Shunning Treesponsibility: South Yorkshire still a dangerous place… if you’re a tree!

Learning absolutely nothing from the 8-year-long Sheffield Tree Felling Protests, South Yorkshire’s Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) have been busy implementing their own legally dubious plan to fell 64 healthy lime trees on Middlefield Road in the Doncaster suburb of Bessacarr.

The unfortunate trees have been targeted because of suspected root damage to pavements and roads. As a militant pedestrian living and walking in Doncaster, I can tell you that utility companies cause much more damage to pavements than trees do. But even where tree roots do cause damage there are multiple solutions to these problems which do not involve killing perfectly healthy trees. Especially in a borough which, in September 2019, declared a Climate & Biodiversity Emergency. A borough which has also openly declared its commitment to drastically improve the percentage of tree cover in the region.

The Save Middlefield Road’s Trees protest group, residents, ecological campaigners and the local Green Party knew that there were other options, and earlier in the year they successfully campaigned to temporarily halt the destruction. But DMBC is back to its old tricks (Doncaster has form when it comes to questionable tree felling; in 2011 the comedy English Democrat Elected Mayor, Peter Davis, targeted some 2000 trees on Doncaster Common simply to improve the view of spectators at his beloved Doncaster Racecourse). Taking advantage of lock-down, and using the police (and new Covid laws) to help get the job done, the DMBC are determined to leave no tree standing. A small, but determined band of tree-lovers have been fined, arrested and harassed as they try to save the last of the trees.

South Yorkshire Police (of Orgreave and Hillsborough fame) have been typically unwavering in their cack-handed understanding of the law. Protestors have followed the Covid guidelines of no more than two people at a protest by splitting up and protesting for the lives of individual trees. But this wasn’t good enough for the police. They have ignored simple facts like the trees are outdoors (obviously), are widely spaced and that you’d have more chance of catching ‘Rona’ in a police car… as one protestor kindly pointed out to them whilst sitting in the back of a police car.

As local residents have argued, these are hard times for the DMBC and councils all over the UK, so why waste valuable money killing healthy trees? The DMBC have said that after a ‘detailed assessment’ (presumably via Zoom or Microsoft Teams) it was deemed necessary to fell the rest of the trees for ‘safety reasons’. Kate Needham, a Doncaster Green Party campaigner, responded to this by saying:

“This is not only bad for our environment, but offers poor value for money for taxpayers here in Doncaster. Doncaster Council is already struggling financially to deal with deal with huge problems such as bailing out the firm that run Doncaster markets as well as the financial problems being caused by the ongoing battle with covid-19.
It makes no sense that they have decided that now is the time they choose to revisit felling beautiful, healthy and mature lime trees on Middlefield Road.”

Another activist, Fiona Cahill, added:

“The residents living on Middlefield Road we spoke to who were alarmed by the ‘so-called consultation’ were already well informed that felling is not the best or most economical way to deal with the damage that tree roots can cause to pavements.
It’s worth remembering that newly planted saplings cannot replace mature canopy cover so we are calling on the council to keep the existing tree cover and instead repair the pavements.”

Paul Powlesland, founder of Lawyers For Nature, was the first to question the legality of DMBC’s actions, and has since reiterated his concerns:

“When I wrote my advice in January, felling the trees without a license from the Forestry Commission was of dubious legality. It appears that little has changed since then, except the desire from the council to give it another go. It is frustrating that the lessons from Sheffield that it can be cheap and easy to fix pavements and retain street trees have not been learned.
It is to be hoped that local people will take peaceful protest action to retain these beautiful trees that cannot be properly replaced.”

Bureaucracy is always a slow-turning ship, but in these days of climate and biodiversity emergency can we really afford wait for the bureaucrats to get their shit together? When the last of the trees are gone the bureaucrats are going to learn the hard way that there are no fines, police or crap planning decisions on a dead planet.

Warren Draper