A Government department is investigating whether the felling of thousands of street trees in Sheffield has been carried out illegally, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.
The Forestry Commission has confirmed it is investigating the entire programme of tree-felling work being undertaken by Sheffield City Council as part of its £2.2bn highways maintenance contract with Amey, which is known as the Streets Ahead project.
The Government’s newly appointed “tree champion” Sir William Worsley, who has been appointed in part to prevent the unnecessary felling of street trees, told The Yorkshire Post today he will “consider the findings of the investigation carefully” once it is completed.
Felling growing trees without a licence is an offence under the Forestry Act but one of the exemptions which applies is carrying out felling in line with a legal obligation. The Streets Ahead scheme is being conducted in connection with the council’s duty to maintain and repair highways under the Highways Act but it is understood the Forestry Commission is examining whether some felling work has been carried out outside of these obligations and therefore whether a licence was required.
The investigation has the potential for a prosecution to be brought which could ultimately result in fines totalling millions of pounds should it be found an offence has been committed. Where offences are believed to have occurred, all parties involved can be prosecuted and on conviction, a fine of twice the value of the trees that have been removed can be imposed.
In a Freedom of Information response, the commission said: “The Forestry Commission is investigating the tree-felling that has taken place in Sheffield as part of the Streets Ahead programme with respect to the Forestry Commissioners Powers to control tree felling as set out in Part II of the Forestry Act 1967.”
The response stated any decision to prosecute would be made by the Crown Prosecution Service, with the penalty a decision for the courts.
The commission, whose parent department is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, would not release any documents relating to the investigation on the grounds that the proceedings “may result in legal action”.
It was revealed earlier this year that the Streets Ahead contract contains a target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees by 2037, with existing trees being replaced with new saplings.
Almost 6,000 trees have been removed so far as part of the controversial work, which has been the subject of repeated protests and is on hold following a national outcry earlier this year.
The Streets Ahead tree management strategy states that trees are selected for removal once they have been assessed as falling into one of six categories – either being dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging to roads and pavements or ‘discriminatory’ in preventing wheelchairs and prams using the pavement.
Last year, a judge said trees in the ‘damaging’ and ‘discriminatory’ categories “are generally healthy, mature and attractive trees”.
A report commissioned by anti-tree felling campaigners last year said more than 2,500 such trees had been or were due to be felled, with an estimated Capital Asset Value of over £66m.
Sheffield Council said it would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.