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Mass felling of healthy street-trees in Sheffield has led to public uproar and a realisation that privatising tree maintenance removes the community’s influence.
With cities like Sheffield suffering from under-funding for many decades (1), it is unsurprising that many local councils prefer to remove trees rather than carry out expensive, on-going maintenance. Especially problematic, the older and bigger trees have higher maintenance costs, potentially damage pavements and have other perceived problems; yet these trees also bring the greatest benefits like climate mitigation.
When public concerns began to emerge over the Sheffield ‘Streets Ahead’ Private Finance Initiative (PFI), research was undertaken by the author with local community stakeholders, including four city-wide meetings and discussion events. This indicated that most people valued their trees very highly which was a view counter to that of the leading City Councillor responsible for the scheme and who suggested that most people wanted rid of the trees because they were a nuisance. What’s more, the meetings confirmed that in Sheffield the removal was without effective consultation and frequently done by stealth.
Sheffield’s ‘Streets Ahead’ PFI
In 2007, Sheffield City Council commissioned York-based Elliott Consultancy (2) to report on the state of its highways trees. This study concluded that from a population of around 35,000 street trees about 1,000 needed removal; being dead, dying, or dangerous. A considerable number of trees needed care and maintenance; reflecting long-term neglect on-going since the late 1980s.
The Sheffield ‘Streets Ahead’ project is a 25-year Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to carry out essential restoration works on roads, pavements and bridges. The project including improvement and on-going maintenance to Sheffield roads, footways, highway trees, traffic signals, and street lights, was originally entered into by the ruling Lib-Dem council, but later negotiated in detail by the then Labour-controlled authority.
By 2012-2013 major problems with tree-related aspects of the PFI were emerging. Furthermore, the community dialogue with tree management teams involved in the removal and replacement programme was non-existent. Through involvement in local (newspapers and BBC Radio, the author became aware of increasing public anxiety across the city. He therefore arranged to meet the head of the AMEY street-tree programme and the team responsible for public relations and liaison. What followed was a frank and open discussion which revealed how AMEY had signed the street-tree element of the £2.4bn contract for highways almost on the back of the engineering project. Furthermore, they had no knowledge of any existing City Council strategies or policies relating to trees, the environment, nature conservation, or public engagement. Worryingly for such a large, long-term project they had not done due diligence on policy issues or on the resulting constraints or costs. Similarly, the City Council officers negotiating the contract had no knowledge or interest in these aspects either. The consequence was that by 2013, as tensions began to rise to the surface, both bodies in the PFI partnership were locked in a contractual agreement that paid no heed whatsoever to tree conservation commitments. Additionally, each party was cleverly using this contractual arrangement to ‘hide’ behind the other when asked to deviate from their chosen strategy of tree removal. Both at the meeting and afterwards, AMEY officers were advised that the present situation was ill-advised, untenable, likely to be environmentally damaging and also very unpopular. Suggested ways to address the issues were proposed to the AMEY officers but flatly rejected.
Key observations from the author’s consultation and research
The numbers of trees involved: 1,000 street-trees, dead or dying, required removal (2007 Elliott Consultancy report to SCC2) but already by 2017 about 5,000 trees were felled. Figures released in 2018 suggested that maybe 18,000+ would be lost from a total of 35,000 street-trees.
Selection of trees to fell: The policy was based on the test of ‘6Ds’ with trees described as ‘dangerous, diseased, dying or dead, damaging, or discriminatory’ – the latter was supposedly where trees block pavements and affect people with disabilities such as partial sight. When asked how many incidents had ever been reported to the City Council the answer was zero.
Tree management: It was accepted that according to national best practice a small proportion of the street-tree population would always need renewal. However, a large proportion of the urban street-trees require on-going maintenance and care, especially the large ‘forest’ trees.
An aging population: It was also suggested by AMEY and SCC that between 70% and 80% of the present street-tree population was reaching the end of their natural lives. As large ‘forest trees’, maybe 80 to 120 years old, this is simply untrue. Many of these trees can live over 300 years. Furthermore, such specimens have persisted through around 100 years of horrendous atmospheric pollution when Sheffield was one of the most polluted places on the planet. Since the 1960s, air quality has improved dramatically and consequently many trees are in excellent health.
Policy and strategic issues: Throughout the consultation it became clear that neither SCC nor AMEY had any coherent over-arching strategy for street-tree maintenance. Furthermore, in determining and signing the street-tree contract, existing strategies, policies and community commitments by SCC were ignored and national guidance on urban trees was not followed. There is therefore no strategic overview or joined-up thinking on issues such as wildlife value, flood mitigation, climate resilience, health, and quality of life.
Health issues: Life-expectancy in Sheffield differs over a couple of kilometres from west to east by nearly 10 years. It is suggested that street-trees are hugely important in the poorer ‘silent suburbs’ of Burngreave, Firth Park, and similar areas. Here, economic and environmental deprivation leads to serious physical and mental health issues and limited contact with nature. With increasing evidence for the impacts of air-pollution (PM10s) on cot-deaths for example, big street-trees help remove this. In poorer Victorian and Edwardian suburbs these trees are the main green infrastructure. However, because of the social, economic and demographic profiles of these areas they have been poorly-represented in local street-tree campaigns.
Climate moderation: In UK urban areas, peak summer temperatures may be 5O to 8OC above previously expected norms. At these temperatures of from 35o to 40oC or higher, vulnerable people become at serious risk of health problems, as found across southern Europe during recent heat-waves. Big urban trees drop these peak summer temperatures by 5o to 8oC thus mitigating expected increases.
Wildlife value: Strategic green corridors and links were identified for Sheffield in the City Council’s 1991 ‘Nature Conservation Strategy’ (3), with street-trees as key components of green corridors and connecting throughout the urban area. Furthermore, recent surveys confirm the importance of the urban street-trees as heritage trees (and sub-veterans), and for breeding birds and invertebrates. They are especially important for pollinating insects such as bees and provide a substantial volume of habitat per unit area of ground.
Economics: Cuts to local authority services and budgets and handing over to profit-driven private sector partners has cost the local authority a massive amount of money – at least £2.4bn over 25 years. The actual details of costs and re-payments are not in the public domain. However, the nature of the private-sector contract encourages saving on expenditure through reduced maintenance budgets over 25 years by removal of most big trees. This also makes savings by reducing hand excavation around trees to facilitate cost-effective ‘planing-machines’ removing tarmac from pavements when re-surfacing. Additional financial consequences have occurred and are on-going due to public dissatisfaction and protests. These include major additional charges for policing, the hire of private security firms, and associated legal actions and court costs.
There have been particular disputes that highlight hidden financial issues of the contract and the lack of independent advice to the authority. For example, there is the case of the Chelsea Road Elm, a disease-resistant Huntingdon variety, a mature tree, and home to locally-rare white-letter hairstreak butterflies. The tree is lifting a couple of pavement kerbstones but not catastrophically. Amey has consistently over-estimated the costs of alternative solutions to save specific trees and in this case claimed it would take over £50,000 to save it; an independent highway engineer estimated between £1,500 and £3,500.
Engineering solutions: It is perfectly possible to manage most of these trees sustainably with good practice measures such as flexi-paving and metal root-guards.
Misinformation: Serious misuse of 2007 Consultant’s Report2 by AMEY and SCC with deliberate misinterpretation of the figures and quotes led to the report’s author to publicly correct them and distance himself from the subsequent Trees Ahead removal of street trees. City Councillors have persistently misquoted carbon-sequestration figures from the Forestry Commission
Public-Private-Partnerships, PFIs and funding: The recent collapse of major PFI projects with private sector partners such as Carillion going bankrupt has brought the concept of Private Finance Initiatives into closer inspection and the costs have proved to be astronomical. According to The Guardian (4), annual charges in 2016-17 for 716 PFI projects were £10.3bn. Jeremy Corbyn and other senior politicians have been influential in challenging the merits of these public-funded deals with the private sector. A key aspect of the PFI situation is that information on contracts is lost to the public who are paying for these and whose services are being delivered.
Sheffield the Green City: An immediate consequence of the debacle to date has been damage to Sheffield’s global reputation as a ‘green city’ – something carefully nurtured since the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s. The impact has reverberated around the world with comments from Americans for example, “Gee the place that hates trees …” This negative reputation clearly has an economic impact on the value of ‘Sheffield plc’.
A city divided: Not only is Sheffield a city divided by issues of wealth and life-expectancy but it is now deeply divided on issues relating to street trees; sometimes with neighbour against neighbour.
Throughout much of the early public debate the City Council and AMEY both claimed that they were only doing what the independent consultant, Elliott Consultancy Limited2 advised in the survey of Sheffield street-trees. However, in 2016 the author of the report issued a public denial to distance him from the claims:
“Did I tell them they needed to remove half of their tree stock? No. Did I tell them 70% of trees were nearing the end of their life? No. Did I even suggest that the 10,000 bits of tree work were urgent? It was clearly explained that 25,000 trees needed no work and of those that did, 10,000 almost half, were routine crown-lifting operations, another quarter were dead-wooding operations, and others including the whole gamut of routine works etc. Of the 1,000 I did suggest to them that there were a couple of hundred trees that could be retained, but their condition was such that they may merit replacement; this was the only pre-emptive felling issue that I recall mentioning”.
The Elliott Report2 had stated that there were 25,000 Sheffield trees requiring no work at present, 10,000 trees needing remedial treatment, and around 1,000 to be felled and 241 to be crown-reduced. This was from a population of around 35,000.
‘Ownership’ of urban trees
Somewhat prophetically, at a London conference of UNESCO / UK MAB in 20105, the emerging problems for street trees in Britain were discussed. In particular, a schism between some arboricultural professionals with responsibilities for highway tree maintenance and those with wider community-focus and environmental-focus was growing. The debate became both heated and polarised around issues of ‘whose’ trees these were, and who should decide on their management or removal. At one extreme were professionals who felt all aspects of street-tree management to be their sole responsibility. The others were stakeholders suggesting that the trees ‘belonged’ to the community and furthermore, through the local authorities as agents, were paid for by local people too (5).
It was also noted how for an urban community the highways trees were of great importance for local environmental quality, wildlife value, heritage, and a sense of place. The Sheffield-based PFI project with AMEY is perhaps best-known but is in fact just one of many initiatives around the country.
However, there were other unexpected consequences of entering a PFI agreement that run counter to the ethos of localism and the Big Society (6), and the most worrying was that all contractual issues normally subject to scrutiny and public transparency became confidential. Whilst publicly-financed, once a business partnership was entered into projects, they became subject to commercial confidentiality. This means that even the public who pay for the work and whose street-trees are affected, cannot obtain details. Furthermore, even elected local councillors were unable to access the information. A significant change in the way in which the local authority operated had taken place in the early 2000s when SCC switched from a committee-based administrative structure to one focused on a cabinet system with a small inner-circle of decision-makers and only limited opportunity for wider scrutiny. This certainly streamlined the 1980s and 1990s bureaucracy, but at the expense of transparency and local democracy. The change had major implications for the street-trees decision-making process because as stated by the cabinet member responsible for the project, he “…was the democratic process and there was no need for further public consultation. The proposals from AMEY passed over his desk and he approved them as the democratically-elected member…”
What do urban street trees do for us?
In most cases the trees delivering most benefits are the biggest and most long-lived; in urban environments these need the most care and expenditure. They also have the greatest associated risk if failure occurs, and cause gradual damage such as uplift of pavements. If not effectively planned and managed, any urban tree can have adverse impacts.
It is generally accepted that inspection, care, maintenance, and where necessary remediation or removal costs, are relatively high for urban forest trees. Compared with rural-grown trees urban specimens are shorter-lived and under more stress. Some residents worry about damage to pavements, inconvenient autumn leaves, clay movement affecting building foundations (though tree removal may exacerbate damage), and branch-fall in high winds. Other problems include guano and noise from nesting or roosting birds, and if failure occurs, collateral damage to adjacent properties. Public concerns lead to pressure on local politicians to ‘do something’, and this can emphasise the view that somehow the big trees are ‘inappropriate’ for urban residential roads. With maintenance costs and responsibilities for local authorities being onerous, demand grows for removal rather than maintenance.
Policies and visions
There is abundant policy, strategy, and maintenance guidance relating to urban street-tree management. Nationally-accepted strategic documents include Trees in Towns II. Details of tree maintenance and management are covered by guidance notes from the Arboricultural Association and for example, ‘The Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG)’. The latter recently produced Trees in Hard Landscapes: A Guide for Delivery (2014) (7) as a companion to Trees in the Townscape: A Guide for Decision Makers (2012) (8); together a thorough account of best practice and evidence for the recommendations. There are also British Standards which apply. However, with the demise of many local authority services and their replacement by profit-driven private sector business, the realistic application, training and enforcement of standards become problematic.
The case-study and associated action research suggest that counter to claims of a ‘Big Society’ and moves towards ‘localism’, the reality is very different, with centralised and unaccountable decisions. Furthermore, cuts to local authority budgets have hit big, urban, metropolitan districts disproportionality hard despite these being where community need for good quality green-space is highest. A result has been the collapse of countryside, woodland, tree, and environmental services, and disempowerment of communities most at need. However, the case-study also demonstrates that these cuts with the loss of experienced, and influential senior, specialist officers, have led to catastrophic and expensive policy decisions. Out-sourcing of publicly-funded services has resulted in a dramatic deterioration in public-relations and local community engagement, a long-term debt to be re-paid, and significantly compromised urban street-tree resources. It is now emerging that other local authorities such as Birmingham and Newcastle, have also gone down this route and are experiencing similar problems. As a final note on this issue, it was recently announced that Sheffield City Council is to pay the AMEY contractor £700,000 additional compensation because of delays due to the work of the ‘Independent Tree Panel’. This is from a local authority already in dire financial straits.
1. Rotherham, I.D. (2015) The Rise and Fall of Countryside Management. Routledge, London
2. Elliott Consultancy Ltd (2007) Sheffield City Highways Tree Survey 2006 – 2007. Elliott Consultancy Ltd, York.
3. Bownes, J. S., Riley, T. H., Rotherham, I. D. & Vincent, S. M. (1991) Sheffield Nature Conservation Strategy. Sheffield City Council, Sheffield.
4. Syal, R. (2018) Revealed: the £200bn cost of PFI projects. The Guardian, 18 January 2018, p1.
5. Rotherham, I.D. (2010) Thoughts on the Politics and economics of Urban Street Trees. Arboricultural Journal, 33 (2), 69-76
6. Anon. (2010) Building the Big Society. Cabinet Office, London.
7. TDAG (2014) Trees in Hard Landscapes: A Guide for Delivery. Trees and Design Action Group TDAG, London.
8. TDAG (2012) Trees in the Townscape: A Guide for Decision Makers. Trees and Design Action Group TDAG, London.
IAN D. ROTHERHAM
Professor of Environmental Geography and Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change in the Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University.
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