In recent years, a number of Guild Companions who live in Sheffield were involved in the campaign to stop the felling of thousands of street trees in the city, in opposition to the actions of the city council and their private contractors for this work. Their efforts not only saved thousands of healthy trees, it also eventually led to the uncovering of a campaign by the Council to denigrate and obstruct legal protest and to hide their intentions from the city's residents. In May 2023, the Council finally issued an unconditional apology. Here, Companion and tireless campaigner Sally Goldsmith reflects on the entire experience, and we also reproduce the letter written by Clive Wilmer, then Master of the Guild, to the editor of the Sheffield Star, in support of the campaign to save the trees.
SHEFFIELD STREET TREES - A DISPUTE, AN INQUIRY AND AN APOLOGY
By Sally Goldsmith
Wind back nearly six years to 2017. The then Master of the Guild, Clive Wilmer, was expressing passionate dismay in the Sheffield Star (see below) at the determination of Sheffield City Council to fell 17,500 street trees. Meanwhile a guerrilla army of locals, many of them retirees, were on the streets each day trying to prevent this happening. It was guerrilla warfare the city over.
So successful were the protests that by Spring 2018 around 60 personnel – police, security guards, arborists – could arrive in order to fell just one tree. But daily patrols from early morning, the intransigence of the Council, the conflict on the streets, the effects on those arrested and taken to court, the damage to community relations and the felling, particularly of gorgeous mature lime trees, took a personal toll on me and others. But eventually the campaign was successful. Six thousand trees were felled, most of them healthy. But the remaining of those 17500 were saved. Incredibly, we now have a Street Trees Partnership in the city involving the Council, their contractor Amey, the Sheffield Trees Action Group, the Woodland Trust and local Wildlife Trust.
Last year the campaign was successful in getting an independent inquiry into the dispute, led by senior civil servant Sir Mark Lowcock. Sir Mark and his team found resoundingly against the Council – their lack of transparency, their intransigence, their incompetence, their dishonesty. We felt - and were – vindicated. You can find that report here:
Since that report, the Council have felt forced to issue a fulsome apology for their actions which you can find here:
How do I feel now? During the campaign I feared that we would lose, but that our actions were necessary as part of global action on the environment and biodiversity. I’m now astounded at the turn around. However, councillors and officers who were at the centre of the dispute have failed to apologised for their actions. Personally, I still can’t fathom why the Council took the stance it did and why it repeatedly lied to the people of the city. At a rally in 2017, I spoke from the City Hall steps, saying that one success for the City Council was that through their actions they had succeeded in making a city full of passionate and informed environmentalists.
There is great pride in our campaign. Along the way, all of us made new friends. The campaign got support from many celebrities. Once I had to ring up Bianca Jagger who had offered her support. Benjamin Zephania wrote us a poem. Robert Macfarlane together with artists Jackie Morris and Nick Hayes, gifted a poem, Heartwood to the city which we made into a choral song. Campaigners for trees all over the world contact us asking for advice and support. And any local authority trying to fell trees is instantly accused of “doing a Sheffield!”
It may be a long time until many of us can feel trust in our Council again. But things are on the turn – the apology tells us that, and some stalwart campaigners are working hard to make the new partnerships successful. As a Companion, I feel part of a long line of modern environmental activism, arguably beginning with Ruskin and Octavia Hill campaign against the construction of the Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District. Onwards Companions!
LETTER TO THE SHEFFIELD STAR BY GUILD MASTER CLIVE WILMER
Ms Nancy Fielder, Editor
Sheffield Star and Sheffield Telegraph
Sheffield, S1 1PU
22 August 2017
Now that the issue of tree-felling in Sheffield has come to the notice of the national news media, I have felt it my duty as Master of the Guild of St George to write to the City Council on behalf of the Companions and friends of the Guild who have communicated their concerns to me. I visit the city rather often and am conscious of a growing anxiety among my acquaintance there.
I think I understand the difficulties the Council must be facing as splendid trees grow old and as those that have matured expansively begin to damage infrastructure and occasion safety concerns. Nevertheless, one of the things that make Sheffield a fertile centre for creativity and humane culture is the sense one always has of living close to the natural world and its processes, something exemplified by the generous spread of trees, young and old, across the city.
This is one of the things celebrated in the work of our founder, John Ruskin. It was his feeling for the grandeur of the Peak District and the need to bring nature into the urban environment that caused him to choose Walkley as the site for his museum, and the same concern informs the modern Guild’s care for its Collection in the Millennium Gallery and its desire to spread the values of that Collection across the city. For the past three years our ‘Ruskin in Sheffield’ project has sought to root those values more deeply in the lives of Sheffield people, and we have been charmed and sometimes amazed by the depth and resonance of their response.
That response must have its origins in the ordinary life of Sheffield – the way nature is woven into the work and culture of the city. As Ruskin would have been very quick to notice, part of that richness has to do with the processes of time. Saplings are very good and necessary and to be welcomed, but there is no substitute for the presence of old and venerable trees that refresh the spirit and contribute to the health of urban life. If trees are dangerous or dying, of course they must be cut down. But there must be no suspicion that the economy and the needs of bureaucracy are being conveniently served by the elimination of healthy trees along with the sick ones.
I have heard that suspicion voiced and I very much hope that there is no justification for it. Of one thing I am certain: if Ruskin were alive today, he would be raising his concerns both in Sheffield and in the country at large, not pointing fingers at those who take responsibility for the city, but wanting to know in what way this mass felling serves the common good. For those looking in from outside, it is hard to believe that it does.