Today marks the six-month anniversary of Michael Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary. In the past, Gove had shown a fairly poor voting record on environmental issues, voting against a ban on “unconventional petroleum exploitation” and alongside that voted against a motion explicitly requiring environmental permits for natural gas fracking operations. The MP also had no previous experience in agricultural or environmental roles, previous roles being Justice and Education secretary, so his promotion sparked outcry from many. Ed Davey, the former Environment secretary, described the appointment as ‘an act of environmental vandalism’, and said it would be ‘like putting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop’.
The looming prospect of Brexit makes for uncertain times in the realm of UK environmental policy, and so in many ways Gove’s tenure takes place at a truly pivotal moment. So, what has he achieved since June?
In Yorkshire chainsaws run at dawn, residents scramble outside, realising that a terrifying crime is about to take place, a tree is to be felled. In Sheffield there is an ongoing battle to protect the nature that line the streets of the northern city since an agreement was signed in 2012 between Amey (an outsourced company) and the Labour run Sheffield council to organise the maintenance of the roads in the area. This has recently culminated in a battle to prevent the felling of trees by this company, organised often by local resident volunteers who seek to do all they can do in a peaceful capacity to prevent the chopping down of the trees. What is unique in this battle to my eye is that rarely has there been such intersection between environmental concerns and other social causes and campaigns.
The agreement is a 25 year long private finance agreement (PFI), a controversial way of organising the provision of government projects where they are provided by the private sector using public sector money. Not only does this introduce the profit motive into the maintenance of goods previously run for the public interest but it also removes the traditional methods by which the state was held accountable. When a state failed to provide a service or acted against the public interest it could be held accountable through the usual political methods of elections and lobbying. Now a private provider not only is not held politically accountable but can often lock themselves in as the only provider through the drafting of the agreements to last 25 years like the Sheffield case. No matter the pressure or change in government often the case may be that a council is contractually obliged to deal with the private company. Residents complain they have not been consulted by the felling firm and that the wishes of the community are being ignored.
Then early this year the pressure on the protesters increased, and arrests were made of those more active in preventing tree removal. These figures would scramble to stand around any tree under threat to prevent anybody damaging them. They were arrested under trade union legislation which criminalises anyone who persistently stops someone from carrying out lawful work. The amount of peaceful protests which could be considered illegal under this law does not bare thinking about. Luckily charges were dropped, and now the protesters are suing the police force in return. But now the high court has recently intervened with an injunction against the activity of surrounding the trees, leading to a counter blockade of a depot in Sheffield by protesters. One of those arrested was in fact a Green party Sheffield councillor, leading to even greater anxiety in the community, concerned about how they could respond. Even Michael Gove recently said he wanted to see an end to the felling of the trees, though the Labour council dismissed his demands.
The debacle has made one thing clear, the issues of privatisation and outsourcing whilst traditionally considered economic or social justice issues, in this case also intersects with environmental concerns about maintaining green spaces. Trees have a huge role in urban planning, not merely for aesthetic purposes but as sequesters of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Forests remain one of the best ways to prevent flooding, a bigger and bigger concern as sea levels rise. There have been many identified mental health benefits of green spaces, as well as their purpose in educating communities about the importance of nature and ecosystems.
In a society that increasingly seeks to privatise things held in common, be it nature, healthcare or education there is simultaneously a breaking down of the barriers that kept the groups protecting them separate. In Sheffield you can find anti-privatisation protesters alongside human rights defenders all under the banner of increased environmental protection and democracy. The model of protest used in Sheffield remains one which is local, communities protecting their trees, but it also shows glimmers of being a broad tent movement in defence of nature.
If you want to find more about the crisis in Sheffield check out the campaign website here: https://savesheffieldtrees.org.uk/
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.