Seventeen years ago, a song called ‘The Trees’ was among the final singles released by Jarvis Cocker’s much-loved band Pulp. Now one of Sheffield’s most-famous sons is playing an increasingly-prominent role in the growing campaign to save thousands of the city’s street trees from the axe.
It has been announced that Cocker will be one of the main speakers at a protest rally against Sheffield Council’s controversial tree-felling work this weekend - an event organisers hope is going to attract over 1,000 people and be one of the largest demonstrations they have organised against the policy, which has been in operation since 2012 as part of a 25-year highways maintenance contract with a company called Amey, part of Spanish infrastructure services giant Ferrovial.
Organiser Dave Dillner says the Get Off My Tree march through Sheffield city centre on Saturday morning is designed to show the council and Amey that campaigners “are not going to go away” following a pause in felling work being ordered in the wake of growing protests and intense national political pressure in recent weeks.
It follows dozens of police officers and private security guards being sent out to support felling operations since late February, with multiple arrests of people including a retired fireman, a newly-ordained vicar and a French magician. One woman was arrested for repeatedly blowing a toy horn at a recent protest.
Cocker no longer lives in South Yorkshire but is back in the area this weekend to play two gigs in the Peak District on Friday and Saturday night.
Last month, he performed a DJ set at a fundraising gig to help cover the legal costs facing two protesters who owe £27,000 to Sheffield Council for breaching a High Court injunction banning ‘direct action’ protests where people stand directly underneath threatened trees to prevent them being felled. Prior to the gig, Cocker told Radio 4’s Today programme that the council’s felling programme is “very daft”.
A year-long Freedom of Information battle has recently resulted in the Information Commissioner forcing Sheffield Council to reveal its contract with Amey includes a target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees.
The council insist the number is not a target but instead a form of ‘insurance’ against potential major disease outbreaks among the city’s tree population. It estimates around 10,000 trees will be felled and replaced with saplings over the course of the contract. The council says a "financial adjustment" will be made at the end of the contract in 2037 if fewer than 17,500 trees are removed but it cannot yet say how such a change will work in practice as Amey "aren't paid to replace individual trees".
Cocker is far from the only prominent musician from the city to be backing the campaigners, who argue that many healthy trees in the city are being removed unnecessarily. Former Pulp bandmates Nick Banks and Richard Hawley are also supporting the campaign, along with Reverend and The Makers and the Everly Pregnant Brothers.
Other speakers at Saturday’s event are due to include BBC Countryfile contributor ‘Tree Hunter’ Rob McBride and Professor Matthew Flinders, director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.
Mr Dillner, founder of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups, which combines local campaigns across the city, said: “The aim is to make a statement to Sheffield City Council and keep up the pressure, which has been really mounting in this last few weeks. It is about saying ‘We are not going away’. There are many people who are beginning to have the response that what STAG have been saying all along is the truth.”
The Sheffield tree-felling saga has made headlines around the world, with recent articles appearing in The New York Times and El Mundo, one of Spain’s largest newspapers.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has accused Sheffield Council of “environmental vandalism”, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is supporting an offer made by his Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman to act as a mediator in potential talks between the council and protesters to try and resolve the situation.
Influential union leaders in Sheffield who previously accused STAG of “an astonishing lack of perspective and navel-gazing” and suggested the campaign was about protecting house prices last week passed a motion calling for “an immediate, mediated settlement to the felling of Sheffield street trees” and added that the use of dozens of police officers and security guards at tree-felling operations had caused “appalling negative publicity nationally for the city”.
When a partial pause in the felling programme was announced last week by Sheffield Council, the authority said “increasingly dangerous tactics” from protesters had led to the decision.
The march on Saturday will see protesters meet at Sheffield City Hall from 9.45am before the demonstrations starts at 10am.