Michael Gove promises new legislation to prevent repeat of Sheffield trees 'travesty'

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said the Sheffield street tree-felling "travesty" must never be allowed to happen again after a Forestry Commission investigation strongly criticised the conduct of the city council - but stopped short of pursuing criminal action.

Michael Gove visited Sheffield in 2017 over concerns about the council's tree-felling programme.
Michael Gove visited Sheffield in 2017 over concerns about the council's tree-felling programme.

The Forestry Commission's investigation of the felling of over 5,400 trees in the city as part of a £2bn highways contract between Sheffield Council and Amey found that around 600 trees may have been felled illegally but said there was "insufficient evidence" to pursue a prosecution the offence of operation without a felling licence.

Five damning findings from the Sheffield trees investigationThe Commission, which is overseen by Mr Gove's department, said the council had "fallen far short of good practice" in its approach to the issue and opted to cut down trees when other options were available. Sheffield Council has said it will consider the findings of the investigation report.

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Mr Gove, who has been an ardent critic of Sheffield Council's felling programme and visited campaigners in the city in 2017, says in today's Yorkshire Post that new legislation to prevent the felling of street trees without first consulting communities should be brought forward later this year. It follows a public consultation on the proposed new legislation held earlier this year.

Tree-felling protests have taken place in Sheffield for several years.

Sheffield tree campaigners vindicated at last over tree travestyHe said: "Unfortunately it’s too late for thousands of mature trees in Sheffield which have already faced the axe. However what we can do is ensure that this travesty is not forgotten."

Mr Gove said: "Councils across the country should be taking note of the lessons from this [Forestry Commission] report.

“Not only did Sheffield City Council fell swathes of precious street trees unnecessarily, it failed to keep proper felling records, it did not adequately consult the community and it did not openly engage with the Forestry Commission on its subsequent investigation.

"This demonstrated a casual disregard which the report says may have even resulted in greater costs to the taxpayer.

“We must not let this happen again, which is why we are bringing forward legislation to create greater protections for our vital urban trees and make sure residents have a say on the management of these important natural assets.”

Joseph Coles, project lead for street trees at the Woodland Trust, said: “What Sheffield City Council has done must not be seen by any other council as acceptable practice for urban tree management. At a time when we desperately need more trees in the fight against climate change other councils must see the situation in Sheffield as a cautionary tale.

“Sheffield has a proud heritage, and strong environmental credentials, but the mistakes made by entering into this highway management contract without fully considering trees in the tendering process have tarnished an otherwise green city.

“Both local and national government need to recognise the importance of street trees in peoples’ daily lives. It’s vital to ensure we have legal clarity to avoid this happening again and that qualified tree specialists are fully engaged with any such contract or management activity in the future.”

It comes after Forestry Minister David Rutley met with the Government's 'Tree Champion' Sir William Worsley in Northumberland yesterday to discuss an upcoming national Tree Strategy as part of efforts to plant 11 million trees in the next three years.

Mr Rutley said: "Our trees form the front line against climate change, working as carbon sinks, cooling and shading our homes and landscapes, and working to mitigate flood risk."

A Sheffield City Council spokesman said: "The Forestry Commission have confirmed that the tree replacement work between 2013 and 2018 was authorised by the duties imposed on the Council by the Highways Act 1980. We will carefully consider the findings of their report and consider what lessons can be learned.

"Since March 2018 the programme of work has been paused, to allow sustained engagement with community stakeholders. The Council's Cabinet received a report earlier this week on progress that has been made as a result, with the new approach seeing the retention of many more trees."