5 min read

Rights of Nature and Guardianship for Sheffield Trees

LFN and Sheffield Tree Action Group logos

Paul Powlesland, barrister and Rights of Nature campaigner who acted for Sheffield activists, proposes that trees should have Rights of Nature and Guardianship and that Sheffield is a great place to try out this model.

The Sheffield Tree Campaign was one of the most successful UK grassroots environmental campaigns of the last decade. Ordinary people stood up to protect their local trees and, through dedicated and determined action, saved thousands of trees from unnecessary destruction. All of this in the face of a determined, and often mendacious, effort by Sheffield City Council to push through the felling of the trees using every legal and political avenue at its disposal, as well as resorting to physical force and dishonesty. 

Having ultimately achieved their key aim of halting the felling programme and saving thousands of trees, and having been fully vindicated in their actions by an Inquiry, public opinion and all relevant organisations, the question for many is: what next? There is a desire to seek justice against those public officials who lied and who behaved in grossly underhand and authoritarian ways towards the citizens whose interests they should have been protecting. That is understandable. However, such proceedings are likely to be costly and time-consuming and, even if a few people are found guilty and hung out to dry, unlikely to lead to any long-lasting or systemic change. I was proud to do all I could to stand with the Sheffield Tree Protectors throughout their campaign. I set up Lawyers for Nature as a direct result of witnessing what happened in Sheffield and the failure of our existing environmental law to stop it. 

Credit: PA Images

At Lawyers for Nature, we think this is an amazing opportunity to examine the underlying issues that helped cause the tree dispute and to work with local campaigners to formulate new systems that will not only help to safeguard the trees of Sheffield into the future, but can act as an inspiring new model for change in the way that humans, and our legal system, relates to trees across the country. We believe this opportunity lies in the Rights of Nature. 

Rights of Nature is a broad term for an ecosystem of legal interventions that recognise that nature is alive and has its own interests and that those interests should be recognised within our legal, political and economic systems. So far in the UK, Rights of Nature has most frequently been applied to rivers, but internationally it has been used to protect forests too. We believe that it would be an excellent approach for protecting trees, and that Sheffield would be one of the best places in the UK to trial this. For Sheffield’s trees, a Rights of Nature approach could have two elements:

  1. Trees having substantive rights;
  2. Trees that are currently ‘owned’ by Sheffield City Council (e.g. all street and park trees) being subjects of guardianship instead. 

We can see how the lack of each of these elements contributed to the Sheffield tree scandal. The trees had no substantive rights to exist and were ultimately governed by legal regimes (e.g. the Highways Act 1980), which were focused on objectives other than protecting nature. One of the main regimes that should have protected the trees (Tree Preservation Orders) was administered by the Council who wanted to chop the trees down in the first place. This all led to a situation where the rights of the trees to exist were not weighed against the factors that demanded their destruction and resulted in trees being felled when (as it later transpired) there was no practical need to do so. 

One of the interesting results of the Sheffield Tree Campaign is that it has effectively established a de facto right for the city’s street trees to exist and not to be felled unless it is actually necessary to do so (e.g. if the tree is unsafe, dead or dying). The practical effect of this is that trees that would have been felled have been saved through the application of simple, and usually cheap, engineering solutions. This proposal would aim to put the de facto rights that the trees in Sheffield now have onto a more permanent, official footing and one that can be a source of inspiration, supported by STAG’s national network of contacts, as a basis for enhancing the Rights of Trees across the UK. 

The issue of guardianship of trees is just as important. At the moment, the default regime for street trees in the UK is that they are usually under the ownership of the local highways authority (usually a local authority like Sheffield City Council). These highways authorities have traditionally seen themselves as having a form of absolute ownership of the trees and therefore being able to destroy them at will if that is the most convenient or cost-effective thing to do. The results of this view of absolute ownership over trees were apparent for all to see in the destruction of nature on the streets of Sheffield. At Lawyers for Nature, we believe that highways authorities should in fact see themselves as guardians of the trees in their care, holding them on trust for their citizens and for the trees themselves, and considering the interests of the trees themselves in their decision-making processes and systems. 

A yellow ribbon and “save me” message on a tree
From a tree on Rivelin Valley Road in Sheffield - Credit: Peter Byrne PA Images

Although these are the broad streams of a new Rights of Nature and guardianship proposal for Sheffield’s trees, the exact shape of the proposals is to be determined by a facilitated process involving tree campaigners, local citizens and Sheffield City Council, assisted by experts in Rights of Nature, ecology and arboriculture. 

Why is Sheffield an ideal place to trial these ideas? 

Firstly, the tree scandal led to Sheffield being a city with thousands of people who care about their local trees, who are dedicated to protecting them and who (having seen the wholesale failure of our existing legal system and environmental protections) are open to experimenting with radical alternatives. 

Secondly, the tree scandal has led to an enduring distrust between the Council and many local people. Although the Council have said “sorry” on multiple occasions, many people do not think that such words are alone sufficient to overcome the actions of the Council (in relation to trees and their own citizens) sustained over a long period. We believe that the Council could restore such trust by enacting a proposal which would help to heal those wounds and, perhaps most importantly, turn Sheffield from a place synonymous with tree destruction, to somewhere known for having some of the most radical and forward thinking systems for trees of anywhere in the UK. 

If you would like to read more about Paul's thoughts on the law, activism, and the Sheffield Tree campaigns, you can read this blog post from a few years ago.