Sheffield Council confident of appointing 'excellent' chair for tree-felling inquiry

Sheffield Council is “confident of securing an excellent candidate” to lead an independent inquiry into the city’s tree-felling debacle, the local authority has said.

The height of the tree-felling dispute saw dozens of police officers and private security guards supporting the council's controversial operations.
The height of the tree-felling dispute saw dozens of police officers and private security guards supporting the council's controversial operations.

The inquiry is due to begin in March next year into the controversial circumstances around the felling of thousands of street trees - many of them healthy - as part of a highways improvement contract between the council and its contractor, Amey.

The council started advertising for an independent chair for the inquiry in November, with the deadline for applications falling on December 10.

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While the council has refused to state how many people have applied for the position after being asked by The Yorkshire Post, an update on a dedicated webpage for the inquiry says: “We have received significant interest in the role and are confident of securing an excellent candidate for the position.”

Interviews for the chair will take place in early January, with the selected candidate being announced by the end of the month.

The inquiry will be formally launched at the end of March, with a public event at which the chair will present their terms of reference for the investigation and outline a plan and timetable.

The chair’s work will be supported by a legal firm, Weightmans, which has been appointed as independent legal advisers for the duration of the inquiry.

The inquiry was ordered in May as part of a power-sharing deal between Labour and the Green Party after the former group, which was in charge during the saga, lost overall control of the council in the local elections.

Prior to the elections, Labour had been resisting an inquiry into the saga, which saw thousands of street trees felled and replaced with saplings as part of a £2bn highways management contract with Amey.

Campaigners argued many of the fellings had involved healthy trees and had been unnecessary.

The increasingly-bitter dispute reached its height in early 2018 when dozens of police officers and private security guards accompanied daily felling operations in the wake of growing protests.

The council has since changed course and adopted a strategy designed to save more trees.

In October 2020, the local authority was ordered to apologise to the people of the city after a damning Ombudsman report found that it had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a “lack of honesty” over the course of the tree felling saga.

The controversial felling programme was also the catalyst for the It’s Our City referendum to shake up the way the city is governed. Voters in May backed the council moving to a committee system for making decisions to replace the ‘strong leader’ cabinet system that had been in place during the tree felling saga.

Inquiry aims to rebuild trust

One of the key purposes of the inquiry is to “rebuild trust between Sheffield Council and residents”, the local authority has said.

The inquiry webpage sets out three key aims for the inquiry process, including that ambition as well as investigating and understanding what happened and why and making recommendations for the future.

The council said: “We want to make this inquiry as transparent as possible and keep the public up to date with its progress.”

It is intended that dates and times for all meetings and evidence sessions will be published online.

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