by Lucy Ashton
Sheffield’s ruling Labour councillors took complete leave of their senses last week in a scandal which made national news headlines.
For 18 months, residents in leafy Ecclesall have been fighting council plans to chop down eight mature trees which have stood there for generations and border one of the most well-loved parks in the city.
The trees are part of a beautiful street scene and there’s no doubting the environmental benefits which they bring to a city which is congested and has suffered severe flooding in the past.
But the crux of this issue is that Sheffield Council entered into a contract with private provider Amey to resurface the city’s streets and roads. Amey promptly decided to fell swathes of mature, healthy trees across the city to cut maintenance costs.
Despite an independent tree panel – set up by the council – ruling five of these eight trees should remain, councillors decided they’d had enough of listening to voters.
So they cut down the trees in the middle of the night. Twenty-two police officers were dispatched to protect Amey workmen as they sliced in the darkness. Unbelievably, police knocked residents up at 4.45am and told them to move their cars.
Two women in their 70s who tried to stand and protect the trees were arrested and held in custody until teatime. Within hours, the eight glorious trees were chippings.
Unsurprisingly, residents, the Lib Dems and the media were incredulous and outraged. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose Sheffield Hallam constituency covers the area, was quick to condemn the move as “inexcusable” and “underhand”.
His criticism was echoed by Lib Dem Peer and local Lib Dem Councillor Lord Paul Scriven, who had previously raised the issue in Parliament.
Meanwhile, Labour supporters were left stunned and disgusted. Several took to twitter to say they would not vote Labour again, despite being party members.
The whole debacle is simply beyond belief. At what point did someone think this was a reasonable idea? And when they suggested this madness, why did no one else intervene? How could elected councillors and officers sit around a table and agree this was justified? What precedent does this set?
When was cutting down trees, sending police to wake people in the night and arresting elderly people socialism? The council has only just recovered from searing criticism for closing libraries across the city. How can chopping down trees, which neighbour a public park and offer huge environmental benefits, be for the greater good of the community?
No one has been more vocal about the police’s behaviour at Orgreave than Labour yet here they are, using the same heavy-handed tactics.
I agree with the Labour Party members now questioning their loyalty. These councillors will bully campaigners, send the police in the night and see pensioners arrested rather than question financial details with their own private contractors.
Lucy Ashton is a journalist and former regional newspaper Political Editor