Column: Campaigners will continue to fight for their trees and their festive lights

Sally Goldsmith reads a poem by a tree on Abbeydale Park Rise. Photo by David Bocking.
Sally Goldsmith reads a poem by a tree on Abbeydale Park Rise. Photo by David Bocking.

It’s 6am and John, a respectable and recently redundant accountant, is huddled in warm coat on a corner listening on headphones to the cricket in Australia.

He walks up and down to keep warm, but keeps an ear cocked for every lorry rumble, an eye on every vehicle.

Down the road, large cherry trees, newly devoid of leaves sparkle with fairy lights - red, pink, blue, white.

John’s road is Abbeydale Park Rise. It is an ordinary suburban street in Dore, Sheffield, which magics itself each Christmas into something extraordinary.

This year though, the residents have something to worry about. John is at the top of the road and, before her stint at a food bank, Julie is a quarter of a mile away at the bottom in woolly hat and thermals.

Both are looking out for the felling crews who aim to take down many of those cherry trees, along with the lights.

Every vehicle will be assessed - barrier lorry? Chipper? Cherry picker? Council spy? Paranoia rules.

Both jump at anything suspicious, communicating to others via phone. Other residents walk by with their dogs before work, scan the street and ask how it’s going.

Later, parents and small children, whose posters grace the trees and windows, do the same.

Halfway down the road, Mike and Barbara are setting up a table with kettle, coffee and cups on their own front drive.

The residents are now in their sixth week of no parking notices, warning them that cars may be towed away if they hinder felling.

For the first three weeks, no crews came, though the residents organised leaf sweeping, poster making and an early visit from Santa while they kept watch.

It was only eventually in the fourth week, after the residents had long given up moving their cars, that the crews actually turned up with their barrier wagons, chipper machines and chain saws, closing the road.

The Labour-controlled council who ordered the felling, refer to the street’s Christmas lights - a tradition of some thirty years - as ‘illegal attachments to our highway assets’.

These ‘highway assets’ are just some of the 6,000 trees being felled on streets by Sheffield City Council through its private contractor Amey, under a controversial highways improvement scheme.

However, in fact, these ‘assets’ here were bought forty years ago by residents - Betty, now 88, having collected the money.

The council say all trees will be ‘replaced’ but so far, the only replacements on Abbeydale Park Rise have been small saplings.

These are hopeless for the swathes of fairy lights and also of little use, say campaigners, for all the benefits only mature, healthy trees can bring - the reduction of pollution and flooding, the harbouring of wildlife, the softening of the urban landscape.

The police will no longer have anything to do with the dispute. Instead, it is down to the council to identify and prosecute protesters who get inside safety zones around the city’s street trees to prevent felling.

This draconian injunction means that people breaking it could lose life savings, their house or go to prison.

Last week on the street, one small tree was taken in a dawn raid, hence the new look-out start time of 6am.

Campaigners city wide keep trying to engage the intransigent council in negotiations, but so far this has been unsuccessful.

In the meantime, despite the injunction, they have been successful in preventing felling through the peaceful, sometimes illegal, direct action - recently only a small handful of trees having gone across the city.

Last week, Abbeydale Park Rise saw a new desperation by the council, with felling crews - some who were clearly uncomfortable at what they had been asked to do - being told not to speak to residents and supporters.

Despite a largely peaceful campaign, their were some attempts by some arborist to provoke and claim assault. A small female, obviously getting on in years, was accused of assault by a big burly man and police called.

The senior police man could not contain his irritation at being called out and at the waste of police time. The woman was questioned at the police station and later released.

Sometimes residents, upset at having the felling crews arrive at their houses to chop down the tree outside their house at 7am in the morning, may say angry things in their distress.

While campaigners are at pains to apologise to the arborists, these incidents sometimes get twisted and exaggerated to appeal to the press and social media.

Felling crews, campaigners and their supporters are all victims, stuck on the front line of a dispute seemingly caused by a council backed into a corner by a largely secret PFI contract, forced upon them by a Tory government.

Casualties are not only the trees but accountability, community cohesion, trust in the council, who are hostile and not budging.

Meanwhile, back on Abbeydale Park Rise a party of long tailed tits are calling in the tree the arborists have managed to partly cut.

Chippers, barriers are gone, and all falls quiet until the crews return - the no parking notices had dates changed to include the week of the official start of the illuminations.

No one can quite believe it has come to this.

John, Julie and residents up and down the street will be up and out again by 6am in the morning.