Paul Scriven: Sheffield trees scandal – South Yorkshire Police must not be above the law

Tree protests in Kenwood Road, Sheffield.
Tree protests in Kenwood Road, Sheffield.
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YOU can’t see the wood for the trees? That phrase sums up the way Sheffield is being run at the moment.

The sorry saga over the way the Streets Ahead contract is being implemented is no longer simply about tree felling, but how the city is governed and policed. Sheffield Council and South Yorkshire Police just can’t see that.

As a former leader of the council, I can no longer sit back and not seriously challenge how the heavy-handed and, it seems, co-ordinated tactics of the council and police are being used to try to quash mainly legitimate protest. Both the council and the police have forgotten who they serve.

That is why, after seeing dawn raids at 5am and people being thrown to the ground as 33 police officers protect 20 members of ‘Amey’s private security army’ (all this to fell one tree, by the way), I am using my position as a member of the House of Lords to try to bring a sense of perspective and proportion to the issue while holding the police and council to account.

Enough is enough.

The police are not above the law and that is why Stephen Watson, the Chief Constable, now has to explain not just to me but to the very community he serves the way he and his team have decided to police tree felling in the way they have.

The 11 questions I have asked him go right to the heart of what policing means in an open democratic society. His answers will tell us much more than how he polices tree felling. They will give an insight into the way South Yorkshire Police operates and if they do really police without fear or favour. Have they truly learnt from the mistakes of the past and started to do things differently?

Clear rules are laid down on how police CCTV evidence-gathering can be set up and used. They also dictate how the police should deploy officers, based on risk and public threat.

The people of Sheffield now need to know if the Chief Constable and his senior management team have operated to those rules. That is the information I wish to learn and share with the public. It feels, on the ground, that they have gone over the top and acted in a very heavy-handed manner.

I am not saying they shouldn’t keep the peace and deal with those who break the law. Of course they should. But the way they carry out their duties has to be in proportion to the challenge they face and done in a way that is balanced and neutral.

Thirty-three officers to keep 20 private security officers safe just doesn’t look 
like that. The threat they have faced is mainly from retired citizens handing 
out boiled sweets and singing protest songs!

It is vital if we as a city are to move forward and free ourselves from this sorry mess the three Ts must be rebuilt between the council, police and the people they serve: transparency, trust and the truth.

The Chief Constable’s answers can start by being totally transparent on how they have decided to deploy so many police, based on the nature of the risk they face. If they do that, we will start to get to the truth on how of the city is being policed. Then we can start to rebuild the trust this city deserves.

If not, then the feeling that the police and council are colluding to undermine and intimidate individual citizens coming together to protest at tree felling will only grow stronger.

Over to you Chief Constable Watson.

Paul Scriven is a former leader of Sheffield City Council. He’s a Lib Dem peer.