I spent much of last Friday afternoon, together with my colleague Louise Haigh MP, in meetings with the Police and Crime Commissioner and with Council leaders, exploring options in resolving the recent disturbing conflicts over the tree replacement programme.
Although the programme is a matter for the Council, I have spent a lot of time on the issue over the last couple of years – giving voice to concerns raised with me by constituents. I pressed for a robust process for reviewing tree replacement decisions and welcomed the creation of the Independent Tree Panel. I subsequently argued for greater transparency on decisions taken on ITP recommendations, with a full explanation of any rejection. I’ve also taken up concerns of residents opposed to replacement of trees on their roads – as well as those who wish to see work go ahead.
I’ve argued for more flexibility in relation to those trees where the ITP recommended alternative action and for a different phasing of work on some streets. I would also like to see a pause in the work for more discussion to resolve the current conflict, putting the views of residents on affected streets first. But I recognise that the Council options are limited by the terms of the PFI contract with Amey.
The straightjacket created by these contracts is one of the reasons that I’ve long opposed PFIs. In government, Labour would review all PFI contracts with a view to securing savings, but the Council can only revoke or vary its contract at significant cost – and I don’t want to see money diverted from vital services which have been starved of funds by 8 years of deep Tory cuts.
The police have a duty to ensure that lawful activity can take place - both tree replacement work and the protests of those who oppose it. The recent escalation of unlawful direct action by a minority of protestors has led to increased policing, diverting resources from other vital priorities. As someone who has organised many protests, I believe that it is an important democratic right, but the police have no alternative to act if it steps beyond the law. I have been reassured on the approach taken by our police and by the Commissioner’s close oversight of the action, including independent monitoring.
I was disturbed by new reports this week, following a Freedom of Information request, revealing an apparent contractual requirement to replace 17,500 trees at a rate of no less than 200 a year. Any target of this sort is clearly unacceptable and I contacted the Council immediately to seek a public commitment that trees will only be replaced if absolutely necessary.
As a result of various initiatives, including new woodlands, we now have around 4 million trees in Sheffield - the highest number in our industrial history – and I don’t want to see that jeopardised. The current programme only affects street trees, which make up just 1.8% of all the city’s trees. 16% of these have been replaced - with around 200 more scheduled - less than 0.3% of our overall tree stock. Every tree removed is being replaced on at least a ‘one for one’ basis, and we will have more highway trees at the end of the programme than before. So I do think we will still be able to be proud of our green city.
I will continue to monitor the situation, and to liaise with the Council and the police, and I hope that we will find a solution to the problems we’ve seen over the last few weeks. It may require compromise on all sides, but we should make every effort to achieve it.