South Yorkshire Police has revealed it spent £47,000 on overtime in just one month as it sent dozens of extra officers to tree-felling operations in Sheffield - as the only protester to be charged so far during that time said the case against him had been dropped.
The force made the decision to send additional officers to work following what it termed as “disorder and violence” in January after clashes between protesters and private security guards hired by council contractor Amey.
The new policy started from February 26 and continued until work was put on hold by Amey and the council on March 26 in the wake of a growing national outcry. Thousands of street trees are being removed in the city and replaced with saplings as part of the 25-year Streets Ahead highways maintenance contract between Sheffield Council and Amey but campaigners have argued that many healthy trees are being removed unnecessarily.
The revised police operation which started in late February saw over 30 officers being sent out on some days to accompany private security guards to felling operations, with almost 20 arrests of campaigners protesting against the removal of trees. In one of most-publicised incidents, a woman was arrested for blowing a toy horn under the Public Order Act.
One man, Justin Buxton, was charged with obstructing the highway and was due to appear in court next Tuesday but told The Yorkshire Post today he was informed on Friday afternoon that the case against him has been discontinued by the CPS. He said he had been arrested after crossing a road near to a tree-felling operation by some temporary traffic lights on the alleged grounds that both lights had to be turned to red because of where he was standing.
Speaking on Friday morning at a press conference organised by the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) and attended by representatives from South Yorkshire Police, Superintendent Paul McCurry said the force had attempted to use officers working on their normal shifts, with these costs part of the normal policing budget.
When asked if the current police approach was sustainable with 19 years of the contract left and thousands of trees still to be felled, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts said: “Money we spend on this is money we can’t spend on something else. But our level of resources is determined by what we think is safe and what we think is going to happen - that is the way we arrive at the level of resources. In terms of is it sustainable, well we have got to have a sustainable operation. Our core responsibility is to keep people safe.
"We would rather not have that charge but it is not something we can seek to wriggle out from under. That is one of the reasons we are so keen to engage today. We see if we can have an effective communication - it is better but equally it is a more cost-effective way of doing things if we can have a conversation and resolve things.”
Speaking after the meeting, Chris Rust, co-chair of STAG, said he believed the true cost of the operation would be much higher if it included money spent directing officers from their normal duties.
Mr Roberts said while there is an “ongoing dialogue” with the council and Amey, the police would not seek to influence their tree-felling policy approach.
The deputy chief constable insisted the police had been “fair and balanced” in its approach to dealing with the tree-felling operations after being criticised for a perceived lack of impartiality.
“I’m not a puppet for anyone, South Yorkshire Police is not a puppet for anyone,” he said.
But he initially would not comment on why South Yorkshire Police had allowed senior Sheffield Council staff to be ‘co-located’ in its control room when recent felling operations were taking place. Sheffield Council had been invited to attend the meeting, but declined this week citing purdah rules which limit what officials can say in the run-up to an election.
Mr Roberts said: “I’m not going to comment on anything to touch on the council because of the fact they are not represented.”
But following a further question about the issue asking him to explain the police's perspective, he said: “We need to understand what operations are taking place so we can base our policing response on what we think is going to happen. That requires a degree of dialogue with the people who are initiating that.”
Mr Roberts said at the end of the meeting: “We won’t get everything right 100 per cent of the time, we acknowledge that. We recognise that predominantly we are dealing with people here who aren’t criminals. They are not trying to do anything nefarious. They are articulating a strongly-held belief but there has to be an acceptance that has to be done in legal bounds.”