Tree campaigners fear they could be left destitute after Sheffield Council confirmed it will pursue them for more than £150,000 in legal costs and damages. Chris Burn reports.
It was not exactly Gary Cooper in High Noon, but the stakes were raised once again in the latest showdown over Sheffield’s tree-felling policy between council bosses and campaigners on the steps of the Town Hall.
Little more than an hour after a High Court judge passed an order granting the council civil injunctions to prevent protesters from participating in “direct action” to stop the removal of trees, Councillor Bryan Lodge walked out into the midday sun yesterday as the Town Hall clock struck noon to deliver a prepared statement.
READ MORE: Sheffield Council to 'accelerate' tree felling in wake of High Court verdict
In amongst the platitudes about court action being a “last resort” and offering to continue to talk to protesters “as we always have”, the council’s cabinet member for environment made clear that the legal battles are not over yet.
“We will be looking to seek associated costs and damages which will be covered at a later hearing,” he said.
With the council’s legal costs in relation to the injunction action already exceeding £150,000 of public money, that announcement sets the stage for the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter battle over the rights and wrongs of the removal and replacement of 6,000 of Sheffield’s 36,000 street trees.
Sheffield Council decided to pursue civil injunctions to prevent protesters standing directly under trees due to be removed after campaigners successfully used the tactic to prevent the felling of hundreds of trees. In June this year alone, 329 of 427 attempted tree-felling operations had to be abandoned.
After his statement, Mr Lodge headed straight back inside the council building without taking questions from the media and ignoring a lone heckler, before two of the three campaigners involved in the High Court dispute - Sheffield Trees Action Groups founder Dave Dillner and Green Party councillor Alison Teal - gave their take on the decision at the same location.
The pair said campaigning against tree felling will continue within legally-allowed limits and suggested an appeal against the High Court ruling is likely.
But speaking afterwards, Ms Teal admitted she is deeply concerned about the prospect of the council succeeding in its pursuit for costs and damage.
She said: “It means I would be destitute. I feel completely sick about it.”
But she added she did not regret taking the decision to court rather than signing an undertaking not to participate in future direct action protests, as was agreed by several other campaigners.
“I still feel what we did was right and the felling of healthy trees has been completely unnecessary. What this ruling says about local democracy and peaceful protest is really worrying.”
Mr Lodge said: “The council have explained the need to complete the Streets Ahead programme to protestors on a number of occasions and, consequently, that their direct action was preventing this. We explained that should their action continue, we would have no other option but to seek civil injunctions in court.
“Unfortunately, the refusal of a small number of people to abide by the council’s request meant that the council had to pursue legal action and subsequently incur costs.”
Mr Dillner was more optimistic than Ms Teal in relation to the prospect of paying legal costs and damages to the council. “I’m not worried because I trust that right will prevail on the issue of costs.”
Whatever the outcome of the next stage in proceedings, the 27-page ruling by Mr Justice Males granting the injunctions following a three-day court case in Leeds has shed considerable light on the deep roots of the row between campaigners and the council.
The judge expressed no view about the merits of either the council or the protesters’ positions on the “politically controversial” tree-felling issue, but did describe Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at the council and the man in charge of highways maintenance, as a “conscientious and fair-minded council officer doing a challenging job”, while noting the campaigners “were plainly decent and honest witnesses with a genuine and passionate belief in their cause”.
He explained how decades of under-investment in Sheffield’s roads led the council to reluctantly enter a 25-year PFI highways improvement contract with Amey in 2012, for which it is paying the company £2.2bn over the lifetime of the contract.
The programme, which became known as ‘Streets Ahead’, is the biggest urban road upgrade programme in the UK. According to the council, one result of the maintenance backlog on improving roads, pavements, street lights and traffic signals was the continued presence of around 6,000 trees which it says should have already been removed and replaced.
Mr Justice Males said most public concern has applied to “healthy, mature and attractive trees” that have been felled after being deemed “damaging” to the highway or “discriminatory” in their affect on the ability of disabled people or those with pushchairs to pass by.
He said the criteria had not been properly applied on all occasions but did not believe the council was deliberately removing healthy trees unnecessarily.
“Although some mistakes have no doubt been made resulting in the removal of trees which ought to have been retained if the criteria had been properly applied, removal of trees for its own sake has never been an objective of the council.”
Following public concerns, an Independent Tree Panel was established to help advise the council in late 2015. But while the council has accepted the panel’s advice that trees should be retained in 73 cases, on 223 occasions it went ahead with removals against the experts’ recommendations.
While funding for some engineering solutions to keep trees standing is included in the PFI contract, more complex and expensive work such as installing “geo-grids” under pavements to reduce cracking are not budgeted for.
The judge said the council is unwilling to take money from other budgets for essential public services to meet such extra costs - a situation has led to an “impasse”, with no apparent solution that will satisfy both sides.
The judge added that the question of “whether it was wise of the council to enter into this contract or whether the council obtained good value for money” was not for him to answer. But he added he said “allegations of profiteering by Amey” were “misplaced” and accepted the council’s case that objectors standing under trees in designated safety zones are trespassing.
“It is apparent that the issue has been extensively debated and that the council has decided that it is in the interests of the people of Sheffield as a whole to maintain its policy,” he added.
“The defendants and their supporters do not like and are entitled not to like the decision which the council has reached. They are entitled to think that it is wrong-headed, foolish or even intransigent. However, it cannot sensibly be denied that the council has considered the defendants’ views and has not accepted them. “Despite this, the defendants and their supporters intend to continue the direct action indefinitely.
“A protest which may have begun with a view to causing the council to think again has now become an attempt to prevent the council indefinitely from carrying out work which it considers to be in the public interest.”
Corporate manslaughter claim 'was misleading'
Claims that Amey had been convicted of a corporate manslaughter charge prior to signing a contract with Sheffield Council were “misleading and unfair”.
Mr Justice Males said it had been “regrettable” the matter was raised in court by the campaigners’ barrister with no prior notice.
“If the issue was raised in this way in order to maximise dramatic effect, it appeared from the reactions of those present in court to have achieved that objective.”
A company in the Amey group had admitted breaching a health and safety offence in a which a worker died, for which it was fined £30,000 - but this was not corporate manslaughter. Mr
Justice Males added: “The impression given in court was misleading and unfair.”
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