Government won't step in over Sheffield trees row despite £1.2bn investment in PFI deal

Police have been attending felling operations in large numbers in recent weeks.
Police have been attending felling operations in large numbers in recent weeks.
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The Government department which is putting over £1bn of national funding into the controversial PFI deal being used to fell thousands of trees in Sheffield has distanced itself from the prospect of intervening in the increasingly-bitter dispute between the city’s council and campaigners.

The Department of Transport announced in 2010 that it intended to support highways work in Sheffield through a Private Finance Initiative project, which led to Sheffield Council signing a 25-year deal with private firm Amey worth £2.2bn in 2012 - £1.2bn of which was through Government funding.

Last week, Environment Secretary Michael Gove suggested the Government would do “anything that is required” to stop the controversial tree-felling policy in Sheffield when asked by the BBC if the Government would step in to pay contract termination penalties.

Sheffield Council bosses have subsequently suggested voluntary termination of the contract would cost more than £300m.

But when asked by The Yorkshire Post what action, if any, the Department of Transport had been taking in regard to the issue in light of Mr Gove’s comments and if it has a position on whether it would be willing to pay contract termination penalties, a spokesman for the Government department said: “This is a matter for the local highways authority.”

It comes as Sheffield Council cabinet member Jack Scott, who used to hold responsibility for the Streets Ahead contract when he was previously cabinet member for the environment, twice suggested on Twitter that the cost of terminating the contract with Amey to the authority would be over £300m after describing the tree saga as a “very difficult and heartbreaking situation”.

When asked by The Yorkshire Post whether the council recognised the figure suggested by Coun Scott, a spokeswoman said: “This figure remains an estimate in relation to a voluntarily termination of the Streets Ahead contract and doesn’t take into account future funding of the highway service.”

Campaigners have previously argued the contract could be cancelled for free on the basis of Amey’s apparent failure to declare a health and safety conviction linked to the death of a worker in Liverpool prior to signing the Streets Ahead deal in 2012. But the council has said it believes there are no grounds for terminating the contract due to this issue.

Amey would not comment on the contract termination figure but today defended its work on the Streets Ahead contract, which also involves road resurfacing work and street light replacement, as positive for the city.

A spokeswoman said: “Streets Ahead is a good contract which is delivering significant benefits for the people of Sheffield. Around two thirds of the city’s highways have been upgraded in just five years, as a result of the significant investment it brought to Sheffield.

“By the time it ends in 2037, Streets Ahead will have delivered streets and highways Sheffield’s people and businesses can be proud of – including many more street trees than when we started and a healthier and more robust urban forest.”

It comes as South Yorkshire Police confirmed it had dropped an investigation into claims Sheffield tree campaigners poisoned the tea of three Amey workmen carrying out felling work in the city last October.

There have been 25 protesters arrested since January, with dozens of police officers sent out to felling operations alongside private security guards hired by Amey in recent weeks.

One man has been charged with obstruction of the highway and will appear in court next month.

Following growing protests and national political pressure, Sheffield Council announced on Monday work would be partially halted while a review is carried out of working practices. It blamed the decision on the "increasingly dangerous tactics" being used by campaigners.