us. We would have been happy to meet with him to discuss any concerns in person.
“We plan to respond and extend an invitation to Mr Gove to come to Sheffield and find out first-hand what is really happening with the Streets Ahead work. For example, how only a very small minority of people in Sheffield object to the tree replacement programme, with the majority of people either in support of or indifferent to the works; how we have planted an additional 65,000 trees in the city since the beginning of the Streets Ahead programme, making Sheffield greener than ever by the end of the contract; and how we have gone to great lengths to consult and work with the people in Sheffield affected by the programme.
“The truth is that a small number of people in the city have strong views against the tree replacement programme. We respect this, but the majority of people in Sheffield want to see the work completed.
"There is a lot of misinformation around, and it is surprising that the Secretary of State would not seek a full understanding of an issue before announcing a position.”