Sheffield Council was “heavily involved” with a police operation that saw dozens of officers sent out to support the authority’s controversial tree-felling work and resulted in multiple arrests – but worked to publicly downplay its involvement over fears it would “politicise” the force’s actions, newly-published internal emails reveal.
An email from Paul Billington, Sheffield Council’s director of culture and environment, sent a week before the beginning of Operation Quito on February 26, 2018, to Laraine Manley, executive director of place, and Steve Eccleston, assistant director of legal services, said it had been agreed the authority would “work closely” with the police and highways contractor Amey on media communications.
The email, which was entitled ‘Covered by legal privilege and not subject to FOI – Gold Command – Quito’ but now made public under Freedom of Information laws, said on February 20: “SCC prefer not to front the comms because this politicises the operation and makes it an easy target for protestor comms and therefore more difficult for Amey, SYP and us.
“We will be heavily involved in Silver (Command) as Highways Authority, but best for everyone we don’t front the comms.”
The operation lasted between late February and March 2018 and was launched after clashes between protesters and private security guards in January. Quito went on to attract international media attention and sustained criticism of the force’s approach after multiple arrests were made, including of a woman for blowing a toy horn.
After the force’s approach was publicly questioned by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven, Chief Constable Stephen Watson insisted the force was taking an “entirely impartial” approach.
In April this year, after The Yorkshire Post revealed the police, the council and Amey had held extensive discussions about how the operation would be presented to the public – including conversations about what each party should say and potentially getting “three-way sign up” before media statements were sent out – the force said its impartiality “was not affected”.
The newly-released tranche of council emails about the planning for Operation Quito included three others about a shared media strategy which were all separately entitled ‘Covered by legal privilege and not subject to FOI’.
On February 1, following a meeting between Mr Billington, Councillor Bryan Lodge and South Yorkshire Police, Mr Billington sent an email to council officials including council leader Julie Dore, which said: “Joint and proactive comms to be stitched into Silver Command and supporting all key activities and milestones – including pre-Feb 26 activities such as SYP meeting with STAG.”
On February 13, Mr Billington emailed press officers from the police, council and Amey, as well as other senior figures from the three organisations, to say “joint comms meeting taking place this week”.
On February 19, Ms Manley sent an email to senior council officers including Mr Billington and chief executive John Mothersole to update them about a meeting with senior police officers that had taken place three days earlier.
It included a paragraph about media strategy which read “asked that we agree joint media/comms strategy, early this week.
It added: “I have a copy of the unredacted version. Some things not in line with our current approach.”
South Yorkshire Police said today it did not accept that there had been a shared media strategy, despite what has been published in the council emails.
A spokeswoman said: “The only media strategy SYP used throughout the duration of Operation Quito, was written and agreed by SYP, no other parties were involved in its creation or had any influence over its contents. This document has been published under FOI and is solely a South Yorkshire Police document.”
A review ordered by Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings and carried out by an independent panel reported last year that it believed the criticisms of a lack of police impartiality had not been “well-founded”.
Cabinet member attended planning meeting
A senior Labour councillor attended a planning meeting for Operation Quito following internal emails suggesting he would be able to provide a “political steer”, South Yorkshire Police has confirmed.
Councillor Bryan Lodge, who was then the cabinet member for environment and streetscene at the Labour-led council, attended a meeting in the run-up to the operation, which launched on February 26, 2018.
A spokeswoman for South Yorkshire Police said: “Councillor Lodge attended the initial meeting, however he was not in attendance at other police meetings. Any decisions made and taken by the council regarding tree felling activity or attendance at meetings or otherwise are solely a council matter.”
The confirmation came after council emails about the police operation were published. One on February 1, 2018, sent by council officer Paul Billington to Coun Lodge and council leader Julie Dore discussing a meeting he and Coun Lodge had participated in that morning with SYP and Amey, said one of the key points was “Bryan to be part of Silver Command to offer political steer”.
A further email sent an hour later by Mr Billington to Superintendent Paul McCurry and others from the council and Amey reiterated that Coun Lodge would attend Silver Command meetings to provide a “political steer”.
However, on February 17 Mr Billington emailed Supt McCurry to say Coun Lodge would play no part in the operation or Silver Command and the council would have no part in operational sign-off. But he said council officers would be attending Silver Command because of the council’s role as highways authority.
The Yorkshire Post has previously reported that at a meeting on February 5, 2018, an unidentified council representative asked what they would be able to say about the police’s approach in a public meeting two days later. The response released under FoI laws largely redacted the police response, but did show Supt McCurry saying: “We have certainly obviously used a line that we are investigating criminal offences.”
Coun Lodge told the February 7 council meeting that police were “investigating a number of allegations of assault”.
Campaigners seek inquiry
Campaigners have repeated their calls for a public inquiry into the Sheffield tree-felling saga, in the light of the new revelations.
Paul Brooke, the co-chair of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), said while it was positive a new approach to the issue has been adopted by the council to prevent contentious tree-felling work, questions about the previous strategy remain unanswered.
“Whilst we are confident that we have finally turned a corner, this recent set of revelations only increases our determination for there to be a proper inquiry into the vast waste of public resources and the felling of much-needed trees,” he said.
A council spokeswoman said: “As part of our new approach and as a result of additional funding from Amey and the council agreeing to give temporary relief on some highway specifications, we’re confident that many more trees can now remain in situ for the foreseeable future.
We fully recognise that a change in approach was crucial for moving forwards and, by working in a more collaborative way, we are now making promising headway for the benefit of Sheffield communities.”