Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Saving Sheffield's trees - The Felling film review

The Felling: An Epic Tale of People Power’ is a heartfelt record of the Sheffield tree protest. It’s also a classic David-and-Goliath story. A small group of Sheffield residents battled to save the trees in their city, taking on a powerful city council and a giant multinational company – and won. Sheffield is one of Europe’s greenest cities, which some might think was a cause for celebration, particularly as we fight the climate crisis. But in 2012 the council paid private contractor Amey £2.2 billion to maintain the city’s highways, and including in their contract the removal of thousands of trees, the majority of them healthy.

Capturing a dogged, piece-meal protest that took place over four years was a challenging task for the film’s director Jacqui Bellamy and editor Eve Wood. Bellamy spent months filming footage at the height of the dispute, as dozens of police officers and private security guards were deployed to support Amey’s employees.

If the film appears to be one-sided, that is because neither Sheffield Council nor Amey would agree to be interviewed. So this is the story of the protesters, a dramatic video diary. The film uses mobile phone footage gathered by the protesters, and Bellamy and Wood make a virtue of this, using texts as a form of running commentary, as the protestors tried to keep up with Amey’s operation, exchanging information about which roads were being targeted each day, and then charging over there to stand under the trees at risk.

‘Standing under a tree’ was central to their modus operandi. When the council made it illegal for them to stand within the zones which had been closed off with barriers around a condemned tree, the protestors studied the court documents and found it was not illegal for them to stand close to threatened trees if they were outside the barrier. Dauntless, they then stood against house walls with the council barriers hemming them in.

The protestors were well-organised, articulate, determined, and somehow retained their sense of humour throughout. And the sense of community is palpable in this film: the elderly couple who go out in the snow to pay their respects to the tree which has stood outside their house for all the decades they have lived there, the French poet/musician who pops up behind a barrier to declaim a newly-written ode, then becomes part of the team, usually twanging his guitar and singing, the brightly-dressed woman protestor arriving with a tray of hot drinks calling out ‘Coffee or hot chocolate anyone’?

Most striking of all was the way the protestors supported each other when the situation intensified, when the contractors forcibly pulled them from the park fence they were clinging to, prising their fingers off. Disturbing scenes indeed, and reminiscent of another campaign which successfully captured public attention, the Greenham Common protest, as well as the current tactics used by Extinction Rebellion.

But what sets this apart from other examples of civil disobedience is that these were people who felt they had to protest when the environment they lived in was at risk, and who saw their local issue as part of a larger whole. Trees became totemic, symbols of the natural world that we cannot afford to throw away.

Drone footage of the city revealed a city that is green indeed, almost Edenic. The idea that cutting down so much of that unique natural beauty was deemed to be a necessary element of highway maintenance speaks volumes about the priorities which form the modern world. Reading the council’s ‘Streets Ahead Strategy’ for 2012-17, it appears that 75% of the city’s street trees were assessed as being ‘mature or over mature’ and therefore in need of replacement. A bizarre decision and one which defied logical explanation. When one of the protestors asked a council official to explain the rationale for cutting down the healthy tree they were looking at, his response was: ‘Look at the council website’.

Presumably the tree in question fulfilled one of the council’s ‘6D’ criteria: ‘Dangerous, Dead, Diseased, Dying, Damaging or Discriminatory’. (The concept of a ‘Discriminatory’ tree is Kafkaesque.) Supporters of the protest included Jarvis Cocker, who ridiculed the 6D mantra. He had another ‘D’ to add: ‘Daft. That is a Yorkshire word for “silly”’.

Tree felling was suspended indefinitely in early 2018 when the terms of the contract between Sheffield Council and Amey was made public, revealing that there was an agreement to fell 200 trees a year. This made it possible that a felling licence may have been required, and the Forestry Commission began an assessment of alleged illegal felling. In October 2020, a report by the Local Government Ombudsman ruled the local authority had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a ‘lack of honesty’ during the saga.

It’s a film which is fundamentally heartening, showing how much can achieved by small communities of people united by shared passion. But the issues that led to the Sheffield tree-felling saga are still with us: where there is money to be made, the fact that the natural world is essential to us is overlooked. Witness the current calls to return to fracking and ramp up oil drilling following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The rights that the Sheffield tree protesters exercised are under threat: the film premiered in the week that the House of Lords was due to start debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will – unless there are substantial revisions – make nonviolent actions of this kind illegal. This should ring alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about free expression - and that must include writers.