12 min read

The Felling Film: An Epic Tale of People Power

The Felling Film: An Epic Tale of People Power
The Felling Film - Credit to Sheffield Vision

By Paul Powlesland

The fight to protect nature in the UK can seem so relentless that there's often rarely time to look back on campaigns, successful or unsuccessful, and to draw lessons from them. Nonetheless, it is really important to do so, especially where campaigns are run on ad hoc, local basis, when there isn't a central organisation, with the institutional memory to hold on to and provide those learnings. The release of The Felling Film, which catalogues the years-long struggle by local activists in Sheffield to stop their street trees being destroyed by the local city council, is an excellent excuse to look back and take stock of that campaign and the many lessons it can teach UK nature protectors. You can read a review of the film itself here, on the Sheffield Showroom Workstation website.

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

The Inadequacy of the Law

The first lesson is perhaps a depressing one. And this is that the law in the UK does not clearly nor adequately protect nature, and this is especially true where those trees are owned or controlled by local authorities. The fact that local authorities are often tree owners and also those charged with protecting trees, often gives rise to a fox guarding the henhouse scenario. We saw this in Sheffield. The usual tactics of getting tree preservation orders or saving trees through the planning system couldn't work because the organisation that the activists were fighting was the council itself, who are supposed to protect trees.

Sheffield’s Labour council had agreed for 17,500 street trees to be axed as part of a highways improvement scheme - Credit: PA Images

There's also an issue that often vague law can be used in ways that weren't necessarily intended, to cause great destruction. So in Sheffield, the council was relying on a reasonably obscure part of the Highways Act 1980 to cut down these trees. It's clear from reading the act that it wasn't intended to cover a scenario of destroying tens of thousands of street trees in the manner intended by the council. But the legal provision was there and the courts upheld the rights of the council to destroy the trees using that legislation.

Activists did try every legal avenue available to them, even bringing a Judicial Review against the council and its decision to fell the trees. But, these were rejected every time, despite the fact it has now been shown that there was no practical requirement to remove the trees. So the first lesson then is a depressing one, that UK law does not adequately protect trees. And it's particularly clear that trees lack such protection when faced with a destructive local authority. So, from there, perhaps we move to a more positive lesson.

Residents of Western Road in Crookes, Sheffield, protest against the council's plans to cut down trees - Credit: Glen Minikin Photography

The Power of the People

The second lesson is that local activism and campaigning can and does make all the difference. In Sheffield, when legal routes failed, ordinary people began a creative, energetic and determined campaign to save their trees. Not only was this campaign local in the sense of being based in the city of Sheffield, but often it was hyper-local in the sense that people were looking out specifically for the trees on their street. This gives practical as well as campaigning advantages.

The felling programme saw more than 5,000 street trees removed in the city - Credit: PA Images

Of course, it's much easier to save trees that are very close to where you live; you're able to look out for them and respond quickly if any trouble appears to be brewing. From a campaigning point of view, local people standing up for their own trees on their street, which they love, Is often a far more powerful message than standing up the trees in the abstract. It's clear that people’s profound desire to save the local trees that they love resonated, not just in the city of Sheffield, but more widely across the UK.

Nonviolent Direct Action as a Tactic

The third lesson is the power of peaceful, nonviolent direct action (NVDA), even where such action was faced with a council hell bent on destroying trees unnecessarily and a legal system that was powerless to stop them. Local activists in Sheffield were left with a choice; either watch their precious trees be destroyed or take action to try and stop that destruction. Many hundreds of people chose the path of action, which in Sheffield was a reasonably simple one of standing under the trees that were threatened with being felled.

Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) is one of the most effective ways for people to demonstrate their collective power - Credit: Jaq Pixelwitch

Even just the practical commitment involved in this type of action is huge, and in many ways, humbling. Some activists were standing under trees most days, in all weathers, for the best part of two years, giving up many other aspects of their life in order to do so. And we should be under no illusion that had they not done so, thousands upon thousands of trees in Sheffield would have been unnecessarily felled. That commitment and love towards nature and their trees should inspire us all, and indeed has inspired many other activists around the country, who have used the occupation technique of standing under the trees or climbing up into them as a way to try and prevent their destruction.

The Happy Man Tree in Hackney, London (now destroyed) - Credit: Jonathan Deamer

We should also be clear that these actions are not always successful. For instance in London, the Happy Man Tree was felled despite it being occupied by activists. Indeed, these actions weren't always successful in Sheffield as many hundreds of trees were still lost despite activists trying to prevent their loss by standing underneath them. Campaigners were physically dragged away from trees by security guards, supported by police, and then the trees felled. In certain cases, South Yorkshire Police were brought to account for their handling of the situation, charging under Section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 but with proceedings subsequently being discontinued.

South Yorkshire Police were brought to account for their managing of the situation - Credit: Russell Johnson, Now Then Magazine

The Secondary Benefits of PNVDA

In addition to physically saving the tree that they were standing beneath, this technique of peaceful, nonviolent direct action to save trees has another, just as important but in some ways more subtle effect, which is to drive attention towards the company committing the act of felling, and also to communicate with and convince others of the seriousness with which these tree campaigners hold their principles. We've seen in many campaigns around the country, not just in Sheffield, that it's often the time when the campaign turns; petitions and letters, even legal actions against physical occupation, supercharges the campaign, propels it into the headlines and takes it closer towards its goal of protecting the trees.

The Felling Film shows in real detail, day after day, these occupations and the courage of those who undertook them. In that sense, by capturing the struggle in Sheffield, it acts as a rallying cry to tree campaigners and nature protectors all around the country.

Sheffield residents protest against the felling of trees in the city - Credit: Christopher Thomond, The Guardian

The Symbiotic Relationship of Activists & Lawyers

A few more lessons to finish off with. We've already noted that legal protections for nature in the UK are inadequate. And that was very much highlighted in Sheffield. Yet the law and lawyers are still important in trying to enforce the felling of the trees. Both South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield City Council threw every legal device they had at the tree protestors, to stop their campaign of PNVDA. And the support of lawyers in combating this is, therefore, also crucial. Without wishing to take too much credit, I was incredibly proud that one of the turning points in the film involved legal advice that I wrote for campaigners.

As mentioned, South Yorkshire Police were arresting campaigners Section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, simply for standing underneath trees. The protesters knew that this section was being misused, but couldn't prove it. And the police required a legal opinion. I was asked to provide the opinion for free and managed to do so in a day or so. And there's really wonderful footage in the film where the opinion gets handed over to the police and the police cease making arrests, effectively withdrawing from the dispute for many months.

This illustrates the often symbiotic relationship between local activists and lawyers. In the Sheffield tree dispute, lawyers themselves could do nothing because the law is inadequate in the protection of those trees. But equally, they had a crucial role to play in supporting those activists on the ground when needed. And without that support, the campaign may very well have collapsed. This interactive relationship between nature activists and lawyers has been seen in many other nature protection campaigns. When it comes to the defence of nature, everyone has an important role to play, and it’s where injunctions come to the fore.

When All the Courts have is a Hammer

The use of injunctions to stop peaceful protests is too often an aggressive application of the law. In Sheffield, the council were able to demonstrate their legal rights to remove the trees under the Highways Act 1980. And therefore, as night follows day, they were granted an injunction that would put people in prison for up to two years, just for the actions of standing under a tree on the public highway. But no thought to this is really given by the court to issues beyond the mere technical. The more subtle question “does the council have the legal right to remove these trees?”, and the importance of peaceful protest in temporarily delaying what could be bad decisions by a local authority, does not typically feature in its consideration. And this is a crucial issue that came out of Sheffield.

We now know that the trees, which the council said had to go and which couldn't be saved, in fact could be saved. Indeed, every single tree that was threatened with removal i.e. not destroyed, the council has now found a way to save, with often simple physical actions like digging tree pits, using differently sized curb stones and flexible paving. So, it's a mere statement of fact that had the injunctions that were granted by the courts been successful, thousands of priceless and irreplaceable street trees and part of the city would have been destroyed for no good reason. Of course, subscribers to the natural capital point of view will attempt to quantify the value of trees in any context, but the point stands regardless of this.

Sheffield Trees Action Group is active, you can read the latest news here including updates on Sheffield’s Street Trees –Partnership Strategy, as detailed at Wild Sheffield

And hence, the need to have the ability to pause these kinds of decisions and to ask local authorities to reconsider, I think again, is particularly important with trees, because they can't be replaced once they've been destroyed, at least in our lifetimes. Moreover, in Sheffield, the political fallout from the tree felling scandal has in part led to Labour losing control of the city council. And many of the decision-makers; both the political ones, such as the City Council leader Julie Dore, and many executive officers responsible for the tree felling have now left the council. From a public relations perspective, the campaign was powerful.

The Problem with Short Term Political Will

But if the protesters obeyed the law and the terms of the injunction, it would now be too late for thousands of trees, which would have been destroyed in the interim. In other words, local campaigning and activism like in Sheffield has a crucial role in politics and the political cycle. For those we elect every few years can take actions which can be done quickly and in the short-term,  but which have massive long-term consequences and Sheffield is a perfect example of this.

As the Council had been duly elected by local people, they were legally entitled to destroy the trees, but although local people could (and, indeed, did) vote out sufficient councillors at the next election to stop the tree felling, this clearly could not restore the trees that had been lost. In breaching the injunction, protesters may have acted unlawfully, but such actions have an important role to play in a political system where those who are currently elected do not actually represent the wishes of those they serve on a particular issue.

By intervening to enforce the Council’s will, by granting an injunction, the High Court was stepping into the political arena and cutting off an important part of local democracy and political engagement.

Today, Sheffield City Council's approach is different, as a direct result of this campaign, with the Sheffield Trees and Woodlands Strategy 2018-33 now introduced

Usually, there’s an alleged good reason to cut down trees and destroy nature. Very, very few people just say, “I want to destroy these trees for no reason or, even just for money”. It's just some houses here, a road there, a railway through this woodland. In this case, good reasons were given that the trees were discriminating against disabled people because of the condition of the pavements; that the trees had to go because it was impossible to repair the pavements.

However, when the protesters called the bluff of the council, it turned out that almost all of these reasons were false, it was perfectly possible to repair the pavements with the trees in place. And that once those repairs had been carried out, the trees weren't discriminatory at all. Campaigners everywhere simply need to question and analyse the reasons being given for any destruction of nature. Because such analysis often proves the reasons given were simply nonsense.

Active Hope & Legacy of The Felling

The final lesson that can be drawn is perhaps the most profound, and that we must try never to give into despair or hopelessness. From my own involvement with the Sheffield Trees campaign, I remember times when it clearly felt the council, police and Amey were at their most aggressive and what seemed like the height of their power, was in fact just before the collapse of their scheme.

In March 2018, Amey were using so many security guards and police that they were able to violently remove protesters from trees and continue felling. It looked as if nothing could stop them. But in the end, the sheer amount of resources they were using to fell each tree led to their fundamental downfall, and shortly afterwards, felling was permanently suspended in the summer. And then, subsequently, the trees were saved.

So no matter how difficult it seems, we must always try to keep going and doing what we can in the defence of nature. More than that, we must use the sadness and despair that we feel when we see the destruction of nature to fuel the fight. There were moments in The Felling film where we saw ordinary people, crying, clearly deeply upset by the destruction of the trees that they loved, but they couldn't, and they didn't allow that despair and sadness to stop them doing what they were doing. They took these feelings and used them to give them more energy to get out there and save the trees…. the vast majority of them.

But it’s not just the number of trees that were saved, over 17,000 in total. Today, all of the work done by tree campaigners of Sheffield has resulted in a beautiful legacy and preserved for the future a city where you can walk down street, lined with trees in places like the pillars and the nave of the cathedral, with greenery stretching out above your head, sunlight glinting through the branches and the sound of birdsong in the air, and know that beauty and wonder only continues to exist because of the brave actions of ordinary people who stood up and decided that, whatever the cost, they were going to save their trees from destruction.

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