It’s time to start hugging those trees…

TO call someone a tree-hugger is usually a term of disparagement. I can’t recall ever hugging a tree but perhaps it is time to cuddle that bark.

You see trees seem to be having a hard time in parts of Yorkshire. Sheffield is the most notorious case, where a council project bearing the typically jaunty, and misleading, title Streets Ahead seems to be mostly concerned with removing mature trees and planting saplings.

As part of this project, a privatised team from the company Amey has been tasked by the city council to manage the 36,000 trees on the roads network across the city.

Now one way to manage trees is to ensure that regular maintenance keeps them healthy. Another way to manage trees is to fell the troublesome things and plant a weedy new tree instead. Saplings grow into mature trees, given time, but in Sheffield campaigners fear that mature trees are in effect being sacrificed in order to save money.

As the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust points out, “removal of a tree should always be the last resort and not seen as an opportunity to save on future maintenance costs”.

The trust makes many good points about the benefits trees bring, too many to list here in full, although the following sums up what trees give us: “clean air, noise reduction, flood alleviation, carbon storage”.

The trust also says that mature trees are fantastic wildlife habitats for bats and other protected wildlife, and insists that a proper ecological assessment should be undertaken to fully understand the city’s tree stock.

Alarmingly, mature trees have been coming down in Sheffield as part of what are termed engineering solutions to ‘improve’ the streets. And how you improve anything or anywhere by felling a fine old tree is a mystery Orwellian in its doublespeak slipperiness.

Perhaps I am sensitive about this because we live on a tree-lined road in York. It’s not a suburban Eden or anything and I can hear the cars driving past as I write, but the trees are mature and soften the street beautifully. Stand in the middle of the road on a summer evening and the leafy avenue of trees leads out of the city towards the beginnings of the countryside (and the ring-road, so don’t get bucolically carried away).

One of the streets in Sheffield where trees have been removed was shown on BBC Look North the other night, and it looked similar to our road, where semis and trees have lived in harmony since the 1920s.

A challenge provided by trees comes when the roots push up the pavement, and this has been mentioned in Sheffield. That happens round here, as I discovered to my cost when we moved to the area, and a bulge in the pavement tripped me up on a run. But sore knees are one thing; ‘executing’ a tree for causing the trip quite another.

There has as yet been no mention in York of a Sheffield-style programme to weed out troublesome trees, although there has been an alarming planning application from the owners of a shopping park.

The bosses of Clifton Moor, which lies just inside the ring-road, wish to remove 103 trees, saying they are hiding the shops and hindering sales. Yes, trees are stopping people going shopping. I had to read that a few times before it sank in.

Business people will blame all sorts for their problems or low sales, but pointing the finger at trees is a first as far as I can recall. Here are some weasel words from Mike Hopkins, director of Jones Lang LaSalle Ltd, which represents the retail park’s owners. “It is important that visibility of the retail park is maximised in order to maintain customer visits and maximise viability.

“The trees within the landscape buffer have been identified as a reason for the Retail Park’s poor performance; the proposed works will improve visibility into the site and improve the site’s footfall.”

He adds that the original design was for low-level landscaping “so customers could enjoy views of the shops”.

I am not convinced I have ever enjoyed a view of a shop in all my life, but I have enjoyed being in the presence of trees. Mr Hopkins wishes to remove 16 poplars, 11 alders, seven oaks, 25 ash trees, 11 birch trees, one sycamore, three Lombardy poplars and 17 trees of unspecified origin. As the trees are protected, he needs permission from the council.

The leader of York’s Greens, Andy D’Agorne, is rightly horrified, and all power to his ecological elbow. The idea is just ridiculous. I know we need shops and I recognise that businesses are difficult to run (the word business isn’t exactly a pushover). But blaming trees for poor sales is just nonsense – and nasty nonsense at that.

The ring-road at the point in question has many mature trees and bushes, all of which beautify a functional area: we need roads but we need trees too to soften their impact.

Perhaps the owners of the Coppergate shopping centre will be following suit. After all a perfectly good adjacent car park has a castle plonked in its middle. And Clifford’s Tower is clearly obstructing views of the shops and deterring business. It will have to go.

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