Sheffield Council said it had “stumbled upon” a series of strategy documents for the controversial policy of felling street trees after previously telling the Information Commissioner’s Office the information was “not held” in any form.
Newly-discovered versions of a five-year tree management strategy have now been published online and the first version from 2012 - the year in which the contract with Amey under which the work is being carried out started - includes a chart detailing proposals to remove precisely 17,500 trees and replace them with saplings in seven areas of the city.
The ‘Highway Tree Replacement Plan’ table set out proposals suggesting that in south-east Sheffield 1,370 trees would be replaced, with 2,795 in the south of the city, 3,979 in the south-west, 2,103 in central Sheffield, 2,420 in the north, 2,939 in the north-east and 1,894 in the east. The figures add together to exactly 17,500.
The other newly-published published versions of the strategy for between 2013 and 2017 do not specify planned replacement numbers and the council has described the figures in the table as a “pre-contract estimate” that have since been revised.
The authority has faced national criticism for its controversial tree-felling policy and earlier this year it was revealed the £2.2bn 25-year highways maintenance contract work is being done under contains a clause stating trees should be replaced “at a rate of not less than 200 per year so that 17,500 are replaced by the end of the term”.
The council says the figure is not a contractual target but says it is unable to explain what the financial consequences will be should fewer than 17,500 trees be removed by the end of the contract with Amey in 2037 - and will not be in a position to do until that year.
A spokeswoman said in relation to the potential financial implications: “We are unable to predict what will happen between now and 2037 when the contract expires. Therefore, the council will not be in a position to answer this question until this time.”
The Yorkshire Post says: Public need answers on tree costsThe council previously confirmed to The Yorkshire Post in March this year that there would be a “financial adjustment” to the contract should fewer than 17,500 trees could be felled but said they could not explain whether the authority or Amey would be the beneficiaries as the contractor is not paid to replace individual trees.
The council said today that despite the wording of the contract and the emergence of the 2012 document that there is no target for tree replacement numbers.
A spokeswoman said: “While there has never been a target for street tree replacements, a pre-contract estimate was given by Amey in 2012 based on their initial surveys across the city to ensure that each and every tree replacement is absolutely essential and appropriate.
“The intention was always for Amey to revise their estimates after carrying out further assessments of the street tree stock and this is proved by the actual numbers replaced to date.
“As stated in the High Court [by council officer Paul Billington] ‘it is impossible for Amey or the council to accurately predict how many trees will need replacing during the contract term because the number of trees to be replaced depends on a wide variety of factors’.
“Any suggestion that 17,500 trees is a target or a requirement is an incorrect interpretation of the contract, and indeed the High Court was clear that the objective of the council has been to retain trees where possible.”
A version of the tree management strategy was published by the council in early 2016 shortly before tree campaigner Dave Dillner went to the High Court to seek a judicial review of council decisions.
That document said there were six previous versions of the strategy in existence. But when campaigners fighting against the felling plans asked to see them under the Freedom of Information Act, the council initially rejected the request on the grounds they were “commercially sensitive” before later revising its position to say the information was “not held” in any form when the matter was taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
However, the council has now said the documents have been found by chance.
A Freedom of Information officer said: “The council has now made any further concerted efforts to locate or identify whether this documentation was held as we did consider that copies were not retained or stored as they had not been identified in previous robust searches.
“However, unusually in this case the council has subsequently stumbled upon the previous versions of the strategy which were not previously identified. They have only come to light when these documents were individually opened and found to contain the earlier versions of the strategy.”
The newly-released documents also contain a different 2016 strategy to the one that was made public in the same year.
The previously-published version made detailed mention of engineering solutions to save trees that would be considered before they were removed while the newly-uncovered document does not.
A spokesman for Sheffield Council said “a simpler, more accessible version” of the strategy had been produced and published in 2016 “to aid public understanding”.
She said: “The engineering solutions in the public version of the document were included to try and give a better understanding of the type of work contained within the scope of the contract which could be used, where appropriate, to retain trees. For that reason, the approach to retaining trees is presented differently in the contractual document and then detailed, for public consumption, in the operation strategy.”
One of the newly-published documents is a revised strategy setting out the operational approach for 2018 to 2023 which also contains no mention of the engineering solutions.
The council said: “All of the engineering solutions detailed in the 2012 document are still considered to retain street trees.”
Councillor Lewis Dagnall, cabinet member for environment and street scene at Sheffield Council, said: “Transparency and openness around the Streets Ahead contract, and its associated documents, is incredibly important to ensure that the people of Sheffield stay well-informed about our programme of works.
“We recognise that there are some sections of the Highway Tree Management strategy that have changed over the years, which is to be expected on a contract of this scale. Nobody wants to see a working strategy document which fails to reflect the fluidity of a situation.
“It’s always a work in progress but what is certain is that we will always make sure the contract and the documents that inform it, are achieving the very best for the people of Sheffield.”
Tree-felling operations have been on hold in the city since March as the council and Amey review how work is carried out following growing protests and political pressure earlier this year after dozens of police officers and security guards were sent out to support operations.