Sheffield’s tree protestors show stainless steel

This is the post I’ve been thinking about for months. Yep, the one about how they’re cutting down all the street trees in Sheffield.

Until now I didn’t feel I could quite do it justice, but a few days ago I went to Sheffield to meet the campaigners and to see for myself what was going on. I was impressed and appalled in equal measure; impressed by the beautiful canopy that does still grace the city, impressed by the determination and positivity of the protestors and their very worthy cause, and appalled by the reckless actions of the city council and their contractor, Amey.

Death Row: Kenwood Park Road, typical of lime tree-lined avenues in the Nether Edge area of Sheffield. Note the yellow ribbons on condemned trees.

I was asked to lead a guided walk through the leafy streets of the grand Victorian neighbourhood of Nether Edge as part of the Sheffield Street Tree Festival. Now, I should say the point of the Sheffield Street Tree Festival was to celebrate the city’s trees rather than to be a focus for protest, and this was the sense that pervaded the festival. But everyone in attendance was, I’m sure, all too aware that the festival had been born out of the community brought together through adversity, so the fate of Sheffield’s trees was never far from our thoughts.

Community Chest: A doomed lime tree has it’s CAVAT valuation attached – £40,948

Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK, it is home to 4.5 million trees, a fact provided by the city council (retrieved 01/10/2018), whose veracity on arboreal matters may, at times, appear wanting. This huge figure has been deployed in the propaganda war around the street trees, of which, we are told there are 36,000, and so to lose some of these is not unreasonable, surely? And again, according to the council the losses will amount to just 0.3% of the total tree canopy – a mere trifle. But 0.3% of 4.5 million is 13,500. That’s more than a third of the city’s street trees! And if that’s not bad enough, campaigners eventually managed to get the contract between the council and Amey into the public domain in which it stated 17,500 trees would be cut down.

Our group of sixty street tree admirers – something of a record for me, even in the urban arboretum of Hackney I’ve only had 25 – walked the streets of Nether Edge on a route that I was doing ‘blind’. I wasn’t disappointed: the street tree canopy here is soaring, verdant and in fine fettle. It’s easy to understand why Sheffield residents feel so strongly. Nether Edge was laid out as broad avenues of large stone villas lined predominantly, but by no means exclusively, with common limes or lindens (Tilia x europaea). Many trees must date from the area’s original development, so most are well over a century old. These vigorous hybrid trees do well in Sheffield and are in their prime, with many decades, or even centuries of service left in them. The splendid boulevards of Nether Edge have survived world wars, industrial pollution and post-industrial decline, but among their number, arbitrarily, individual trees are now destined for the chainsaw. The protestors have attached yellow ribbons to the trees earmarked for felling and wandering down one of these streets it is shocking to see how many, and how randomly they have been selected. It’s not just limes, other trees have been condemned including London planes, horse chestnuts, sycamores, oaks and, most cruelly, a towering elm on Chelsea Road. The elm, a Huntingdon (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’), is enormous and may well be the only one of its kind left in Sheffield having somehow managed to survive the ravages of Dutch elm disease. Not only is this individual tree worthy of veneration and preservation – who knows, it could be an important source of disease resistant genes – it also hosts rare white-letter hairstreak butterflies, a species that feeds only on elms.

Chainsaw Massacre: The Chelsea Road Elm surrounded by well-wishers at the Sheffield Street Tree Festival

So why are the trees being cut down? This frequently asked question does not appear on the council’s website or indeed on that of its ‘infrastructure support service provider’, Amey plc, the recipient of the multi-billion pound Streets Ahead contract to ‘upgrade’ the city’s streets.

The council argue that the the city’s street tree stock is mature or over mature – code for ‘too old’ – and therefore needs replacing. This very tenuous assertion simply doesn’t stack up. Yes, many trees are mature, but they are also in rude health, so why cut them down and replace them with ten-year-old saplings?

Maybe the motivations for felling trees are more depressing than that. In the murky world of cash strapped local authorities and opaque PFI contracts it’s easy to imagine the types of discussions being had. Picture the boardroom at Amey’s discrete Oxford head office and a question being posed along the lines of, “how do we increase our margins on the Sheffield street tree management contract?” It doesn’t take a very creative bean counter to deduce that a reduction in the number of mature and over mature assets will reduce exposure to costs associated with managing those very same large and tall assets. Kiss my face! (With apologies to Alan Partridge).

Ready to Rumble: Rundle Road represents one of Sheffield’s finest mature streetscapes

But however it was arrived at, a policy amounting to civic vandalism is being wrought by the city council and Amey plc. Thousands of perfectly healthy street trees across the city have been felled, and thousands more are on death row as part of what appears to be a supremely short-termist cost saving exercise. Sure, trees are going to be replanted, but that’s not the point – how can you replace the history, grandeur and joy that towering, consistent avenues of mature trees bring? And, of course, you don’t need me to bang on about the ecosystem services, mental and physical wellbeing, and traffic calming benefits they bring too…

If you’re interested in reading more about the Sheffield situation, the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website is a good place to start. But there’s lots more too. Perhaps because the protests are so righteous, the council and contractors (not to mention South Yorkshire Police) have been so belligerent and the whole David and Goliath story is so quintessentially English, reams of media articles have been written about it:


If you’ve got this far, here’s something to restore your faith in humankind:

The Heartwood Community Choir’s first public streetside performance of ‘Heartwood’, written especially for the Sheffield tree protectors by writer and academic Robert Macfarlane. Performed under the canopy of the condemned Chelsea Road Elm.

The Greening of Kings Cross

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy a house on such an awful street.” These words, uttered by a passer-by 15 years ago, acted as a red rag to a bull for Wharfdale Road resident John Ashwell. A typically busy inner London street of multiple building styles and ages, Wharfdale Road connects York Way with Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. 15 years ago Kings Cross was a by-word for drugs and prostitution and was a very different place to the developed destination it has become.

Wharfdale Road 2002
Front Line: Wharfdale Road as it looked in 2002 just after the first trees were planted (Pic: John Ashwell)

Kings Cross forms an arc spanning two London boroughs from Pentonville Road to Marylebone Road with York Way at its apex. The Islington half was the crime hotspot while the Camden half was the dereliction centre of London. Now the Camden portion boasts a transformed St. Pancras station and the new Granary Square ‘quarter’ around Central St. Martins. Without the dubious benefit of a masterplan, landscaping and massive new developments the Islington half has had to make do with piecemeal private developments and community initiative. And this is where John, the original Kings Cross residents and the local authority came in.

John, a landscape gardener by trade, fired up by the throwaway remark overheard outside his front door, set his sites on no less a task that the beautification of Kings Cross starting with the planting of street trees on Wharfdale Road. Planting started after John raised money from local residents and the council released S106 funds enabling one half of a Cherry tree avenue. Over the next few years more money was released through public and private funding allowing the completion of the avenue planting. This second phase involved the narrowing of the road through incorporation of parking bays separated by tree islands transforming the street into the urban equivalent of a hollow way. All this has been achieved in the remarkably short time of 15 years.

Wharfdale Road in flower
Tunnel Vision: Wharfdale Road as it looked in the spring of 2016 (Pic: Sarah Ward)

Over this time a strong partnership has formed between the community and the council who all had the same goal of planting more trees and cleaning up their part of Kings Cross. In Wharfdale Road they planted a cherry avenue of Prunus avium ‘Plena’, a double white flowered variety of the common cherry and Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ a golden trunked Manchurian cherry with single spiked flowers (much better for pollinators). Within this corner of the urban forest over 300 trees have been planted including Islington’s first Olive (Olea europaea) grove on Fife Terrace and, something I’ve never seen elsewhere – Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) on Caledonia Street.

Of course, the trees on their own have not transformed this once scary corner of London (it would be foolish to ignore the presence of CCTV cameras and the millions of development pounds pumped in), but they certainly make the environment pleasanter and they have definitely helped calm the traffic on Wharfdale Road. Perhaps too they have contributed to making the area more hospitable for people which has in turn resulted in a proliferation of cafés and restaurants who don’t need to think twice about opening onto the street.

The community partnership allowed residents to get involved with street tree selection and  planting giving them a sense of ownership of the trees in their neighbourhood and, coincidentally or not, Islington has recorded the lowest rate of sapling destruction in this part of the borough.

Staying Olive: Islington's first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace
Staying Olive: Islington’s first Olive street trees on Fife Terrace

And here’s the street view of Bay trees in Caledonia Street, bizarrely the restaurant they shade is called ‘Thyme’:

Bedford Row Robinias

Bedford Row is a very handsome eighteenth century London street, in some ways more handsome than it’s Bloomsbury neighbours north of the Theobald’s Road divide. It is wider than Great James Street and softer than Doughty Street, it is lined largely by fine Georgian terraces, (the exception being a post-war infill half way up on the western side), now mostly law firms and esoteric consultancy businesses.

Robinia Pseodoacacia avenue on Bedford Row
Robinia Pseodoacacia avenue on Bedford Row

The Row’s charm is helped in no small measure by being lined with mature feathery-leaved Robinias. These North American trees take on interesting and characterful shapes as they grow older and the Bedford Row specimens have become reminiscent of those familar and quitessentially English trees rendered by Constable or Gainsborough. From a distance they might be mistaken for Elms, a half-remembered image still burned in the English consciousness despite the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease laying waste to the species way back in the early 1970s.

Robinia Pseudoacacia
Robinia Pseudoacacia - single specimen on Bedford Row

This is my second Robinia post in only three days – read about the Golden Robinia of Barnsbury.

Take a virtual trip down Beford Row thanks to Google Street Tree view: