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Sheffield’s trees and taking back control

Tom Forth,

Sheffield City Council and its contractors Amey are chopping down thousands of beautiful healthy mature trees that line roads in the city. That makes me sad, and it makes lots of people not too different from me furious. So what should we do about it?

I have avoided writing anything about Sheffield’s trees because I do not have the full picture. How could I when the Streets Ahead PFI contract is at least 387 pages long, with key commercially-sensitive sections kept private?

I’ve struggled to get more information from the media. The Guardian are using the opportunity to flail wildly about the evils of neoliberalism and PFI. The Yorkshire Post are using the opportunity to attack the leader of Sheffield City Council for continuing to oppose their preferred Yorkshire devolution settlement. The BBC and The Economist have provided the closest to clear and balanced coverage that I’ve seen, but for me it misses the critical issue.

In everything that I’ve read. there is a desperately frustrating omission. Democracy.

Sheffield City Council

Sheffield is the third largest local government in England. With over 575,000 residents it has a higher population than Manchester and every London Borough. Only Leeds and Birmingham are bigger.

Sheffield is a democracy. It held free and fair elections in 2016, and on the 3rd of May 2018 every single one of its 84 councillors is up for election again. Thanks to the hard work of its current council leader, Julie Dore, Sheffield will also elect its first ever City Region Mayor on that day too.

The people of Sheffield have no lack of opportunity to express their views democratically. In 2017, since the upset about chopping down trees became a national and widely-known local issue, the people of Sheffield have voted twice in by-elections. Both times they voted to keep the current party in power, the one that is chopping down trees.

I haven’t read much about democracy and local responsibility in the discussion about Sheffield.

Michael Gove has repeatedly condemned the chopping, most recently promising that he would do “anything required” to end it. But Mr. Gove has not even managed to apply enough pressure to his own party, The Conservatives, to get them to name a candidate for the upcoming Mayoral elections.

Mr. Gove has never been elected in Sheffield. His party has no councillors and no MPs. I don’t see how he has any democratic mandate to intervene in a local issue. If the larger body in the partnership were the EU and not the UK he would tell them to be quiet.

So what is the solution to this problem? How have we got here? What can we do?

What if people want the trees chopped down?

There’s some important background to what’s happening in Sheffield that I think is relevant,

  1. Sheffield’s region of South Yorkshire is one of the poorest in the UK, and one of the worst hit by the great recession of 2008. Its economy has been hit nearly as hard as Greece and it is still not recovering.
  2. The UK central government has cut the amount of money that it gives to local governments such as Sheffield by more than any cut it has given itself. At the same time it requires the city to provide more services to more people.
  3. With a few tiny exceptions, UK central government does not allow cities like Sheffield to raise taxes to pay for the services that it requires them to provide. There is less and less money, and councils have to do more and more with it. As the recent bankruptcy of Northamponshire Council highlights, there is almost no money left to provide services other than social care to adults and children. An example of an additional service that Sheffield can no longer afford is looking after on-street trees, and especially the parking spaces underneath them.
  4. Sheffield’s Streets Ahead contract was supported with significant (£1.2bn) investment from central government and led to improved street lighting and road conditions in its first five years. In particular, it prioritises fixing potholes, something Sheffield has done better at than fellow big cities Leeds, Manchester, and Birmingham. Sheffield has risen from among the worst councils for road condition to near the best in just a few years. Potholes are one of the most important issues for local residents. They are also a big source of costs for councils because UK national law lets motorists sue councils for damage to their cars incurred by driving over them.

Sheffield City Council is elected to make tough decisions. Following horrific failures in neighbouring Rotherham I imagine its politicians think about preventing child sex abuse much more than they think about trees.

The people of Sheffield have voted — in a messy electoral system that they voted to keep — to prioritise fixing potholes, to keep council tax down, to focus on safeguarding social care for vulnerable people, and to retain on-street parking on tree-lined streets. There are alternatives; they could pay much more council tax and save the trees, but they have chosen not to. They could sacrifice on-street parking or road space on tree-lined streets to save the trees, but they have chosen not to. They could cut other services harder to save the trees, but they have chosen not to.

I would make different choices to the people of Sheffield, but I have a long history of being on the losing sides of most elections and referendums in the UK. Part of living in a democracy is accepting the view of the majority and accepting when you are on the losing side. There are important exceptions to that rule, but I'm not sure trees are one.

In Sheffield, the people have chosen to chop down trees. It’s fine to blame the council, or PFI, or neoliberalism too, but if we disagree we should also blame the people of Sheffield. They have an opportunity on the 3rd of May to change their minds. I hope they take it, and I celebrate all those who are protesting and campaigning in order to change their minds and their votes.

But if Sheffield votes again for the party that’s chopping down trees, shouldn’t we let them chop in peace? Or in words that Mr. Gove might understand better; Sheffield has taken back control, it's chopping down the trees, you need to respect its sovereignty, and respect the result.

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