Sheffield Council leader won't quit over trees scandal - and rejects colleague's resignation offer

Sheffield Council leader Terry Fox has said he won’t quit over the city’s tree-felling debacle - and has rejected a resignation offer from another senior councillor implicated in the scandal.

Council chief executive Kate Josephs also confirmed that no disciplinary action is currently planned against any member of council staff after a damning inquiry conducted by Sir Mark Lowcock found the local authority had misled the public and the courts over its work to chop down thousands of trees as part of a £2bn highways contract.

More than 5,000 trees - many of them healthy - were removed and replaced with saplings before the felling programme was put on hold in spring 2018 in the wake of increasing protests.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The inquiry found problems had begun with a misinterpretation of a consultant’s report which had said 75 per cent of the city’s tree stock as mature or over-mature - which the council wrongly took as meaning they were “ready for replacement”, resulting a target of removing 17,500 being written into the contract with Amey.

Terry Fox and Kate Josephs gave media interviews in response to the inquiry report this morning,Terry Fox and Kate Josephs gave media interviews in response to the inquiry report this morning,
Terry Fox and Kate Josephs gave media interviews in response to the inquiry report this morning,

Councillor Fox was cabinet member with responsibility for the mass tree-felling programme between 2015 and 2016, before being succeeded by Councillor Bryan Lodge in the post who was in charge during some of the most controversial moments of the dispute - including multiple attempts to send protesters to jail. The Liberal Democrat group on the council has been calling for both Labour politicians to quit.

Coun Lodge is now co-chair of the finance sub-committee on the council. In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Coun Fox revealed his Labour colleague had offered to resign from the finance post following the publication of the inquiry report.

He said: “I spoke to Bryan last night. Bryan had a serious conversation with me and he is reading the report as well. He apologises sincerely and he asked me to announce that today. He is going to apologise publicly today as well.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“He did offer his resignation. I turned it down. I believe Bryan over the last five years has done so much amazing work not only for the residents of Birley but he has also assisted me in this period of no overall control to get a budget through to address cost-of-living concerns.

“I think the easiest thing to do here would be to resign, turn and run. But I think we have to face up to this and earn the trust of the public again.”

Coun Fox said he had no intention of resigning himself.

“I’m not going to resign. I genuinely believe eight years ago I made a real effort to get a consensus to this dispute. I was only in post for a year and my wife became Lord Mayor and I went on the backbenches. I genuinely set out to build a consensus and that is where we have got to right now. I believe I am the one to take us forward in a consensual way.

“This report is to give closure to the dispute but also to continue that journey to reconciliation.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The inquiry report noted that in 2015 Coun Fox had set up a Highways Tree Advisory Forum which aimed to explain the tree-felling programme better to campaigners but said protesters were “not satisfied with the answers they received”.

Lodge then helped establish a group called the Independent Tree Panel (ITP) who were tasked with assessing whether council recommendations for tree removals should go ahead.

But the ITP was never informed that many of the engineering solutions they were told would be available as an alternative to felling were not part of the council’s contract with Amey. More than 75 per cent of ITP’s recommendations to save trees were ultimately rejected by the council.

The inquiry report said while Coun Fox had made what appeared to be genuine attempts “to build a consensus on the way forward” both the Forum and the ITP were “seriously flawed”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The report said: “In the case of the Independent Tree Panel, setting up a process which the Highways team were not bought into, misleading the panel and then going against the majority of its recommendations to save trees undermined the positive impact it might have had and severely damaged the Council’s credibility.”

Coun Fox said he accepted the inquiry’s findings and said he had been unaware that the ITP was not being run as he had envisioned.

“Obviously Sir Mark has highlighted that. My intention was to explore those engineering solutions that we went through before a tree got replaced. I set up the ITP and I left after. What has come to light is the highways department did not buy into that. I wasn’t aware of that. I looked people in the eye and genuinely believed I was working with people looking for a consensus going forward. If we had dealt with that there and then, what followed afterwards would not have taken place.”

In terms of Councillor Lodge, the report notes that he requested the early removal of trees on Rustlings Road which were at the centre of many protests.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A plan for the Rustlings trees, which ultimately resulted in their removal in a highly-controversial ‘dawn raid’ in late 2016, said: “Removing the trees will remove a ‘symbol’ of the tree campaign… The approach of removing the trees earlier rather than later has been requested by the Cabinet Member.”

The inquiry said he was aware of what was planned in terms of the early-morning operation, which saw residents’ cars towed and people woken up by police officers to move vehicles, but was not told the date of the operation until the day before.

Coun Lodge also agreed to a strategy of pursuing the imprisonment of campaigners who were allegedly to have breached an injunction barring protests directly under threatened trees.

He was also criticised by the Woodland Trust for releasing an inaccurate statement saying the organisation was working with the council.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Coun Lodge was also cited in a section of the inquiry report criticising the council for placing “speculative and unreliable” estimates about the supposedly “catastrophic” costs of retaining trees into the public domain. In one interview, he told the media that the cost of saving trees “will run into the millions”.

The inquiry said: “While loosely caveated at the time, the Inquiry has not seen any explanation for these costs. They were challenged by protesters and experts. The Inquiry considers that some of the costs quoted by the Council are likely to be speculative and unreliable.”

At the height of the felling programme, the council was run by chief executive John Mothersole and council leader Julie Dore, with Paul Billington the lead council officer overseeing the programme. All have since left the council.

Current chief executive Kate Josephs said there are no current plans for any disciplinary process in regard to the report’s findings.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“At this moment in time, no,” she said when asked. “It is a 100,000 word report and we need to properly understand it and read it and reflect on it.”

She said the report had made clear “no individuals gave evidence they believed to be false or misleading at any point” in regard to two separate instances where courts were misled about the council’s approach to tree-felling.

The report found there was an “insular” and “sometimes weak” culture at the top of the council during the dispute while there was a lack of challenge and discussion “over whether the council was using its authority wisely, proportionately and appropriately”.

Ms Josephs said there was a lack of challenge over whether the broader programme was a good idea given it had begun from a misinterpretation of a consultant’s report.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“There didn’t seem to be as many occasions as you would have expected for that to happen. We need to learn from that as an organisation.

“But council officers did try to speak up. We need to really learn from that as well.”

She insisted the council is now in a better state.

“We have commissioned and supported and done everything possible to ensure this inquiry could be done as effectively as it has been. That shows how committed we are to learning the lessons of the past and making sure we don’t make mistakes again.

“We need to be judged by our actions and we need to be judged about how we deliver and I sincerely hope that the people of Sheffield over time will be able to build that trust back in the council. We want our city to be proud of the council they have serving them every single day.”