Tree campaigners criticise Sheffield Council over an ‘inexplicably overdue” apology

A tree campaign group has criticised Sheffield Council for its “inexplicably overdue” apology it had sent to the court last week.

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service reported last week, Sheffield City Council had finally published an apology letter sent to the Lord Chancellor for misleading the court over the city’s street trees scandal.

In the letter – signed by David Hollis, General Counsel, and Kate Josephs, chief executive of Sheffield City Council – the authors said the council had already apologised for “misleading the public” – as well as an apology sent to the chair of the Independent Tree Panel.

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However, the letter (and the council) has been criticised by tree campaigners, including the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG).

Sheffield Town HallSheffield Town Hall
Sheffield Town Hall

In a press release sent to the LDRS, campaigners stated that the apology letter was focused on “technicalities”.

The press release reads: “Whilst the Lowcock Inquiry findings gave substantial vindication to campaigners, there remains frustration and in some cases bitterness about unresolved matters.”

They also claimed while “a bullying and vindictive culture was prevalent in the upper echelons of the council”, senior officials and former councillors have faced noconsequences for their contribution to that culture.

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When approached for a comment, Richard Ward, co-chair of Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he sought more “openness and transparency” from the council – but they only published the letter into an archive.

He said: “The apology was inexplicably overdue – more than nine months after Sir Mark Lowcock published the report and seven months after the council promised to send it.

“It seems to me that their contention that they are going to be more open and transparent isn’t well-served when people have to use freedom of information (FOI) requests for an update on what’s happening, and that’s what people had to resort to.

“The fact that they then published it straight into an archive rather than on their newsroom site seemed to me to be also a little bit less than open given the gravity of the situation.

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“You would think, wouldn’t you, something about that magnitude – submitting what we would call ‘fake documents’ to the courts – would be a matter of great public interest… The fact that they published it straight into the street tree archive, which is not easy to navigate, is to my mind a signal that they haven’t yet understood how to do openness and transparency.

“What we need to see is that they have a genuine understanding that something wrong was done and there should be a level of accountability.”

Mr Ward said they only had an apology but he was yet to see an explanation as to “how it happened and how it was allowed to happen”.

He added people should be held to account when “they present the court with misleading documents”.

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He said: “For Sir Mark Lowcock, tree campaigners produced really well researched and evidenced accounts and what went on with these fake documents.

“At a minimum, it reveals deep incompetence. In reality, it would be much easier to reach the conclusion that there was anything other than a deliberate attempt to mislead.”

Mr Ward said if these were only allegations, the council should present evidence why this (the deliberate attempt to mislead) is the case.

“I’ve not seen anything other than a fairly long-winded and quite legally technical description in their apology which frankly doesn’t really meet, to me, the standard of openness that we’re expecting now”, Mr Ward added.

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Last year, Sir Mark Lowcock’s report said the council was slow to grasp the reputational damage of the debacle which had become a defining fact about the city, years later.

His 100,000-word report detailed the failings of the Streets Ahead programme that aimed to fell 17,500 street trees as part of the £2.2billion contract between the council and Amey.

Sir Mark found that the council overstretched its authority in taking drastic action against campaigners, had serious and sustained failures in leadership and misled the public, courts and an independent panel it set up to deal with the dispute.

One of Sir Mark’s recommendations was that the council apologises to the court.

In June, the council issued an apology to all residents of Sheffield for Sheffield City Council’s actions during the street trees dispute.

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