Apparently, we don't have property rights in Sheffield

01/12/2018 07:22 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2018
Bracken Moorland

Welcome to Sheffield, where intruders come onto your property in the dead of night with handsaws, after you have expressly denied them permission to do so. And your council pays for it. This implausible nightmare vision is true. Let me explain.

Property rights in the UK are strong. If you don’t want someone on your property, then— barring certain exceptions like emergencies, warrants, etc— it’s trespass for them to come onto your property and that’s against the law. You probably also assume—without ever having reflected on it—that you have the right to the airspace above your property. That’s why it seems like it would be trespass for someone to send a remote control drone to hover outside your window. And courts have found in favour of this right, calling it ‘oversail’. Of course, all of these rights can be waived: just as you can invite someone in to your house, you can give them permission to oversail your property. But they are not allowed to oversail without your permission.

Sheffield, as more and more people know, is engaged in a long-running battle over its trees. Against nearly all expert opinion, Sheffield City Council and its contractors, Amey and Acorn are felling healthy mature trees all over the city rather than using standard engineering solutions that would readily allow the trees to be saved. (These solutions have already been paid for in the contract with Amey, and in many cases have been recommended by SCC’s own Independent Tree Panel instead of felling. SCC have ignored the tree panel’s recommendations to save trees 87.3% of the time.) Many residents are appalled by what is happening to the trees on their own streets (as well as on others). On my own street, the council survey showed 100% of residents opposed to felling (and the Independent Tree Panel agreed, but has been ignored).

Many of the healthy trees to be felled have branches overhanging private property, and many of the owners are people who desperately want those trees to stay: in most cases the tree was a key factor in their choosing that house. These branches cannot be cut down without trespassing (via oversail) on the owners’ property. This means that, legally, the branches cannot be cut without the homeowner’s permission. This permission has never been requested. But for the avoidance of doubt many owners have sent letters to Amey denying permission to oversail their property, and many have put signs in their window denying permission. Amey and Acorn (Amey’s contractor) completely ignore this, trespassing on their property. During the day, however, owners (and tree protectors) often come and stand on their own property under the attempted felling, and are able to stop it.

And that is why Sheffield now features roving bands of workers with hand-saws, sneaking onto people’s property in the dead of night to chop branches into the road (and sometimes on top of legally parked cars). That is how unpopular this work is. Horrified residents awaken to the sound of sawing, or—even worse— to a pile of branches in the road. And to the knowledge that their right to deny access to their property is worth nothing at all in Sheffield.

[To learn more about the campaign to save Sheffield’s trees, go to the STAG Website.]

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