I’ve had a really odd summer – with a knee replacement operation that went badly wrong. And this somehow blocked my creative juices, both in terms of campaigning stuff and blogging. So I decided it was time to put things right on Thursday last week!

First stop: Sheffield. For some time, I’ve been following the story about Sheffield’s street trees, and thought it would be good to see this for myself.

Five years ago, the City Council (which has been one of Labour’s ‘rottenest boroughs’ for a long time) outsourced its road maintenance responsibilities to Amey, through a major PFI contract lasting 25 years. This contract included management of Sheffield’s magnificent street trees.

Since then, more than 4,000 trees have already been felled, with another 2,000 scheduled for removal over the next few weeks, many along some of Sheffield’s most notable and elegant avenues.

The City Council’s notional justification for this chainsaw massacre is that these trees fell into one of the following six categories: dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging or ‘discriminatory’. (I’ve put that last one in speech marks because I’ve never come across the idea of a ‘discriminatory tree’ before – referring, apparently, to the suggestion that some tree roots breaking through the pavement make it harder for disabled Sheffield citizens to navigate its streets – a suggestion strenuously rejected by Sheffield’s own disabled NGOs!)

Most of the trees have been felled because Amey contractors have determined that they’re ‘damaging’ the streets, breaking up some paving stones and encroaching on the road surface itself. I looked at a number of said ‘damaging’ trees already identified for felling, and in most cases could detect barely any damage or any encroachment.

So there has to be a different reason, and, as ever, it’s all about money. Amey’s annual maintenance costs will be reduced if they have no inconvenient anomalies to deal with as they are laying down new tarmac. And as ever, this is all about cherished community assets being effectively privatised, with a private company getting the benefit and the community losing out.

Unfortunately, there are few actual details available as to the finances involved, simply because the wording in the contract between Amey and Sheffield City Council is not available to the citizens of Sheffield to decide for themselves how well their interests are being protected through a deal of this kind.

That secrecy meant that when the felling started, a few years back, it wasn’t immediately apparent what the scale of the operation would be. But for the last year or so, there has been a resolute, imaginative and courageous campaign to ensure that as many of these trees as possible are protected.

To start with, campaigners were able to prevent Amey’s contractors from getting access to the trees by standing close to them. This enraged the apparatchiks of Sheffield City Council, who promptly (and without any apparent sense of irony) made use of legislation (Section 241 of the Trade Union Act) first introduced by Mrs Thatcher to prevent miners from organising ‘flying pickets’, so that any protesters directly impeding the contractors were arrested and put under an injunction to cease all such direct action.

Unfortunately for Sheffield City Council, a lot of these trees are very close to the front gardens of residents, and it’s still entirely legal for protestors to stand in those gardens (with residents’ permission, obviously!), which means they’re still close enough to the trees to ensure that felling cannot proceed.

It was a privilege meeting some of the protestors. Their account of police tactics was pretty shocking, and the lengths to which this Council will go to override public opinion (which is hugely supportive of the campaign) are equally shocking. That I guess is what happens when an authoritarian, ecologically illiterate group of people put themselves on the wrong side of both ‘good science’ and democratic accountability.

Campaigners have made such a strong case as to why this is so wrong – on the grounds of the ecological importance of city trees (helping reduce pollution, enhancing biodiversity, and combating ‘heat island’ effects as the climate warms) and public health benefits, particularly in terms of the effect that trees have in improving personal wellbeing and levels of mental health.

These days, it is of course possible to put a monetary value on all of these environmental and public health co-benefits, but I rather doubt Sheffield City Councillors would be moved even by that kind of monetary calculation. In this case, it would appear to be down to good old-fashioned campaigning tactics – which is why we should all be rooting for those protestors in whatever way we can.