Sheffield trees furore’s great divide

Residents gather en mass to protest at the felling of the trees on Rustlings Road, Sheffield, United Kingdom, 26th November 2016. Photo by Glenn Ashley.

Residents gather en mass to protest at the felling of the trees on Rustlings Road, Sheffield, United Kingdom, 26th November 2016. Photo by Glenn Ashley.

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The court appearance of two campaigners accused of obstructing tree felling in Sheffield caps another week of fierce debate and recriminations over the city’s greenery.

Calvin Payne and Simon Crump were arrested last month on Marden Road, Nether Edge, while protesting against the felling of a mature London plane tree.

They were charged under trade union laws with ‘hindering’ workers from council contractor Amey, which is carrying out the controversial street tree maintenance programme as part of the Streets Ahead highways contract.

Hundreds of protesters were planning to gather outside Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, where Payne and Crump were due to appear today (Thursday). The city’s Green Party candidate, Natalie Bennett, was set to attend.

Helen McIlroy, from the Save Nether Edge Trees group, warned a guilty verdict would ‘set a dangerous precedent, and effectively outlaw nearly all forms of peaceful protest in the UK.’

So far five people have been arrested during tree protests, including Freda Brayshaw and Jenny Hockey, both in their 70s, who were detained after the bitterly-opposed felling on Rustlings Road on November 17, which began at 5am.

In a bid to calm tensions, the council issued an unreserved apology for the way in which the lime trees near Endcliffe Park were cut down.

Admitting ‘we got it wrong’, a pledge was made to never again begin work before 7am.

The reports of the Independent Tree Panel will also be published in a ‘timely manner’, it has been promised.

Coun Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for environment, said felling started early, and a key report about the limes was released at the last minute, for ‘public safety reasons’.

“We have heard the message loud and clear that this was not the acceptable course of action,” said Coun Lodge.

Rustlings Road residents could expect written apologies in the post, he said.

Despite the vow, hundreds of people gathered in Endcliffe Park for a rally against felling last Saturday, while campaigns are building to protect trees on Western Road, Crookes, and Montgomery Road, Nether Edge.

The city’s grassroots Labour Party members have expressed worries, too, that the issue could prove politically toxic for the council’s leadership. There is a sense that, sooner or later, divisions will need to be healed.