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Sheffield Council “moving forward” with street trees inquiry

The independent inquiry will consult with stakeholders over the appointment of an independent chair – but this appears to be news to one major stakeholder.

Street tree police
Russell Johnson.

Sheffield Council is progressing with an independent inquiry into the Sheffield street trees saga, it announced last week – although anti-felling campaigners appear not to have been aware of the developments.

A Council press release named Ryan Keyworth, Director of Finance and Commercial Services, as the staff member leading the initial stages of the inquiry into the felling of thousands of street trees under the Council’s Streets Ahead contract with private contractor Amey.

“The purpose of this inquiry is to investigate and understand what happened and why, and to begin rebuilding trusting relationships between the Council and residents,” the statement said.

The Council says the next stage is to bring on “external, independent legal advisers” and appoint an independent chair. The chair will be recruited through an open process, with the draft person specification consulted on with stakeholders. The final appointment decision will rest with the Co-operative Executive of Labour and Green councillors.

A spokesperson for Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), a group which campaigned for the protection of street trees, said they welcomed the development, but noted that the group had not been involved in any “liaison nor discussion [with the Council] prior to publication.”

“STAG will be examining the news release in detail, discussing our position and look forward to being consulted with and involved in the recruitment of an independent chair and establishing the inquiry's terms of reference,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Council said they consider STAG a stakeholder and that the group would be involved in the process, but that the Council is “equally keen to be inclusive about our approach so were avoiding singling specific groups out.”

The Council press release notes that in-person and virtual consultation meetings will be hosted, “at which members of the public will have the opportunity to be briefed on plans in more detail and to ask questions.”

Announcing the inquiry developments, Labour Party Deputy Leader Julie Grocutt said: “We’re committed to learning and improving and strengthening our relationships with our partners so that we can once again, instil confidence in your council.”

Douglas Johnson, Green Party Executive Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport, said the inquiry “needs to go ahead without delay.”

“To ensure independence, it is vital to appoint an inquiry chair as soon as possible and ask that person to lead a process of defining the terms of reference. The Council commits to being fully co-operative with the inquiry once the independent chair is appointed.”

An inquiry into the street trees dispute was given the green light after Labour lost control of the Council in May and formed a ‘co-operative executive’, or informal coalition, with Green councillors.

Remarkably, Cllr Alison Teal – a leading tree protestor who was taken to court by the Council over her opposition to fellings – is now the Council’s Executive Member for Sustainable Neighbourhoods, Wellbeing, Parks and Leisure.

Joseph Coles, Urban Programme Lead at the Woodland Trust – which was initially vocal in its criticism of the Council’s handling of the dispute, but recently approved a grant to support the planting of new trees in Sheffield – told Now Then after the announcement that “an inquiry into how the conflict was managed is a missing piece of work and absolutely necessary."

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