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How a community fought the police and a billion-pound contract to save their street trees

A new documentary plots the David and Goliath fight by Sheffield residents to save thousands of trees

In the dead of a November night, police turned up to a quiet Sheffield road as part of Operation Testate. They hadn’t come to bring a fugitive to justice or raid a drug dealer’s home: they’d come to assist with the felling of trees.

The 2016 raid was the latest episode in a bitter fight over Sheffield’s street trees. The result of a £2.2billion PFI deal struck by Sheffield City Council with contractor Amey, trees were to be chopped down as part of work to improve pavements and roads. Overall, 17,500 trees were at risk – old elms and limes lining the residential streets of Sheffield. It threatened to turn leafy avenues into barren roads, with healthy trees facing the axe. 

What ensued was a years-long battle between residents and the authorities, full of arrests and court cases. You might remember it: Jarvis Cocker got involved and the protests have their own Wikipedia page. Michael Gove, the environment secretary at the time, accused the council of “environmental vandalism”.

Filmmaker Eve Wood, who lives round the corner from the scene of the raid, got back from work and saw the tree outside her home had been chopped down. Wood’s friend Jacqui Bellamy went on to capture, up close and personal, chaotic scenes of clashes between security and locals, as fences were dragged down, limp protesters were dragged away, and parties began to square up to each other. 

A protester and a police officer face off. Image: Jacqui Bellamy

Now, six years on, she and friend Jacqui Bellamy have made a film documenting the saga: The Felling. With a renewed focus on the state’s treatment of activists as the Public Order bill makes its way through parliament, it’s timely.

“It got quite nasty sometimes,” Wood told The Big Issue.

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 “The baddies came out on the street. Usually baddies don’t do that. They stay away and they hide.The important part is that these are people who are going up against something.”

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Petitions and court cases had failed them, so the residents took to action in the only way left to them: standing under trees. The heroes of The Felling are the protesters, by and large mild-mannered and grey-haired, the kind of people who keep a Thermos handy and own reliable waterproofs. The villains of the piece are men in hi-vis jackets who carry fences and chainsaws, and council workers intent on making it all happen.

“At first I thought was going to be a small protest film, basically for the locals and the protesters themselves,” Wood said. “But then what I saw was the massive abuse of power, and a massive disregard for people’s feelings.”

The struggle to save the trees ran on for over two years. Image: Jacqui Bellamy

Things started gradually, as the police began to turn up at the protests. Threatened under trade union laws designed for picketing workers, protesters then started to be arrested. The rights or wrongs of the arrests were one thing, but the fact those sitting under trees were removed meant the trees could be felled. Eventually, they paid a barrister – in trees – to give them legal advice on the trade union law threats, and police backed down. Some of the residents were even dubbed the “flying squad” after their work tracking the teams en route to chop down trees. 

The documentary, following the initially rag-tag band of locals, is admittedly one-sided. “You could really see a David and Goliath situation where the baddies were obviously the council and Amey, ” Wood said.

“Like in Star Wars, you’ve got the baddies. It’s obvious – they got up at five o’clock to chop down trees. It’s like they don’t really need any explanation really, it’s quite obvious what they’re doing isn’t right. So that’s why we kind of steered away from telling the other side of the story.”

The council’s justification was that the trees were in the way of fulfilling the roads contract. They said the protestors were not faultless, with a member of the security team complaining of a fractured wrist during one confrontation  The council also denied there was a target number of trees for the chop – despite documents emerging that 17,500 trees were earmarked for removal.

By the spring and early summer of 2018, the protesters had received letters from the council. These had their photographs and threatened injunctions. Paranoia took root, and the stakes were raised as residents worried about losing their homes if they continued protesting.

An injunction blocked them from being in the fenced-off “safe zones” around trees due to be felled, so their tactics changed. Wearing wigs and sunglasses, they tried to block the crews getting to the trees instead. They then took to simply standing close to the trees while the safety zones were being erected – they called the tactic becoming “geckos”.

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So the contractors reacted: coming in the middle of the night with handsaws so they didn’t make any noise, and with security authorised to use “reasonable force” to remove protesters.

Wood draws parallels between the heavy police presence at the protests and locals’ memories of Orgreave, the 1984 violent confrontation between South Yorkshire Police and striking miners. Two decades after Orgreave, South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner said the force came “dangerously close to being used as an instrument of state” in that notorious incident. In The Felling, police are depicted once again as tools carrying out the will of the council. 

Following the heatwaves of 2022, the decision to get rid of street trees begins to look even more wrong-headed. The shade created by trees like those in the film helps fight the “urban heat island” effect in cities, preventing pavements warming up and radiating the heat back out.

 In the end, the protesters won. By March 2018, the Forestry Commission told the council to stop and investigated the felling of healthy trees. The council apologised. Three protesters ended up in court – two were given suspended sentences, one had his case dismissed. Together, they had managed to save over 300 trees through non-violent direct action, and the documentary says the campaign saved over 12,000 trees.

Wood believes the film has wider lessons for those frustrated with a political climate where bad behaviour is rampant.

“We look at the government and the way they’ve been getting away with things,” she said. “It seems to be a sign of the times in my view”

But, she added: “If you work together, well, you can achieve a lot. If you use everybody’s skills to the most, I think you can achieve a lot and I thought that was really powerful.”

The battle to save the trees, stretching over a number of years, had a profound impact on the community – and still does. 

“There’s people that are now still suffering from PTSD. It was quite intimidating,” Wood said.

But after the main action of the felling dissipated, there was relief: “People can get on with their lives. Some people really stopped their lives.”

The Felling is released in cinemas on Friday December 9, including a screening at London’s Curzon Soho cinema. A list of screenings can be found here.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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