How Democracy Commits Suicide: The Sheffield Trees, And The Corporate Takeover Of Local Government

09/14/2017 10:13 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2017

We live in an age in which democratic governments are being undermined from outside— it’s increasingly clear that Russia played significant roles in Trump’s victory in the US and Leave’s victory in the Brexit referendum. We are also increasingly aware of the pernicious role that money plays in influencing politics worldwide. In Sheffield, however, the council simply decided to hand over vital decision-making to an unelected, unaccountable multinational corporation.

Before this week, the council’s stunning intransigence on felling the healthy mature trees of Sheffield was a mystery. It’s a long-running story, but the short version is this: the council entered into a 25-year contract with multinational corporation Amey to maintain the roads, pavements, and trees of Sheffield. Despite assurances that tree-felling was “always a last resort”, and despite the provision of 14 pre-paid solutions to save trees that were healthy but damaging to roads and pavements, Amey decided to fell thousands of healthy mature trees. As residents began to protest the senseless killing of healthy trees causing minor and easily reparable damage to pavements, the council conducted bizarrely undemocratic surveys on streets with trees designated for felling— there was one vote per household (a system not used since before the suffragettes!), and ballots came in plain brown envelopes addressed to “resident”. If more than 50% of respondents opposed felling, the street was referred to an Independent Tree Panel (ITP). Even the ITP, with membership hand-picked by the council, could see that many of the felling decisions were wrong, and they recommended saving many of the trees, using pre-paid solutions already in the contract. However, 87.3% of the times that the ITP recommended against felling, the council decided to fell— even when, as on on my own street, 100% of respondents wanted to keep the trees.. They insisted that they had no choice— any other decision would be too financially costly to the council. This was baffling: if the solutions were already pre-paid in the contract, how could they be costly? Why wasn’t the council insisting that Amey do the work for which it had already paid?

The mystery deepened as we saw what the council was willing to do rather than use one of the prepaid tree-saving solutions. They conducted a pre-dawn raid on Rustlings Road, using police to rouse residents from their beds in order to move cars, and arresting two pensioners in their nightwear. In following months, they continued to arrest peaceful tree protectors, in the end arresting 14, including one of the local councillors, Alison Teal. The Labour council, ironically, was so keen to see these people arrested that they used a Thatcher-era anti-union law to do so. All of these charges were eventually dropped. But the council did not give up. They hired bouncers to photograph members of the tree campaign, and spent months compiling massive dossiers of photographs and social media posts, which they used to issue injunctions to 17 peaceful protestors, again including councillor Teal, and to make a case for further injunctions against “persons unknown”. Why were they so determined?

Meanwhile, experts were weighing in on the madness of the Sheffield felling-spree. An article published by the Institute of Chartered Foresters explains “tree management principles are being misapplied as Sheffield City Council clamours to justify its actions”. Professor Ian Rotherham (Department of Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam) wrote: “the scale of this misapplication of funds and resources becomes more apparent with the misuse of the original consultant’s SCC-commissioned review— which recommended a maximum of 500 trees to be in need of removal, when after only 3 years or so, over 5000 had been felled. This represents a catastrophic undermining of local environmental democracy, of local sustainability, and of planning for climate mitigation, for biodiversity, and for community healthy and welfare— and is on an unprecedented scale.” Highway engineer Peter Townsend wrote: “many of the trees listed for removal could be retained without causing disruption to the roadway or footway resurfacing”. A recently conducted CAVAT assessment found that the felling programme is destroying £60 million pounds worth of trees. Why, we all wondered, was Sheffield ignoring all of this?

Worse yet, the council even refused to budge on the decision to fell the Chelsea Elm, a rare tree which survived Dutch Elm Disease, was voted the second best tree in England, and houses a colony of endangered butterflies. Nor was it moved by protests over the planned felling of the trees on Western Road, each one a memorial to a fallen solider from WW1 who attended the local school. How on earth could the council be so determined to destroy trees of such deep importance?

We may now know the answer. Sheffield council has finally admitted that they signed a contract which took away all of their own oversight powers. According to a Guardian report, the council is forbidden to go against Amey’s verdict on any tree— if they do, the tree’s maintenance is no longer covered by the contract. Since the council cannot afford to maintain the trees outside the contract, we now know why they have been so determined to fell beloved, valuable, rare, important trees against all reason and expert advice: they gave up their power to do otherwise when they signed the PFI contract. Those 14 engineering solutions that are “pre-paid” in the contract? They will only ever be used if Amey chooses to use them. The thousands of healthy trees being felled when easy solutions would save them? Those easy solutions are totally unavailable unless Amey would like them to be available. That rare tree, those endangered butterflies? Unless profit-seeking corporation Amey is moved by the entreaties, nothing will save them. Those fallen solider memorialised on Western Road? Unless Amey decides they matter, their memorials will be ground into sawdust.

Sheffield council signed away its powers when it signed that PFI contract with Amey. Sheffield’s citizens have no way to influence Amey, accountable only to its shareholders. And they have no way, now, to influence the council, which is sadly accountable only to Amey. The antidemocratic nature of PFI contracts is an issue that extends well beyond Sheffield and its trees. But Sheffield and its trees are a particularly vivid illustration.

That’s why many Sheffield residents are calling on Jeremy Corbyn, who well understands the problems with PFI contracts, to help mediate this disastrous situation before it goes further. The petition is still taking signatures.

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