Why an inquiry is needed to get to roots of Sheffield tree-felling scandal: Rich Ward

IN 2019 the Sheffield street trees saga entered a new phase of constructive co-operation. After years of struggle between citizens and the city council (SCC), we see previously “impossible” kerb repairs routinely used to save trees condemned, supposedly, as a “last resort”. Contractors previously tied to the grim felling programme have been using their skills to conserve our highway trees.

Should there be a 'lessons learned' inquiry into the Sheffield tree felling scandal?

Before agreeing to work with campaigners, SCC received severe criticism from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Forestry Commission, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) and a great many independent experts in arboriculture.

Another bombshell hit in October 2020 when the LGO made scathing criticism of the implementation of the tree-felling programme, following a complaint by Sheffield resident Alan Robshaw (sadly he died before the ombudsman reported).

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The ombudsman told the council to “consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it should learn as a result of how it implemented its Streets Ahead programme. In particular, how it can embed the principles of openness and accountability across all its services.”

There are continuing calls for an inquiry into the Sheffield tree-felling scandal.

Unless that consideration is made public, openness and accountability remain in question.

Pursuing this, members of the public asked questions at SCC cabinet meetings. This month even this fragment of accountability was curtailed – the public are no longer able to ask the questions themselves. Instead an edited version is read out by an SCC officer. Transparency requires SCC to publish its response to the ombudsman. It has not done so.

We know much about what happened during the Streets Ahead highway maintenance contract. Some problems are self-evident. But back before the 25-year contract was signed, there were signs of bad judgement and bad practice at a high level. Campaigners have evidence that employee representatives were concerned about the public reaction to mass fellings, but this was not recorded.

Similarly, the council leaned heavily on a highway tree survey conducted before planning started. It asserted repeatedly that a very large proportion of the trees were nearing the end of their natural lives and needed to be replaced. In fact, that is a crude misrepresentation of the survey.

Such misjudgements, doubled down on by SCC, were embedded in a vast Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to repair and maintain all the city’s roads over 25 years.

Campaigners have questioned whether SCC was competent to conduct such a complex scheme. Perhaps no authority could be expected to set in stone a reliable plan for such a long period.

An independent inquiry would be key learning for any public authority expected to conduct vast public contracts with care, transparency and accountability.

The protracted tree dispute was a public relations disaster for Sheffield Council. Its response to protests was pursued with an authoritarian zeal by Sheffield’s then leader, Coun Julie Dore, and her cabinet. The collapse in community relations was shocking. The police were dragged into the dispute at great cost. But the street trees saga is a symptom of deeper issues.

Julie Dore said that an inquiry is not needed because there won’t be another PFI contract like Streets Ahead. This denies the purpose of an inquiry. Without a proper airing, suspicions will fester and inevitably some will suggest that the reluctance for scrutiny indicates that there is something to hide. After all, the council spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal action to try to suppress campaigners.

Finally we should notice the personal impact of the debacle on many individuals who were drawn into the struggle to save “their” trees. Some have criminal records, many were arrested and shut in the cells with long periods under the threat of prosecution. Some were threatened with dire consequences in the civil courts, including bankruptcy or losing their homes.

People were attacked by security guards and arrested by the police in front of their own homes. Many stood in the freezing cold for weeks to defend their local environment from the authorities. All of those people deserve an opportunity to find out why it all happened.

The public deserves assurance that these mistakes will not be repeated. An independent inquiry would be an investment in good governance and democratic accountability.

Rich Ward is a member of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups.

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