First Partygate, then Beergate, and now Sheffield City Council has staked its claim as the bearer of the next big political scandal: Treegate. From a chainsaw massacre at 4am and the release of a damning new report on healthy extermination of trees, Punching Up talks to a Green Party Councillor to get to the roots of the issue.
It must be said, local councils really do not have a high bar to reach when it comes to behaving themselves, compared to their Westminster counterparts at least. As we have seen, politicians are simply too valuable to earn just a chicken feed £84,144 base salary. They need the tender loving care of the private sector, in the shape of third, fourth and possibly fifth jobs, as Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng’s shameless money-grabbing tendencies showed when haggling with a fake Korean consultancy.
Hancock in particular has a talent for both syphoning money out of the private sector and injecting funds into it, like some kind of undemocratic enema. The billions of pounds wasted on a defective test and trace system taught us this much.
The trouble is, there is nothing in principle to stop local governments funding a frankly piss-poor private sector, and worse still is when they have the bollock-naked brazenness to not own up to it and see themselves out.
The weapon of choice to see this happen? Private Finance Initiatives, or PFIs. In other words, a way of financing public sector projects through the private sector. In theory, they alleviate the immediate burden on the government and taxpayers to come up with capital for big local projects. Sometimes, however, they don’t pay off in any sense of the word.
One such example is Sheffield’s Streets Ahead scheme, which the council claimed upon its inception to be “the largest highway investment contract ever seen in Sheffield, worth £2bn.” A contract with Construction and Engineering company Amey seemed the perfect fit for the long term transition, more of an appropriate fit than, say, a PPE deal struck with a ‘VIP’ client.
Yet when it came to Streets Ahead, Sheffield City Council were leagues behind. The years between 2012, when the contract was signed, and 2018 saw a scandal unfold so insidious that the fallout has hit home only now. A watershed report chaired by Sir Mark Lowcock revealed that over 17,000 trees were felled in the space of these years. Worse still, there was nothing wrong with them. While the trees were healthy, the treatment of the public and protesting groups was sickly.
Councillor Douglas Johnson of the Green Party, which is currently sharing power with the much scrutinised Labour Party, reflects on just how bad it got.
“The first time I became aware of the issue was in 2013, when a number of trees had been marked down. I could see this immediately caused a lot of anger and disappointment. They were waking people up at as early as 4am in the morning to cut the trees down,” he says.
“Children were crying at how drastically the streets had been changed after the council’s contractors had started their work. Many protesters were injured as the use of physical force was used to move them, and the council spent a lot of money on bailiffs and private investigators to quell any form of protest of the tree felling.”
“The protestors were building up across the city and the council was looking increasingly stupid and isolated. It essentially triggered a local referendum, in which the power sharing became more even and we moved away from the strongman local government to the power sharing model”
The scandal would indeed have political ramifications. The Greens now sit alongside the Labour Party, which Cllr Johnson praises as a better way for checks and balances to happen. But, more serious than the blow to unchecked power, was the damage to public morale and trust.
Lowcock’s Sheffield Street Trees Inquiry report found that people on all sides suffered anxiety and stress, as well as injuries and wider physical and mental health problems.
“A tree might seem like a small thing for a lot of people,” says Cllr Johnson, “but for the locals affected by it, a sense of continuity and familiarity was abruptly taken from them.”
Word of the appalling scenes even managed to find some oxygen in the ever-impregnable Westminster bubble, with former MP Nick Clegg remarking that the egregious episode was “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia”. More Shocking still, it sparked Tory titillation with MP Michael Gove giving input and calling it “bonkers”.
It is not a stretch to say the contract with Amey was far from the deal of a lifetime, but it is a deal with the devil, with pay-off set to last for another 14 years. The Street Trees Inquiry revealed that Amey paused the tree replacement programme for the final time on 26 March 2018. They could and should have done that earlier; pressure from the council to keep going deterred them for too long. Labour had its finger on the kill switch and didn’t flinch!
Cllr Johnson made an equally damning assessment of the contract, saying, “The PFI contract was a massive deal, and it was always going to end in tears for the council.
“There are some things councils have to use private contracts for and there can be no issues whatsoever, but in this case there was simply no value for the taxpayers money, which went a long way towards funding the project.”
According to Sheffield Tree Action Group, an ‘umbrella-group” of local campaign groups against the felling, the scheme will have cost a whopping £2.2 billion – at least – over the contract’s lifetime, when it comes to a close in a relatively distant 2037.
Despite promises they have learned their lessons and admit they “got some things wrong”, between 2012 and 2015, Amey and the council thought the Streets Ahead programme was proceeding well and failed to take serious advice from a number of experts as a result, according to the Inquiry.
Not just experts, the council ignored the public too. Cllr Johnson says, “There was no consultation with the public at any stage, from when the contract began and up to now. There was a clear contempt for the public.”
Sheffield’s tree massacre is symptomatic of a bigger issue: putting profit incentives before the environment, and before democracy. Cllr Johnson thinks more equal power sharing could tip the balance in the right way in regard to this issue.
“In a more proportional representation system, the views of the smaller parties are more valid, as well as there being more checks and balances through power sharing. Many other countries elsewhere in Europe use this system, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the central government in this country.”
But how can we, the more environmentally conscious and scared stiff of the concept, grapple with politicians’ mealy-mouthing and incompetence, and fight back?
Practise what you preach at the very least, and get directly involved in the system, according to Cllr Johnson. He says, “I think it is important for people to think about who they are and how they can help their local community first, by volunteering and campaigning for example.
“Political parties are an important part of change, but don’t get into politics if you don’t want to help people. That’s what we want in the Green Party.”
An overdue flogging for logging
Punching Up gave political springwatch a go, and dear god we spotted some shockers
Let’s be clear, deforestation is no joke, but humour is a coping mechanism if nothing else. From a party which displays an oak tree as its logo, ten years of Tory rule has planted a seed of irony as well as doubt, to say the least.
According to Global Forest Watch, in 2010, the UK had 3.5m hectares of natural forest, extending over 20% of its land area. In 2021, it lost 5,250 hectares of natural forest. Forest coverage has decreased by 14% since 2001.
A more precise measurement of carelessness and incompetence? Take HS2. According to The Woodland Trust, the planned Phase 2b line between Crewe and Manchester, on track to finish between 2040 and 2045, will put 18 of the UK’s ancient woodlands under direct threat of destruction as well as 14 veteran trees.
Take to the streets of Plymouth for an even more recent example, where a total of 110 trees were felled as part of the ‘£12.7m regeneration project’, before an injunction halted the work, leaving just 16 trees standing.
Plymouth City Council agreed to conduct an independent review of decision-making that led to the night-time felling of trees.
In this case, the local government clearly saw the writing was on the wall, as council leader Richard Bingley resigned ahead of a vote of no confidence.