Authoritarianism in Sheffield

We live in a time of crisis. Donald Trump has just been elected in the US, and is planning to institute a register for Muslims and build a wall on the Mexican border. Hate crimes are on the rise in the US and the UK. The UK’s Tory government has become so xenophobic that even foreign doctors are considered undesirable.

But, you might think, local Labour councils would be on the side of the good—fighting authoritarianism and working to preserve what they can of the quality of life in their cities.

This morning, however, Sheffield’s Labour council showed us beyond a shadow of a doubt how they feel about the authoritarianism on the rise round the world. Overruling their own hand-picked Independent Tree Panels, they decided to descend on Rustlings Road, a quiet residential street, in the wee hours of the morning with 22 police officers, to fell 8 trees (6 of which the tree panels said should be saved). Residents were awakened in the middle of the night by police demanding that they move their cars. Three were arrested, including two pensioners. Police in the middle of the night, knocking on doors, dragging people out of bed? Arresting elderly law-abiding citizens? This is not the lovely left-wing city I thought I was moving to back in 1995.

What could possibly be the reason for this stunning authoritarian move? The reason is that Sheffield Council made a contract with a private provider, Amey, to resurface the streets and pavements. Amey made a decision to fell huge numbers of fully mature, healthy trees, in order to simplify the task. When residents protested peacefully, the council surveyed each street to get residents’ opinion on felling. (They only surveyed those who live on the streets with trees earmarked for felling, ignoring the fact that street trees are a common resource for all who live a city.) This survey was deeply flawed—it arrived in brown paper envelopes addressed to “resident” (universal indicator of junk mail), and it completely ignored the rather basic principle of One Person One Vote by only allowing one vote per household. Those streets where, despite these barriers to participation, 50% or more objected to the felling, were referred to an Independent Tree Panel (hand-picked experts, appointed by the council). Rustlings was one of these, with overhwelming opposition to felling. Their residents, like the rest of us, have nervously awaited tree panel panel recommendations. We learned their recommendation today, only after the felling. (Although the recommendation was dated 22 July, it was only published this morning at 4.30.) The council’s hand-picked experts recommended against felling 6 of the 8 trees. And yet the council was so determined to destroy them anyway that they engaged in a massive police action against law-abiding citizens in the middle of the night.

We live in scary times. Authoritarianism and contempt for experts are on the rise everywhere

I can’t believe it’s already come to this: I’m expecting to be awakened by a knock on the door from the police. And this is from our Labour Council.

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