To fell, or not to fell? That is the question
The uncertain future of Sheffield’s trees is an ethical dilemma of much current debate. How much longer can Sheffield retain its position as the 6th greenest city in the UK if, since 2012, the city has lost over 10% of its street trees? Previous inadequate management of street trees has resulted in safety concerns over their effect on pavement and road surfaces; tarmac has been ruptured and paving lifted by tree roots whilst kerb stones have been pushed out into the road. The possible courses of action have been a source of disagreement between Sheffield City Council (SCC), Amey PLC, the Independent Tree Panel (ITP), local community and action groups; the key stakeholders in this debate. The validity of the condemnation of certain trees has come under question, a situation only exacerbated by the fact that several of the trees marked for felling were planted in 1917 as a memorial to the community members who fought in World War I. In order to make an ethical judgement of the possible options for action, a black-white strategy has initially been used to categorise the possible actions into ‘for’ or ‘against’ felling.
If trees are posing a threat to the surrounding built environment, felling can provide a solution to alleviate damage. In 2012, Amey were appointed by SCC as part of the £2 billion Streets Ahead city-wide refurbishment programme to upgrade roads, pavements, street lights and bridges etc. In order to avoid unnecessary felling, Amey claims to follow a strict 6D’s system; trees should only be felled if they are “Dead, Dying, Discriminatory, Diseased, Damaging and Dangerous”. Before action can take place, affected residents should receive a survey letter from SCC. If 50% of respondents are against the felling decision, an evaluation will be made by experts on the ITP who will provide their analysis to the council to make the final decision.
Amey’s contract with SCC states that up to 50% of Sheffield’s street trees can be felled if deemed necessary by the 6D’s system. However, evaluation of felling statistics leads to some unanswered questions; a survey conducted by Amey in 2012 concluded that, according to the 6D’s criteria, 1,000 trees required felling and over 3,600 needed maintenance. If this was the case, why have 4,000 trees (over 300% more than identified in the initial survey) been felled between 2012 and 2016?
Poorly managed trees can cause damage to the road, pavement and surrounding infrastructure. Cracked and uneven pavements, made narrower by protruding tree roots, cause mobility issues, limiting the manoeuvrability of wheelchairs and pushchairs. Pedestrian safety is of paramount importance; an individual is 10 times more likely to end up in hospital after a trip or fall from a pavement than be involved in a road traffic accident.
The contract between Amey and SCC states that felled trees must be replanted on a one for one basis; replanted trees better suited to urban environments would be easier to manage in terms of vertical height and root structure. Furthermore, road resurfacing could finally become more than just a short-term solution as the replanted trees could be managed in such a way that their roots would not damage the road surface.
Following this argument, a utilitarian approach to this ethical dilemma would largely support the felling of Sheffield’s trees. Tree removal will increase safety through improved road and pavement surfaces and reduced structural threat from overmature trees, thus bringing greater happiness to the majority. Additionally, a Kantian ethical theory, where action justification depends on agreement with a norm or rule, further supports the felling of trees. The local council has an obligation to provide safe passage along public roads as legislated in the Highways Act of 1980; the action of tree felling is therefore in agreement with this norm.
Or Not to Fell?
Environmentally, there is naturally a strong argument against the felling of Sheffield’s trees. Trees act as carbon sinks; the 4,000 trees felled since 2012 have resulted in an additional 87,000kg of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is equivalent to 32 extra cars being driven on Sheffield’s roads for one year. Although the Streets Ahead contract stipulates tree replacement on a one for one basis, it is difficult to determine the timescale in which this will be achieved. Furthermore, the ability of a younger tree to absorb CO2 and pollutants is about 1/60 of that of a mature tree.
Sheffield currently possesses more trees per person that any other city in Europe; a statistic that may be under threat by the actions of Amey and SCC. On the global environmental scale, unnecessary felling has many wide-reaching consequences and applying a utilitarian approach deems the action unwarranted as it will not bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. .
At this point in our ethical evaluation, it seems pertinent to discuss another key stakeholder; the relatives of those for whom Sheffield’s trees act as a memorial. Trees planted in 1917 are in remembrance of the servicemen who lost their lives fighting for their country in WW1. The significance of such memorials is clear; memorial trees on Oxford Street are registered at The War Memorials Trust and the Imperial War Museums Memorials Register. Furthermore, the memorials could be the earliest of their kind given that they were planted before the end of the war. However, in the centenary of their planting, Amey and SCC have condemned 9 of the 31 trees on Oxford and Tay Street, a decision that is being met with strong resistance from the community when other alternatives to felling are believed to exist, such as the installation of flexible surfacing solutions.
There is a certain level of respect that should be paid to war memorials and it is extremely important that future generations never forget the sacrifices that were made by young men and women from all around the world during WW1 and successive conflicts. Kant’s ethical framework focuses on actions in agreement with a norm or rule. When disrespect has been shown to war memorials such as cenotaphs in the past, the perpetrators have received a heavy punishment for their criminal offence. In this vein, is the act of arguably unnecessary tree felling just as disrespectful and an action that would never be supported according to the norm? Considering virtue ethics, is it morally right for Amey to fell these trees?
A question arises to conclude this ethical dilemma; is the current decision framework sufficiently robust to provide the most ethically sound solution?
Group 16: Jack Law, Emma Robinson, Vanessa Morgan & Martha Mason