Paul McNamee: Pay attention because the roots spread to us all

The Sheffield Tree felling protests come down to a bigger issue. While there are health benefits to having mature trees in a city, the issue is more about HOW we want the world around us to be.

I’m watching the Sheffield trees protest with growing fascination. It unites PFI contracts, council intransigence, questions over rights of local communities, and focused, polite moments of civil disobedience. It feels peculiarly British and is becoming one of the events of our time.

To recap, Sheffield City Council have set about felling thousands of trees from the city’s streets. They claim that the trees are “dangerous, dead, diseased, dying, damaging or discriminatory”. They believe these trees, amongst other things, are making roads and pavements unsafe. They say they are planting others to replace them.

What are streets for? A place to foster a sense of belonging, or patches of tarmac for shifting cars with ease

However, the protestors disagree. And they, as an organisation called STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Groups), are growing in influence. Many of the trees are healthy, they say. They insist there are better ways to deal with the issues. They think something stinks, namely the £2bn Streets Ahead project that has seen the tree removal outsourced to private contractors Amey.

Hostile takeover: Who is welcome in our public spaces?

Oaks and elms, some over 100 years old, are being chopped down with a rapacious restiveness. So far over 5,500 trees have been felled, while 1,000 more have been earmarked. The protesting continues, and the battle lines harden. Last week, there were 33 uniformed police officers and 20 other security staff present at the removal of one tree. Which feels rather heavy handed. The incident has seen the local newspaper, The Yorkshire Post, lead the call for a halt to the felling until a fully independent appraisal has been carried out.

It is easy to be a keyboard warrior, to sign petitions and share social media alerts. It is quite another to get outside to become involved in something

I like trees – who doesn’t! I’ve taken my children tree climbing – which, depending on your point of view, is either great craic or highly inappropriate parenting. Instinctively, I’m drawn to the protestors, especially as a number of them feel like they belong in an Alan Bennett single-hander, rather than on the frontline of a major fight. It is easy to be a keyboard warrior, to sign petitions and share social media alerts. It is quite another to get outside to become involved in something that you care deeply about. I love the sense of grassroots community togetherness in a common cause. This movement clearly energises a great number of people.

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Hawksley Avenue, Hillsborough before and after felling – picture courtesy of STAG

There may well be residents who back the trees removal. I don’t live in Sheffield and I don’t know how damaging some of the trees can be, for those with mobility issues amongst other things. If there are a set of people who look forward to the buzz of a chainsaw, they are less vocal.

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What this really comes to down is a bigger issue. Because while there are health benefits to having mature trees in a city, the issue is more about how we want the world around us to be. It’s as much about aesthetics as it is about anything else. Trees look good. And being in a place that looks good can positively alter our moods. We are more likely to feel that sense of community, to want that area to do well, we’ll take pride in it and from this base much can grow. What are streets for? Are they a place to foster a sense of belonging, or simply patches of tarmac for shifting cars with the greatest ease?

Cutting down the Sheffield trees is about removing much more than branches and overhanging leaves. We should all pay attention because the roots spread to us all.

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