Assaulting Trees and Assaulting Democracy

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Photograph by Jaq Pixelwitch

For the last two years, both Sheffield’s trees and its democracy have been under attack. Over the last week, however, both the violence to the environment and the anti-democratic intimidation and bullying of citizens has reached new heights.

You may have heard about the pre-dawn raid on Rustlings Road last Autumn, when residents were yanked from their beds by police to move their cars so that trees could be felled, and two pensioners were arrested. Or about the plan to fell many of the trees of Western Road, planted as memorials to soldiers who had attended the local primary school then died in WWI. But last week was a new low. Last week the council decided to fell the Chelsea Elm—a rare survivor of Dutch Elm disease and home to a colony of highly endangered butterflies. Oh, and runner-up in a contest for England’s best tree.

The assault on Sheffield’s democracy has been no less severe. The very source of the long-running dispute is an affront to democracy: a 25-year secret PFI contract with a private company, Amey, to maintain Sheffield’s trees and roads. This contract, immune from all public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of all that has transpired.

But democracy was further insulted by the council’s “tree surveys”. These were sent only to houses on streets with trees to be felled (neglecting the benefits that trees bring to passersby, neighbours, and the city in general); they were in plain brown envelopes addressed to “occupier”, universal sign of junk mail; and they were allotted on the One Household One Vote principle, which I thought had been abandoned when women got the vote. If 50% or more of respondents objected to felling, the trees were reviewed by an Independent Tree Panel. The council has used this shockingly flawed survey to insist that most people in Sheffield support the felling program, taking lack of response (even by those who live on streets without trees, and those who binned the surveys without reading them) to indicate support. This is akin to arguing that all non-voters in an election, even those who were not given ballots or told that there was an election, can be understood to support the ruling party. But it gets worse: The council has ignored the verdicts of the tree panels in 87% of cases. To take just one example, on my own street 100% of respondents opposed felling, the tree panel said not to fell, and the council has decided to nonetheless fell. Council claims of genuine local support for the felling program ring hollow.

But the problem is not just lack of democratic consultation—the problem is intimidation and bullying of dissenters (and even witnesses) on a massive scale. This week we learned why the council have been hiring bouncers to photograph protestors, as 17 tree campaigners received pre-injunction letters for such actions as standing under trees—or using the internet to encourage people to attend tree protests. If they do not sign agreements to cease and desist these behaviours—including mere speech, they will have to appear in court on threat of prison, incurring high costs and enormous stress. The letters came with pages and pages of documentation, including photographs and screenshots, making it clear that council have engaged in an extensive campaign of surveillance against these peaceful protestors. One of these peaceful protestors was local councilor Alison Teal, who has described her astonishment at reading the demands in the injunction letter: “Should I go to a tree protest my understanding is I could potentially be arrested or sued for damages. It feels quite a Stalinist action."

And it’s not just protestors who are receiving these pre-injunction letters. Amey, the company carrying out the felling, have begun to hand them out to passersby, including residents who emerge from their houses to see what is happening when the fellers show up. Yes, local residents who walk by, or stand outside the barriers watching, are being given letters which threaten them with possible jail time. For merely witnessing, peacefully, the destruction of the trees on their street.

The Sheffield council are engaging in an assault not just on Sheffield’s trees, but also on its democracy—surveilling, legally bullying and intimidating citizens not just for protesting but for encouraging protest, and even for observing the destruction. We have reached a truly stunning state of authoritarian overreach when peaceful protestors, members of the council, and even hapless bystanders are being threatened with prison. This has to stop.

To learn more about the campaign to save Sheffield’s trees, check out the STAG Facebook group. To contribute to the legal fund for those with pre-injunction letters, go here.

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