Sheffield Council has threatened tree campaigners with potential imprisonment and “significant” claims for damages if they do not sign letters committing to ending direct protests for good.
Seventeen people have now been sent ‘pre-action protocol letters’ by the council as part of an increasingly bitter dispute about the removal of 6,000 street trees through the Streets Ahead highway maintenance programme.
Protesters have been standing under trees to stop or delay work taking place. Campaigners have vowed they will not be intimidated and are to hold a demonstration outside Sheffield Town Hall next Wednesday lunchtime which they believe will be attended by hundreds of people.
But they are seeking legal advice on their next steps in light of the intended legal action, which would prevent them protesting within “safety zones” placed around affected trees. Coun Bryan Lodge said the letters had been sent out in an attempt to end “unlawful” demonstrations.
The dispute has previously seen 14 people arrested but no charges brought. In March, police commissioner Alan Billings said there would be no further arrests as “the CPS are not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters”.
Campaigners claim healthy trees are being unnecessarily destroyed but the council says the work is required to remove diseased, damaged or dangerous trees.
Letters sent to campaigners by the council advise them that they have two weeks to sign a letter of undertaking confirming they will not disrupt future tree removal work or face legal action.
The letter adds: “The effect of an injunction being granted would be to prevent you from taking direct action or aiding, counselling or directing others to take direct action on any public highway in the council’s area.
“If you then took further direct action or aided, counselled or directed others to do so, after the injunction was granted you would be liable to be held in contempt of court. In such circumstances, the court would have power to send you to prison or to fine you.
“The direct action is causing severe disruption to the tree felling programme and to the consequent highway maintenance work. If, and to the extent, the council is liable for any consequent financial losses by reason of direct action by you, it will seek to recover such losses from you as part of this claim. The sums could be significant.”
The injunction claim will be issued in the High Court in Leeds on July 12.
Dave Dillner, from the Sheffield Trees Action Group, is among those facing legal action and says he has been sent the letters three separate times – once by email, once hand-delivered through his door at night and another sent by post.
“It is a steamroller to crack a nut. The level at which it is being pursued does feel intimidatory.”
Mr Dillner has arranged the protest outside Sheffield Town Hall next Wednesday from 12.30pm ahead of the council’s full monthly meeting.
“It will be a protest against the continued felling of trees but perhaps more importantly on the attack on a citizen’s democratic right to protest peacefully,” he said.