Yet another Labour council is under fire for chopping down public trees

South Tyneside trees campaigners
Steve Topple

First it was Sheffield City Council. Now, another Labour-led authority is facing a public backlash over its felling of public trees.

Here we go, again…

South Tyneside Council has been chopping down trees in and around South Shields. It claims it’s doing so as part of a footpath maintenance programme. But locals are not happy – not least because, unlike in Sheffield, the council isn’t even replacing the trees on the road where they are felled.

Rachael Milne, who co-founded campaign group South Tyneside Tree Action Group (STTAG), told The Canary:

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We started the campaign to raise public awareness and let our council know the residents of South Tyneside want to maintain our beautiful, healthy, mature street trees. Whole avenues of healthy trees are being felled for tarmac paths as part of a borough wide ‘flags to flexible’ programme. This program is getting rolled out across the whole of South Tyneside and all trees currently on narrow grass verges and paths will be felled. The council have told me they will be replacing trees felled by planting in parks. This is not good enough. We need and want to keep our street trees. Street trees offer a home to birds and insects. They allow our children to have a link to, and appreciation of nature. Trees give us shade, clean air and stop cars parking on the pavements to name a few. A street with trees always looks beautiful.

An issue of paving?

The council’s ‘flags to flexible’ programme revolves around replacing flagstone pavements with bituminous (or tarmac) ones. As a council document shows [pdf, p 44], the majority of footpaths in South Tyneside are flagstone:

Footpath types in South Tyneside

And this is where footpath maintenance is needed (yellow highlights):

South Tyneside footpath maintenance schemes

The council says… 

A council spokeswoman told the Shields Gazette:

We are committed to improving and maintaining our footpaths to a safe standard. Through the Flags to Flexible programme we replace broken and unsafe flagstones with a flexible more robust surface. In some areas is it necessary to carry out a full footpath replacement due to ongoing damage from tree roots.

Regrettably, in some cases, it is not always possible to retain the trees due to their size, the extent of their roots and their condition. While the loss of any tree is sad, in such circumstances, the works are necessary to ensure the safety of pedestrians and to reduce the risk of injury.

We consider our environmental responsibility with the utmost importance and are responsible for more than one million trees borough-wide.

We only remove trees as a last resort after very careful consideration. In line with the policy, for every tree removed, we plant a like-for-like tree nearby but in a more appropriate location.

Planned highways improvement works are outlined annually through our community area forum meetings and before work gets underway in any particular area, we write to the residents affected.

Vandalism of trees

But STTAG is unconvinced by any of this. It provided The Canary with before and after shots of the council’s tree felling programme:

STTAG trees before and after shot four new
Coronation Street, South Shields
STTAG trees before and after shot three new
Gordon Road, South Shields
STTAG trees before and after shot two new
Marsden Road, South Shields
SSTAG trees before and after shot one
Marsden Road, South Shields

Milne believes that there are numerous parallels between Labour-led South Tyneside Council and its counterpart in Sheffield:

Both are Labour councils who believe they can decide the fate of a whole borough’s street trees with minimum consultation – as far as I’m aware it was mentioned at a community area forum meeting, held at 10am on a weekday. I’ve been to one before and there was two members of the public there!

Also, I do not believe there is ‘good reason’ to fell our trees, like in Sheffield. The only good reason is if the tree is likely to fail (fall over or lose a limb). This is often evident after a visual tree assessment by means of an arboreal officer witnessing fruit body on said tree or mechanical failure.

I find if you disagree with our councillors on an issue they gang together and discount your views. I hope I’m wrong and our councillors are sympathetic to our concerns, allowing constructive solutions…

Chaos at the council

The council openly admitted [pdf, p21] in 2016 that its arboreal team only consists of:

1 qualified staff and one apprentice which may not be sufficient to undertake all inspections within the required time frame. The current funding level of £140,000 per annum is only sufficient to cover reactive and emergency work but not to undertake work to enhance the assets. This results in a greater focus on removal of dangerous trees rather than programmed maintenance and tree care.

So it seems that, even if it wanted to, the council couldn’t undertake a proper tree management programme. But unlike Sheffield, South Tyneside Council has not sold its maintenance programme on to a private contractor; the responsibility for footpaths and tree care remains in house [pdf, p18].

A Freedom of Information request (FOI) from Milne to the council revealed that it had felled 173 trees so far. But Milne told The Canary the council wouldn’t tell her anything else:

Unfortunately, the council will not give us figures on how many trees south Tyneside will lose. We do now know 173 healthy trees have been felled specifically for tarmac paths so far and a huge amount will follow. I also requested the cost but was not given an amount.

What price on planet earth?

Ultimately, the council’s actions have left Milne and STTAG in dismay:

I find it unbelievable that the council decided to invest an untold amount of money in this scheme when no one likes the look of tarmac paths. They look ugly. Need to be lain to a depth that the council claim means the trees nearby must go. I asked if the flags to flexible program had been independently scrutinised by an independent panel via a freedom of information request and was told no. So basically, our council-highways department (without firstly consulting our tree team) went full steam ahead with their grand plan.

I do not trust our council. Are they a law unto themselves?

There’s a concerted effort by councils up and down England at present to take their axes to public trees. What seems to be the driving force in both Sheffield and South Tyneside is the desire to save money.

What is the price for destroying the look of communities and the environment, and the possible negative impact on air pollution and climate change?

Time will tell.

But if residents have their way the chainsaws in South Tyneside will soon be falling silent.

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Featured image via STTAG

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