Network Rail’s Reckless Chainsaw Massacre

People care about trees. When David Cameron wanted to decontaminate the Conservative Party, he adopted the tree as its new logo. Then he tried to flog off our national forests and got a kicking from one of the biggest online campaigns in UK history. He backtracked.

Recently, Sheffield’s City officials have also been on the receiving end of public opprobrium over incentives it has given to private outsourcing firm Amey to cut down trees as part of a PFI deal; so-called tree-mageddon. Sheffield Council has also now paused the programme, but could there be a more unpopular alignment in 2018 than tree-felling and PFI?

Yes is apparently the answer. Network Rail has contractors out on its lines right now chopping down ‘thousands of poplars, sycamores, limes, ash trees and horse chestnuts’. The combination of our beleaguered railways and the march of the arborists along the tracks promises a forest of controversy as people staring out of the stationary windows of delayed trains enjoy a ringside seat in a reckless chainsaw massacre.

Network Rail’s defence is that tree felling is in the interests of the travelling public as leaves and falling debris cause delays and can endanger lives. It says this new round of hackery comes after a drone-led survey of trackside trees has revealed hotspots where encroachment crosses a line, as it were.

Of course, Network Rail could probably uproot the growing controversy by simply publishing its survey and showing the scientific basis for slashing trackside trees. Passenger safety is its number one duty.

But as the owner of miles of untamed nature, it should also justify the cutting of each and every tree and at least wait until our precious and dwindling nesting birds have finished breeding. One council, is already reported to have slapped a blanket preservation order on some of its older trees along railway lines, presumably because it doesn’t know which may be slated for chopping under Network Rail’s plans.

Other plans lurk beneath our national network of railways, though, that could prove equally controversial and further call into question the role of Network Rail as a public body and its desire to manage its assets in the public interest.

If the UK is a nation of tree-nurturers, then it is also a country whose lifeblood is small business. Just as Network Rail has pressed on with hacking down thousands of trees without revealing the data behind its thinking, so too have the accountants already marched in to fatten the pig before giving any details of market day; some of the business NEF are working with have had their rents hiked by as much as 500%.

In the era of austerity, the sale of tracts of public land – recently mapped by the New Economics Foundation – has become commonplace as government departments and agencies seek to plug gaps in their budgets by flogging assets. This is often financially imprudent as a windfall in one or two years makes no sense when weighed against the disposal of a productive asset.

If you’re an agency that owns public land then it has to be managed in the public interest. That includes looking after nature, but it also means looking after businesses which sit at the heart of their communities.

At the very least, Network Rail needs to be transparent and willing to enter into debate about plans to fell large numbers of trees or sell property. Ideally, it would see its role as stewarding its land so that there is clear public benefit, either in terms of the enrichment of our desperately denuded environment or by nurturing the businesses that keep many communities from extinction.