Friday, 16 March 2018

Protesting the Chop & Sheffield's Trees

Labour Council outsources tree felling to Amey / Ferrovial*

The outsource companies currently contracted to Sheffield City Council include:
  • Amey manage the city's 'Streets Ahead' project including management of highways.
  • Kier Sheffield maintains and repairs the social housing stock.**
  • Veolia manages household waste disposal.
  • Capita provides HR, payroll and IT services for council employees. ***

*       Amey, is a subsidiary of the massive Spanish company grupo Ferrovial
**     Kier is one of the seven companies that in 2015 admitted to blacklisting building workers.
***  Capita has been compared to Carillion, and its share price has plunged from around £11 to £2 in just two years and it dropped out of the FTSE 100 last March.

OVER 5,000 trees have been cut down in Sheffield since 2012, as part the city council's £2bn Streets Ahead project with the excuse of improving roads and footpaths in the city.

The council, which is planting sapling trees after removing existing mature ones, insists the trees earmarked for felling are either 'dangerous, dead, diseased, dying, damaging or discriminatory'.

Yet it seems many of the trees condemned by the council as 'damaging' or 'discriminatory' are healthy specimens which campaigners say should be saved.  They say that alterations should be made to surrounding pavements and roads instead.

Today an event 'Get Off Our Tree!' is being held at Sheffield City Hall.  Also playing are local artists The Everly Pregnant Brothers, lead singer of Reverend and the Makers, Jon McClure, and former Pulp drummer Nick Banks and the Compare is Jason Cocker , who was interviewed on Radio Four's 'Today' program.

These are just some of Sheffield’s tree protesters, members of local groups coordinated by the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (Stag), which are claiming that this is another example of local government gone wrong.  Stag have made it their mission to protect the trees from council-backed felling crews in what is often hailed, with more than a pinch of Yorkshire hyperbole, as Europe’s greenest city.

Labour Council's PFI Contract

The fellings are part of a 25-year, £2.2bn Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract.  Signed in 2012 between the Labour-led council and a private company, Amey, the Streets Ahead programme is intended to upgrade 'the condition of our city’s roads, pavements, streetlights, bridges …'  –  no small feat in a place that was known as 'pothole city'.

The contract has serious implications for the city’s 36,000 roadside trees, which have in effect been privatised until the late 2030s. Amey, a subsidiary of the massive Spanish company Ferrovial, has so far removed around 5,350, including oaks, elms and limes. Alison Teal, a local Green party councillor, believes she knows why many were chosen:  'I can only assume that because it’s a 25-year contract, they’re felling mature trees because they are more expensive. They cause pavement and road disruption and a hell of a lot of leaves fall off them.'

Loose and wonky kerbstones and cracked pavements owing to tree roots are among the reasons given for the fellings.  But there is a belief among the Sheffield protesters that the 14 alternatives priced into Amey’s contract – from flexible paving to root pruning and pollarding – are being underused.

The council says it only resorts to removing trees if they are 'dangerous, dying, diseased, dead, damaging or discriminatory' (meaning that they damage pavements and potentially obstruct disabled residents).  Of the eight mature limes destroyed on Rustlings Road, however, the council’s own independent tree panel found that seven were in good condition with a good life expectancy.

The heavy redaction of the contract between Amey and Sheffield council doesn’t help clarify things.  With many details kept from the public in the name of 'commercial confidentiality', there is no way of verifying, for instance, the council’s warnings of “catastrophic financial consequences” if the fellings are delayed.  The gaps leave room for conjecture about why the PFI deal isn’t being called off, or its terms renegotiated.  Protesters think they have found legal reasons that would allow the council to annul the contract – a recent petition focuses on Amey’s alleged failure to disclose a 2011 health and safety conviction following the death of an employee.  A council spokesperson said it was aware of the death before the contract was awarded, but it failed to provide written evidence of that knowledge in response to Freedom of Information requests made by campaigners.

 Thatcherite Law Used by Labour Council

Many cite “the battle for Rustlings Road” as a turning point – following a pre-dawn raid and scenes that the former local MP Nick Clegg described as “something you’d expect in Putin’s Russia”, pensioners were arrested for peacefully protesting. Eight trees were chopped down.
It has been a long and gnarly road to today’s situation, with frustrations running high.  In 2016, arrests of peaceful protesters started under the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which criminalises anyone who persistently stops someone from carrying out lawful work – in this case, tree surgeons contracted by Amey.

'We have the harsh irony of Thatcherite anti-union law being used by a Labour council against its own citizens,' says Ian Rotherham, professor of environmental geography at Sheffield Hallam university.  'Only about 30 years on from Orgreave, our local councillors seem to not see the bitter twist in all this.'

We have the harsh irony of Thatcherite anti-union law being used by a Labour council against its own citizens.

None of those arrested have ever been prosecuted, however, with the Crown Prosecution Service saying there was insufficient evidence.  Then, last summer, the council brought an injunction against nine named protesters – including the Greens Alison Teal, and Brook, as well as 'persons unknown'.   It prohibits protesters from entering safety zones around condemned trees, or encouraging others to do so, either on social media or in person.

Labour's 'One Party State' !

In Ms. Teal’s opinion of local democracy is low – and no wonder, after a year in which the council on which she sits took her to court for breaking the injunction, only for the case to be thrown out'This is a one-party state,' she says. 'Sheffield has 84 councillors; 56 are Labour.  They can’t be outvoted.'  She mentions Nasima Akther, a Labour councillor who defied the whip to abstain on a vote about the fellings.  'For her courage she was suspended from the party.  It’s bullying and she subsequently resigned.'

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