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Forming the Sheffield Street Tree Partnership

Logo: Sheffield Street Tree Partnership

From the initial campaign to protect the Street Trees of Sheffield, it seemed unlikely that opposing sides would ever reach an agreement. Over the last five years perseverance has unearthed common ground between campaigners, council and contractors, and now a partnership with representatives from all parties has agreed a working strategy to sustain and maintain the city’s network of street trees for the future.

The issue

Dr Nicky Rivers campaigning to save Sheffield Street trees ©wildsheffield.com
Dr Nicky Rivers campaigning to save Sheffield Street trees ©wildsheffield.com

Streets Ahead is a £2billion city-wide highways maintenance contract being delivered by Amey to improve Sheffield’s roads, pavements, street lights, verges, street trees, bridges and other ‘street scene’ furniture. As part of the Streets Ahead contract, Amey’s Tree Team are tasked by the City Council with managing the 36,000 trees on the road network across the city.

During the first five years of the Streets Ahead contract, around 5,500 trees were felled on a ‘remove and replace one for one’ basis. An unprecedented number of street trees were felled in a relatively short period time, often concentrated in residential areas where mature trees are a well-loved feature of the street.

Many local residents, including many of our members, were greatly concerned about the scale of the tree felling programme and its impact on the city’s wildlife as well as the significant reduction in the other environmental benefits that city trees provide.

The main areas of protest and controversy have been in relation to proposed or actual felling of healthy mature trees, significant trees such as memorial trees and distinctive individual trees or avenues of trees. By 2015 the approach to communication, transparency, consultation and handling of the felling decision process increasingly involved the police, security guards, security fencing and court cases against protestors, actions which gained nationwide coverage.

A Natural Capital Assessment of the trees in Sheffield carried out by Ian Dalton, a London Local Authority Tree Arboricultural Officer, using the CAVAT assessment tool (available from https://savesheffieldtrees.org.uk) valued the healthy Sheffield street trees still due to be felled at more than £11 million and estimated the total value of the healthy trees felled and still to be felled at more than £66 million.

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust directly questioned Sheffield City Council and their contractors Amey about particular tree issues, particularly focusing on issues of wildlife concern. We raised awareness and our concerns about a colony of the rare white-letter hairstreak butterfly Satyrium w-album on a surviving Huntingdon elm tree in Nether Edge, seeking the best possible outcome for wildlife.

After extensive protests in some areas of the city particularly affected by the tree felling programme, the Council and Amey called a pause to the work.

Saving the white-letter hairstreak

White letter hairstreak ©Ben Keywood
White letter hairstreak ©Ben Keywood

Despite considerable efforts by Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust and many other interested parties to seek a more sympathetic approach to the management of the Chelsea Road elm tree, Sheffield City Council decided to carry out pruning in February 2018, with a view to felling the tree in future. The proposed felling of this tree illustrated many of the wider ongoing issues the Trust raised with the Council about the street tree programme, including the impact of such a large and rapid felling programme on the city’s wildlife and natural environment. As Trust CEO Liz Ballard said at the time, “the colony of nationally important and endangered white-letter hairstreak butterflies will be lost through canopy reduction and felling, and keeping the elm tree is the simplest approach to retaining the butterfly colony it supports.”

However, in an effort to try and save the colony of this declining priority species, the Trust agreed to assist the Council with the translocation of white-letter hairstreak butterfly eggs from the pruned branches as part of a butterfly mitigation plan, involving our staff who have previous experience of White-letter Hairstreak egg relocation, hoping to improve the chances of success for securing a future for the butterfly colony.

When the Council’s contractors Amey began the pruning, the Trust saved the high canopy cuttings, searching for white-letter hairstreak eggs to set aside and relocate to suitable receptor trees. Sheffield Council Ecology Unit committed to monitoring into the future to assess the success of the egg relocation, which cannot be guaranteed.

The ask

We asked Sheffield City Council and Amey to work together with us, local partners and communities, using mediation if necessary, to develop and deliver an agreed, 20-year partnership Street Tree Strategy for Sheffield. The new strategy would:

  • Retain and invest in the more distinctive, individual street trees like the Chelsea Rd elm and Vernon Oak
  • Consider a longer-term rotational approach to felling and replanting important tree-lined avenues
  • Not use ‘lack of funds’ as the sole reason to fell a ‘difficult’ tree

As well as:

  • Promote wildlife and biodiversity, achieving a net biodiversity gain
  • Engage the local community and supports community cohesion
  • Contribute to addressing air pollution and health inequalities across the city
  • Contribute to the mitigation of and adaptation to the impacts of climate change, including flood protection and city cooling
  • Increases the general understanding of the need to manage and value street trees
  • Restore or increase the urban canopy cover, with additional, appropriate planting of new urban trees
  • Identify and secure additional support and resources for the planting and management of urban trees across a partnership of public, private and community sectors

We accepted that there is a need for tree management across the city’s road network, however, removal of a tree should always be the last resort and every effort should be made to retain trees that are identified as being of significant wildlife value. Mature trees offer many important benefits to people: clean air, noise reduction, flood alleviation, carbon storage and are also fantastic wildlife habitats for bats and other protected species.

Coming together

Shaping a new strategy - credit Sheffield Street Tree Partnership
Shaping a new strategy - credit Sheffield Street Tree Partnership

In December 2018 Sheffield City Council released a statement regarding Sheffield’s street trees, which was cautiously welcomed by the Trust. We were especially pleased to see in the ‘new street tree proposals‘ that the Vernon Oak and Chelsea Road elm tree are no longer scheduled for felling, something we had repeatedly called for in our letters and meetings with Sheffield City Council, along with a longer term street tree strategy.

By September the following year, an agreement had been reached between Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), Sheffield City Council and Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust to develop a Partnership Street Tree Strategy for Sheffield. The group of partners including representatives of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), Sheffield City Council (SCC), Amey, independent experts from Natural Capital Solutions and Leeds City Council as well as the Woodland Trust, with Liz Ballard, Chief Executive of Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust in the role of Independent Chair.

As part of the strategy development, the group collated and commissioned baseline data for Sheffield’s street trees. This included commissioning an ’i-Tree Eco Inventory Report’ based on an inventory of Sheffield’s highway trees and drawing on over 35,000 records from the ‘Streets Ahead’ database to value the ecosystem benefits of Sheffield’s street trees.

Over the next 10 months, the groups met regularly to discuss and develop the strategy (you can see meeting notes and referral documents here).

A new partnership

The working strategy document - a guide to the future management of Sheffield Street Trees - credit Sheffield Street Tree Partnership
The working strategy document - a guide to the future management of Sheffield Street Trees - credit Sheffield Street Tree Partnership

In March 2020 the first Partnership Street Tree Working Strategy for Sheffield was released and recommended to Sheffield City Council for adoption.

The Working Strategy recognises the contribution of street trees to health and wellbeing, air quality and other ecological and environmental benefits. It outlines new ways of working around six outcomes to ensure the city’s network of street trees is well-maintained and sustained for the future by:

  • Sustainably and carefully managing our street trees in accordance with best practice
  • Ensuring our street trees are more resilient through the type and age of trees we plant and also how we manage the current street tree stock
  • Increasing the value and benefits that flow from our street trees
  • Contributing to a more equal distribution of urban forest across the city to promote health & wellbeing
  • Increasing street tree canopy cover
  • Involving the wider community in caring for and valuing street trees
Logo: Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust

The Partnership set out to develop an exemplary Street Tree Strategy for Sheffield which values street trees for the benefits they bring to people, the city and the wider environment. As part of the group we wanted to produce something positive and visionary – for the city to collectively view street trees as an asset, helping us to improve air quality, reduce flood risk, support wildlife and store carbon. It’s been a great example of how different organisations working collaboratively can learn together from the past in order to deliver our vision for the future of Sheffield’s street trees.

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