Extensive efforts by South Yorkshire Police to collaborate with Sheffield Council and highways firm Amey on what to tell the public about dozens of officers being sent to support tree-felling operations have been revealed by the partial publication of transcripts from taped secret planning meetings.
Operation Quito was launched on February 26 last year after controversial street tree felling work – as part of a £2bn highways contract between Sheffield Council and Amey – had been put on hold the previous month following clashes between protesters and private security guards which had led to complaints of assault being made by both sides.
On February 23, when it was announced the operation would begin the following week, Assistant Chief Constable Dave Hartley said the force was “fiercely independent in all this” – a position the force maintained as its tactics became increasingly controversial and multiple arrests were made, including that of a woman who had blown a toy horn, under the Public Order Act.
A subsequent review ordered by Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings, carried out by an independent panel, said it did not believe criticisms that there was a lack of police impartiality were well-founded, but made recommendations so the force could “avoid any unintentional appearance of partiality” in future.
Now transcripts of three planning meetings for the operation released to The Yorkshire Post under Freedom of Information laws show how the force was working with the council and Amey on communications plans.
On February 5 last year, in a meeting attended by representatives from South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Council, Amey and Servoca, the company which provided private security guards to support Amey’s work, discussions took place about what could be said in public about a police investigation into the events in January which had led to the decision to set up the operation.
The transcripts show Superintendent Paul McCurry saying: “The comms is key. Really, really key on this, you know, because I don’t want this to get messy when we move forward into any activation and you know we want to have some sort of reasonableness in that.”
An unidentified person then responds: “I suppose the guarantee then in all this is that anything what we say in these issues, anything the council or police we share with each other and get a three-way sign up before anything.”
Supt McCurry replies: “Yes, definitely.”
But at a further point in the conversation, an unidentified person says: “I’m not sure about sign off because [inaudible] meant to be the neutral party.”
Supt McCurry replies: “We have got to communicate but there’s that independent bit that I think is relevant especially when we think about all
of the FOI requests, etc, coming.”
A force spokeswoman said his FOI comment related “to our objective of ensuring our openness and transparency throughout the operation”.
Supt McCurry later says: “Just going back to the comms side of it, if I could just ask [redacted] to think about what it’s going to look like in terms of your strategies, share those with so we can sort of see what that looks like, you’ve kind of got a sense of the journey. The police one is dead clear at the moment. We will maintain that line until arrest or prosecution.”
Much of the 36 pages of transcripts are redacted, with Supt McCurry the only named party. In one published section of the report, he discusses arrangements for who would be allowed in the police control room.
“We would have representatives from Sheffield City Council, we would have [redacted] from Amey, we would have [redacted] from the security firm, we would then have our comms team,” he said.
“I think there’s an advantage of [redacted] from Amey and Sheffield comms team also been [sic] in there because actually this is how we join it up. It’s great joining things up on a phone call but actually it’s better if we are all in there together. So actually you’ve got the messages done.”
Peer calls for inquiry
Sheffield peer Paul Scriven, who raised concerns about the police operation last year, says the newly-published information furthers the case for an independent inquiry into how the Sheffield trees saga was handled.
“Any reasonable person would say once organisations such as the council and the police start behind closed doors planning on what they are going to say together, impartiality goes out of the window,” he said.
“This further reinforces my view South Yorkshire Police haven’t been impartial. It is vital an independent inquiry does take place.”
After felling work was suspended in March 2018, a new approach to the issue designed to save more trees from felling was introduced by the council and Amey this year following months of talks with campaigners.