Monthly Newsletter – March 2017

11th March 2017

Written this month by Paul Selby

Introduction

Hi everyone, and welcome to the first of what we aim to be a brief monthly newsletter from Save Nether Edge Trees, to its members. Following lots of feedback, we recognise that we have been so focused on the core activities of trying to save trees that we haven’t been brilliant at communicating with our excellent supporters like yourselves. So on top introducing regular public meetings (see below), our aim is to send out a monthly summary newsletter of key updates and activities. I’ve written this months, simply because nobody else volunteered! I hope you find the updates useful, and hopefully see many of you at future public meetings, or under a tree!

Public Meetings

We’ve now had three public meetings since the public interest in the campaign exploded in mid-November. The first one in the Union pub in late November was very much a learning experience. We never expected so many people to turn up, we weren’t fully prepared, and it wasn’t the right place for so many people.

The second attempt in late January was very much intended to be an information sharing session, where we brought attendees up to speed on the history of the campaign, all the stuff we’d tried and succeeded with, and all the stuff that hadn’t worked as well. We got great feedback, but realised it went on a little long, and actually people wanted to input new ideas too.

So the third public meeting in mid-February started to do this, with lots of interesting new thoughts and ideas, some of which have already been put into action. We now intend to do them once a month on a Monday evening, and make them very much more participative.

We’ll announce the date and time of the next public meeting very soon.

A lull in the felling

As emails from Chris Rust will have informed you, there has been a lull in the felling, not just in Nether Edge, but across the city. Basically, the legal documents Chris and his team submitted to the Police on St Ronan’s Road four weeks ago has caused the Police some serious headaches. In effect, the events on Chippinghouse Road and St Ronans Road have changed everything. Thanks so much to all of you who turned up and showed your support on some very cold days!

There is the potential that at least some of the arrests, and threatened arrests, were illegal. And the Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that prosecuting the arrestees wasn’t in the public interest, so all charges have been dropped.

We have no idea if new police tactics will be used in the future, but for now, the Police aren’t attending when Amey call them, when protesters get in the way of felling. Chris has gone into lots more detail in his emails about what this means for individuals standing under trees, if tree fellers do turn up, so I won’t repeat here. But the main news is that we have won some time. And what this means is that 225 of our areas trees remain standing, when up to six a day could be being felled, if the campaign hadn’t been so active.

Meetings with the Council

Some of you may be aware that STAG representatives had a series of meetings with Councillors about the tree issue between December and early February. The aim was to understand each other’s positions more clearly, seek common ground, and see if there was anything that could be agreed on, however small, that might save some (if not all) of the threatened trees.

Sadly, the best the Council offered up to the campaign during all the meetings, was two seats on the Independent Tree Panel (ITP). When questioned whether the Council would change the Terms of Reference for the ITP, to ensure that the Council listened more to the ITP recommendations, they refused. So when it was suggested that the offer of seats was pretty worthless, as the Council would likely continue to ignore the ITP nearly 100% of the time, they quietly conceded it was indeed a pretty worthless offer.

What the Council was asking from the campaign in return was huge, so the STAG representatives asked for something more substantial from the Council. They refused. In simple terms, at that point, the representatives understood that the Council was not treating the conversations seriously.

However I am personally hopeful that, with the delays in felling mentioned above, and the looming threat of the Council being “fined” £250,000 a month by Amey from 1st January 2018 for every month threatened trees remain standing, that the Council will be forced back to the conversations, and to take these discussions seriously.

Trees for Cities

You may have seen that the charity Trees for Cities has withdrawn funding and support for its work with Sheffield Council on planting trees in parks and green spaces. Their public statement condemning the Council for its felling of healthy street trees was pretty damning and can be found at the following web link.

http://www.treesforcities.org/statement-sheffield/

This is both bad news and good news. Bad news in the short term, as Sheffield loses out on replacement sapling planting in parks and green spaces. But good news in that it is yet more public pressure on the Council to change their course. The Council have subsequently accused the campaign of misleading the charity. Having spoken to the Chief Executive of the charity myself, I can assure you that isn’t the case.

A campaign of complaints

You may remember a couple of emails I sent out in early February seeking volunteers to support me establish a project to encourage large volumes of genuine complaints about Amey and the countless examples of shoddy work in Nether Edge and wider Sheffield. You’ll be pleased to know that there are now a group of 6 of us taking this work forward, and we’ll be announcing details in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you don’t need to wait for us to launch our plans. If you are not happy with something Amey has done, COMPLAIN via the Streets Ahead website!

Save Nether Edge Trees website

Following feedback in December from many of you that you didn’t like or use Facebook, a small team of campaigners, led by Ian Turner, worked to create an excellent website for the group. It contains a huge amount of up to date and background information, and I believe is a really useful resource. You can visit the page at the following weblink

https://savenetheredgetrees.wordpress.com/

Don’t forget also, about Chris Rust’s excellent Trees at Risk website which contains further additional useful material, and the all-important map of trees at risk across the whole city. This can be found at the following weblink.

https://sheffieldtreemap.wordpress.com/

A personal opinion

Finally, I thought I’d use the fact that I had the privilege of writing this month’s newsletter to set out my personal opinion on the root causes of the street tree issue. To be clear, this is genuinely my personal opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of everyone in the campaign. But the personal opinion is based on lots of evidence I have been able to put together, whether that be from Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, conversations with Cllr Lodge, or simply walking the streets and seeing the lack of damage the trees are causing.

Root Cause 1

We know from the FoI’s I’ve put in that Amey had a financial model that they used when they presented their bid for the 25 year contract. Their model will have been based on their work in other cities. Into the model, they put the Council figure of 75% of Sheffield’s trees being “mature or over-mature.” This model produced a figure of 6000 trees requiring felling in the first five years of the contract. When Amey won the contract, they then did the required survey work of all 36,000 trees, and amazingly, truly amazingly, they found that nearly precisely 6000 trees (17%) needed felling. What an amazing coincidence.

You’ll have seen my work looking at all of Nether Edge’s threatened trees (video at the following website – http://web.sheffieldlive.org/save-nether-edge-trees-report-highlights-needless-felling/).

My own assessment percentages are near identical to the ITP percentages, and the percentages found by true arboricultural and engineering experts on their smaller scale surveys. This proved to me that Amey’s tree inspectors must have been given target percentages to fell. Some roads have lesser percentages, some have more, but its uncanny how blocks of streets always have the figure of 17%, and that to meet this percentage, the slightest damage seems to have been used as an excuse to fell.

So my first root cause is the PFI contract, and the financial model that tells Amey they need to fell 17% of trees in the first five years to hit their financial goals.

The Council and Amey officials keep on saying that it is cheaper to maintain a large mature tree than a small sapling. They may say that, but I’m pretty sure this is not true.

A small sapling needs no pruning in its first 20 to 50 years of life, whereas a mature street tree, particularly the Lime Trees, needs two sets of pruning a year. Similarly, the leaf sweeping of a small sapling is roughly 1% or 2% of a mature tree. Felling and replacing 17% of the 36,000 trees means roughly 16% less effort in leaf sweeping.

Root Cause 2

When the ITP recommend saving a tree using one of the free 14 solutions, the next step of the process is for Amey to respond to this recommendation. The Council then have “in house experts” who go out to inspect the tree, taking into account the ITP written advice and Amey response. The Council “experts” then allow Amey to discuss their assessment with them, before a final Council decision is made. At no point are the ITP re-consulted. In effect, Amey always have the final right to reply.

I personally question whether the Council “experts” really are highway engineering experts. But even I am wrong and they are experts, then consider these two facts:

► 99.999% of highway engineering experts in Sheffield are employed by Amey or their subcontractors for the next 20 years. If you were a highways engineer not employed by Amey, would you want to upset Amey by disagreeing with them? If you upset them, might you struggle to find employment in Sheffield for the next 20 years?

► If you are the Council experts, you might disagree with the Amey recommendation to fell. But Amey can always talk about the legal risks (and costs) to the council if the Council overrule the Amey recommendation, and something goes wrong in the future. In those circumstances, if I were the Council, I might err on the side of caution and also agree to fell, particularly if budgets are tight. I wouldn’t want the risk of legal challenge in the future.

So my second root cause relates to the process where Amey have final right to reply in the felling decision, with no true independent highways engineering experts allowed to be part of the final decision making process.

Root Cause 3

A knowledgeable Amey official bumped into one of the campaigners on a street and said to me that a large number of the threatened trees could be saved if only they were allowed to curve the kerb line slightly, around any offending root or trunk. The Amey official told them that it was the Council that had insisted on completely straight kerbs.

I have also been told by Cllr Lodge that the PFI contract is a maintenance contract, not a change contract (indeed I think this was confirmed in the Court case). In which case, I understand why theoretically Amey would charge the Council to curve the kerb, as it’s a change solution, not a maintain solution.

If both the two previous paragraphs are true, then this is root cause 3. The strictures of the PFI contract being about maintenance, and a strict line by the Council for straight kerbs is leading to trees being felled that could be saved with slightly curved kerbs.

If true, my proposition is that if the Council and Amey could theoretically both agree to reducing the stricture of the straight kerbs, and allow for this one type of change (rather than maintenance), then a large number of trees could be saved. However, at the moment, Amey have no incentive to agree to this, as they can charge thousand of pounds for each and every “change.” So why would they agree?

How to eliminate the root causes?

Eliminating root cause 1 is virtually impossible. Amey’s incentives are clear. Their financial model for the whole 25 years relies on them felling 6000 trees in the first five years, reaping the financial benefits of reduced maintenance and leaf sweeping costs of saplings when compared to large mature trees. Now the 25 year PFI contract is signed, unless Amey themselves are forced to the negotiating table, it will be virtually impossible to change their financial incentive. The campaign of complaints is aimed in this area and may help, but it will be tricky.

Eliminating root cause 3 requires both Amey and the Council to agree to curved kerbs, something that is also not in Amey’s financial interests to do at the moment. The campaign of complaints may help again, but we can’t be certain.

However, eliminating root cause 2 is absolutely possible, and absolutely within the gift of the Council, if only they were to recognise it. It may be that this could be a key concession we seek from the Council in any discussions with them.

Summary

Anyhow, as I said at the start, these are just my personal opinions. Feel free to disagree, but they are based on significant evidence, as well as some interpretation of the facts based upon my own experience of private contractors in central government.

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