Michael Gove renews calls for Sheffield Council to reconsider "unnecessary destruction of trees"

Environment Secretary Michael Gove today renewed his calls for Sheffield Council to reconsider its contentious programme of felling thousands of street trees over fresh concerns about the transparency of the authority's decision-making processes.

Michael Gove visited Sheffield last year after expressing concerns about the city's tree-felling policy.

Mr Gove told The Yorkshire Post today: “I cannot see why the council continues to press ahead with the unnecessary destruction of trees without properly consulting the community that has campaigned so tirelessly on this issue.”

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His comments, which come after similar remarks he made last summer, follow the Information Commissioner ordering Sheffield Council to publish previously-redacted information which revealed the £2.2bn highways maintenance contract with a private company called Amey contains a target to replace 17,500 trees by the end of its 25-year term - almost half of the city’s 36,000 street trees.

Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at Sheffield City Council, had previously provided a witness statement to the High Court in Leeds last July in which he said: “For the avoidance of doubt, the vast majority of street trees in Sheffield are being retained (30,000 out of 36,000).”

Sheffield Council said Mr Billington’s comments, in a case which resulted in a judge granting injunctions to prevent campaigners protesting directly underneath threatened trees, were a reference to work being carried out in the first five years of the project, which started in 2012. The council said the situation has not changed since a press release published in February 2017 stated that after 6,000 trees were removed and replaced in the first five years of the contract, around 200 per year would be replaced for the remaining 20 years - giving an “implied figure” of 10,000 trees over the course of the contract.

Speaking on BBC Radio Sheffield this morning Councillor Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for environment, said the authority still estimates 10,000 trees will be felled. He said the 17,500 figure in the contract is not a target and instead is a form of 'insurance' which allows the council to have trees replaced at no extra cost should there be a major outbreak of disease which meant a larger number than expected needed replacing.

But he admitted this position is not reflected in the wording of the contract. He said: “The wording is there. I appreciate what it reads if you just read it in there and it reads quite damning if you look at that. But we have been clear throughout that we say 10,000 trees.”

The relevant passage of the contract, released after a year-long Freedom of Information battle by campaigners, says: “The service provider [Amey] shall replace highway trees in accordance with the annual tree management programme at a rate of not less than 200 per year so that 17,500 highway trees are replaced by the end of the term, such replacement to be in accordance with the Highway Tree Replacement Policy, unless authority [Sheffield Council] approval has been obtained for deviation from this policy.”

The council has continued to keep details of the Highway Tree Replacement Policy secret, with it currently remaining among the redacted elements of the contract.

While the council insist only trees that are dead, dying, diseased or dangerous are being removed and then replaced, protesters argue that many do not need to be chopped down and the work is being carried out for cost reasons.

In recent weeks, dozens of police officers and private security guards hired by Amey have been attending tree-felling operations in the city, with several arrests of campaigners made.

Mr Gove demanded an end to the controversial felling of street trees in the city last year over concerns about the way decisions about which trees were removed and then replaced with saplings were being made. On a subsequent trip to Sheffield, he described the way the programme was being carried out as part of a 25-year highways maintenance contract with private company Amey as “bonkers”.

Sheffield Council responded at the time by highlighting that the PFI contract was signed to access over £1bn of Government funding and said that every tree due to be felled is to be replaced on a one-to-one basis. In a letter of response to Mr Gove sent in August, Coun Lodge said halting the contract would represent “profound financial imprudence” and have “dire environmental consequences”.

“Failure to do anything, or to stop mid-way through the programme, would be morally reprehensible and penalise a majority of Sheffield residents at the behest of a vocal minority,” Coun Lodge said at the time.

He said trees selected for removal were chosen for specific reasons.

"We are not removing healthy trees because we take any satisfaction in doing so, a tree is only marked for replacement under the Streets Ahead contract if it is dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging (footpaths, private property or roads) ordiscriminatory (meaning the tree creates difficulty for elderly, disabled and partially-sighted people when using the footpath)."

The council also highlighted today that it had surveyed 26,000 households about planned street tree replacement on their roads as part of a process where an Independent Tree Panel would make recommendations on whether controversial felling work could be avoided.