A panel set up by Sheffield Council to assess its most controversial tree-felling plans has cost taxpayers over £830,000 – despite the authority overruling its advice on hundreds of occasions.
It was revealed earlier this week that Sheffield Council had paid its highways maintenance contractor Amey £700,000 in compensation for delays to work caused by waiting for the findings of the ‘Independent Tree Panel’ it established in late 2015 and which ran until last summer.
Another Freedom of Information response has now shown that more than £130,000 was spent on the panel’s running costs, including more than £23,000 on posting out surveys to residents living on affected streets.
It means that in total, the panel’s work cost more than £1,000 for each of the 788 trees it ended up assessing, backing removal in 454 cases. Last summer, it was revealed that where the panel had recommended trees were saved, the council rejected the advice on 223 occasions and accepted in only 73 cases.
Anti-tree felling campaigners said today the panel had been a “pointless exercise” but council bosses said they stood by the process, which involved seeking the views of thousands of households.
The removal of thousands of street trees and their replacement with saplings is part of a 25-year £2.2bn highways maintenance contract with Amey which started in 2012 and also involves road and pavement resurfacing and the replacement of street lights.
Tree-felling work has been on hold for almost three months after a national outcry against the policy following dozens of police officers and security guards being sent out to support operations in the wake of growing protests.
But the policy has been controversial for several years, with campaigners arguing healthy trees were being removed unnecessarily.
The ITP was set up by the council in November 2015 in an attempt to address concerns - but the knock-on effect of waiting for its advice was to delay highways work that needed to be completed on more than 300 streets; a situation that led to the compensation payment being made to Amey.
Kaarina Hollo, of Save Crookes, Western Road and Walkley Trees, said: “It’s shocking that our city council has wasted so much public money on this pointless exercise.
“If they had been willing to start constructive talks with the people who were objecting to fellings and with the many experts who have said that the felling programme was not needed and causing huge damage, they and Amey might have reached a solution to this mess quite quickly and cheaply. Instead we had nearly two years of unnecessary confrontation and entrenchment to no good.”
The ITP was chaired by Andy Buck, chief executive of Sheffield Citizens Advice, and consisted of an arboriculturist, a health and safety adviser, a highways engineer and a lay member.
Surveys were sent out to people on streets where tree-felling was planned and in instances where more than half of the households raised objections about the proposals, the plans were referred to the panel to make recommendations.
The panel’s running costs included £68,000 was spent on payments made to ITP members. A further £39,000 went on staff costs for “consultation support and administration”, with more than £23,000 being spent on postage and delivery costs.
Sheffield Council claimed last August that the authority was facing “catastrophic financial consequences” because of protesters holding up tree-felling. But it was later revealed that under the terms of the contract Amey has to bear costs relating to demonstrations rather than the council.
Councillor Lewis Dagnall, cabinet member for environment and street scene, said today: “The council still stands by the ITP process which was a process upheld by the High Court following a survey of over 26,000 households.
"We are now looking at all options for the street tree replacement programme to continue for the benefit of all parties.”