On Bannerdale Road in suburban Sheffield – a quiet street lined with cherry trees – a resident comes out to see what is going on.
In a city that has hit the headlines about its street tree felling programme, three strangers inspecting a specimen could be a cause for concern.
As it happens, this tree will not be cut down – a decision the resident is happy with. However, she does want the Amey Sheffield Streets Ahead team to fell a tree down the road that obstructs the pavement and makes it dangerous for elderly people walking to church.
This is the root of the dispute about a £2.2bn highways maintenance contract that has led to the arrests of protesters and a Green councillor being taken to court.
Campaigners say perfectly healthy trees are being cut down.
The council admits this is true, but only if the tree is “damaging or discriminatory”, for example if it is blocking wheelchairs or damaging a road.
Demonstrators say engineering solutions are an alternative to chopping down trees, but the Labour run council insists there is no money to fund work outside the PFI scheme.
“People suggest build-outs [creating protective space around trees] as a solution, they say it is a healthy tree and therefore it should remain,” Sheffield City Council head of highways Phil Beecroft explains. “But a lot of the time a healthy tree might be damaging the highway or the footway, or you can’t get a wheelchair or pram past. A one size fits all solution does not work.
“But in the long term, the tree will continue to grow and at some point it will damage the network.”
“In the current financial climate the council does not have the wherewithal to start adding more engineering solutions to the contract”, he adds.
More than half of Sheffield’s street trees are heading for the chop if contract documents published online are to be taken at face value.
Amey “shall replace highway trees in accordance with the annual tree management programme at a rate of no less than 200 per year so that 17,000 highway trees are replaced by the end of the term” the contract says.
Every tree that is cut down is replaced, although they are younger and may be replanted in a different location
The council counter that this is an “incorrect interpretation”, saying the figure is an allowance not a target.
“We need to complete the work, but it is impossible where the protest groups are very organised,” says Beecroft.
“But we have to maintain the highway, and achieve overall uplift in the network condition. At the moment Amey has gone away to find a solution.
“The protesters were endangering themselves so the work had to stop, and the city then is not benefiting from the uplift in road conditions.”
Sheffield was known as “Pothole City” after 30 years of highways neglect. In the first five years of the £2.2bn contract Amey had to improve the state of the network and the next 20 years are about maintenance.
Chesterfield Road, a key route south of the city centre, has not been resurfaced yet and it is clear where the nickname came from.
But on a recently upgraded road it is obvious that the Streets Ahead scheme has made marked improvements.
They don’t want to admit it is about money, do they? That makes them look bad. But it is about money.
That story is evident in public satisfaction with the condition of highways. Before the contract it was at 27.5%, according to the National Highways & Transport Network. By 2015 it was 43%, and last year it reached 49%.
In the first five years of the contract Amey has resurfaced more than 2,333km of pavement and 1,115km of road, replaced 3,208 drainage gullies, installed more than 64,600 new LED street lights, and repaired almost 80,000 potholes.
Sheffield is widely described as “Europe’s greenest city”, and uproar over the tree felling has overshadowed the much-needed highways improvements.
Green party councillor Alison Teal, who was taken to court by the council, does not accept reasons for the tree felling programme put forward by the council.
“Other cities are perfectly capable of solving those issues,” she says.
“We’ve had people on scooters, in wheelchairs, parents with buggies and they have all been most insistent that they don’t want the trees to be felled.”
“The actual reason is because they want to reduce the long term maintenance costs,” she adds. “They don’t want to admit it is about money, do they? That makes them look bad. But it is about money.”
The battle over lime trees on Rustlings Road marked a turning point in the dispute after Amey workers woke residents of the leafy south Sheffield street at 5am in November 2016 to begin felling without warning.
It was “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia, rather than a Sheffield suburb,” said Nick Clegg, the then Sheffield Hallam MP, as locals were woken with bangs on the door to move cars.
Eight trees were felled on the road but Amey Streets Ahead account director Darren Butt says that “more will have to come down”. He sees it as an “opportunity to invest in our tree stock”.
Every tree that is cut down is replaced, although they are younger and may be replanted in a different location.
Felling work has been paused since March, but it will restart, and protesters are unlikely to give up.
South Yorkshire Police has also come under fire for its approach to policing the protests. An advisory panel to the force has said that Amey and Sheffield City Council relied on the level of police involvement to carry out the felling.
The South Yorkshire Police and crime commissioner Alan Billings said a way forward should be found that “will not result in the type of protest that we saw in the first few months of this year”.
At the height of the protests in March up to 30 police officers were dispatched to one incident.
Teal continues: “People are not going to stand for trees being felled for these ridiculous reasons or to reduce the maintenance costs of multinational companies.
“It is just going to get worse and ultimately, they’re going have to take a different approach.”
Sheffield City Council’s Beecroft is adamant that work will eventually continue, but adds: “We’ve become entrenched, we have to find a way forward.” Sheffield City Council cabinet member for the environment and street scene councillor Lewis Dagnall is responsible for trying to find a resolution.
“It won’t be straight forward and the views of residents from across the whole city have to remain a priority, but I fully accept that there needs to be compromise from all sides,” he said.
“What I do know is that the Streets Ahead programme is enabling us to have a highway infrastructure that we can all be proud of for the next 20 years.
“That means better roads, pavements and street lighting with an increased street tree stock.”
£2.2bn Value of Sheffield’s highways maintenance contract, which includes tree felling.
80,000 Number of potholes replaced during the first five years of Amey’s contract