Will the tree-felling issue cause Labour to lose seats in Sheffield council elections?

The felling of hundreds of trees in Sheffield is among the issues people voting in the upcoming local council elections are concerned about.

The Labour-run council has been criticised for its handling of the ‘Streets Ahead’ contract, which sought to improve the city’s streets, but required felling of a number of trees sparking protests from residents.

Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, the leader of Liberal Democrats in the council, said Labour has only been talking about national issues and Jeremy Corbyn in this election.

He said: “It’s quite a weak strategy. It shows they haven’t got much to say locally when they’re having to rely upon talking about the NHS and Theresa May when neither of them are on the ballot paper.”

Coun Mohammed added that Labour might lose some seats in the elections because of the council’s handling of the tree-felling issue.

“They will not lose control of the council because they have got such a high majority, but I think what it will do is it will clip [leader of the council] Julie Dore and her colleagues’ wings and give us a stronger voice,” he said.

Coun Mohammed’s seat in Ecclesall ward is also up for election this year.

It was in this ward in November 2016 that South Yorkshire Police officers were deployed just before dawn, on Rustlings Road, in support of council contractors hired to cut down eight street trees.

The incident resulted in arrests of a few residents protesting against the felling. Nick Clegg, then the local MP, had described the incident as something “you’d expect in Putin’s Russia.”

The incident got Jennifer Saul, a professor of philosophy at The University of Sheffield, interested in the issue.

“What really upset me was the use of massive authoritarian police power against peaceful citizens. That’s what made me think this was much much bigger than I thought.”

She said the problem at the base of this issue is the council’s ‘strong leader’ model.

The council cabinet discusses and takes decisions on the most important issues facing the city. It comprises 10 members, all of whom are currently from the Labour party.

The party also follows the whip system of voting, which means councillors have to vote on issues according to party line. If a councillor decides to vote otherwise, it often results in suspension.

Last year, in January, Labour Coun Nasima Akther was suspended by the party for abstaining to vote on a motion about tree felling on Rustlings Road.

Ms Saul said: “That [suspension] shows that there is no internal dissent tolerated. So, if you want there to be dissent and questioning on policies, the only way to do that is through councillors who aren’t Labour councillors.

“Right now we have almost a single-party council and, whatever party has single-party power, it’s not a good thing. And this is kind of true everywhere that a party has that sort of unopposed power. It is just not healthy for democracy.”

The Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) has been asking candidates standing in the election to respond to issues presented in a manifesto they have developed.

Protecting and improving street tree canopy and resisting “damaging” PFI contracts are some of the policies presented in the manifesto.

Rebecca Hammond, a campaigner and former co-chair of STAG, said the response from parties has been variable.

She said they have had a good response from the Green Party candidates and the Liberal Democrats, along with a few UKIP and independent candidates.

However, about Labour, Ms Hammond said: “There are parts of the manifesto that they can’t respond to, they can’t agree with, because that would put into question the whole approach they have taken this far.”

Tony Slatcher, a campaign manger for Sheffield Labour, replied to STAG’s manifesto by saying the group is prejudiced against the party.

He said: “It is disingenuous to claim that STAG is not a party political organisation or occupies some party-neutral position. Your website actively calls on people not to vote Labour under any circumstances.

“The responses of any Labour candidates to your manifesto are clearly of no value as you have created a prejudged environment.”

Janet Ridler, a Labour candidate in Broomhill and Sharrow Vale ward, said people’s concerns about tree felling are quite right.

“My stance on this in common with Labour, that we’re against PFI. The council is already pulling out of PFI contracts, bringing services back in house.

“I’m supporting every move that there is to do that and welcome pausing in felling at the moment.”