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We need an inquiry into the Sheffield street tree debacle

Julie Dore is resigning as Leader of the Council. Her recent “unreserved apology” is not enough – her successor should immediately launch a public inquiry into the felling of thousands of our city’s street trees.

Street tree police
Russell Johnson.

Having weathered endless calls for her resignation from persistent tree campaigners, Sheffield City Council Leader Julie Dore has now decided to pass on the baton. This raises hopes that there could be an official inquiry into the Sheffield street tree debacle.

Cllr Dore’s weak apology at a Council cabinet meeting on 21 October, made under duress from the Local Government Ombudsman, failed to mention many of the accusations levelled against her and the Labour administration in the way they handled the dispute, including possible misuse of public funds and misconduct in public office. Cllr Dore had ruled out a public inquiry, but whoever succeeds her will be faced with renewed calls.

Campaigners want to know if the Council is sorry for the arrests of peaceful protesters, the stressful and expensive court cases, the attempts to imprison opponents of the fellings, the accusations of assault – none of which were investigated.

Are they sorry for the way Green Party Councillor Alison Teal was treated? I remember the day Cllr Teal was expelled from the Council chamber for calling out the ruling administration. All of the opposition politicians left the chamber to show their solidarity.

As Cllr Teal recently wrote, three years ago she “faced the possibility of going to prison for allegedly breaking the Council injunction to prevent the use of non-violent direct action to protect street trees.”

Cllr Teal claims the evidence against her was fabricated, with camera angles and altered timings contributing to a misleading picture. The judge dismissed the case without her having to take the stand, yet the Council still claimed at the time that "the dismissal of the case against Ms Teal was clearly on a technicality." She believes the case against her was politically motivated.

Russell Johnson from Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) has called on the Council to pay the costs incurred by campaigners who were found to have broken the injunction. This injunction was designed to stop people from physically protecting street trees, many of which we now know should never have been targeted for felling in the first place.

Mr Johnson lists five reasons that he believes compensation should be paid:

  • Claim 1: “The injunctions were granted by the High Court based on dishonest submissions on behalf of or by SCC.” The court was told the Council was obliged to fell healthy street trees under highways legislation. This was later shown to be untrue. The judge called claims about the PFI contract requiring the felling of half of Sheffield’s street trees “far fetched allegations”. Freedom of Information requests later revealed that this was true.
  • Claim 2: “The felling of thousands of healthy trees was almost certainly illegal.” For example, the Forestry Commission found that 600 trees may have been felled illegally. Felling without a licence where it is required is an offence that can result in large fines. In part due to the Council’s poor record-keeping and failure to provide information, there was not enough evidence to prosecute.
  • Claim 3: “The grounds invented by SCC for 'last resort' fellings were largely spurious.” Joint Tree Investigations, where campaigners accompanied Amey personnel to inspect trees, found that many trees threatened with felling could be saved with simple engineering solutions. The Council and Amey insisted on felling trees to ensure perfectly straight kerbs when leaving out a kerbstone would have been a good alternative. Trees surrounded by big humps of tarmac, assumed to be caused by roots, were actually caused by a build-up of tarmac from previous repairs.
  • Claim 4: “SCC's approach to decision making and communication was/is deeply flawed.” The Local Government Ombudsman report found the Council had made misleading responses, misrepresented specialist advice, listed solutions to retain trees that were not part of the contract with Amey, and not considered residents distress and outrage for starting work without warning at 4:30 in the morning.
  • Claim 5: “Large sums of public money were squandered on intimidating peaceful campaigners.” This included covering the costs of legal cases and ‘security’, both in the use of police, sometimes 30 at a time, and ‘bouncers’ who were employed to physically prevent members of the public protesting.

If Sheffield Council is genuinely sorry, reimbursement of these costs would give some credibility to that apology.

Russell Johnson’s suggestion is that reimbursed monies that had been crowdfunded by tree campaigners should be placed in a new tree planting fund for Sheffield. £5,000 has already been raised to plant trees along Abbeydale Road. Hundreds of new trees throughout the city would be a tribute to the efforts to save our glorious street trees.

Abbeydale Roadtreeplantingplan

Tree planting plan for Abbeydale Road.

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Sheffield Council have moved on from the tree dispute. The tree campaigners collaborated with the Joint Tree Investigations, co-produced a Lessons Learned report, and now most of the trees that were previously scheduled for felling have been saved with fairly simple and cheap engineering solutions. A new tree strategy is in place and sensible decisions are being made to safeguard what remains of the city's canopy.

What seems not to have changed is the Council’s attitude to anyone who opposes them. Julie Dore was approached to provide comment for this article but did not respond.

Sheffielders are eagerly awaiting the green shoots of honest and open governance. Let’s hope a new leader can provide that. An independently-chaired inquiry with full Council cooperation would go a long way to restoring citizens’ confidence in our local authority.

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