A 15-month Forestry Commission investigation which has been published today said there had been failures in "record keeping, engagement and consultation, tree management techniques and contract management". Sheffield Council said it will "consider what lessons can be learned" from the findings.
But it said there was "insufficient evidence to say with confidence that an offence of felling without a felling licence has been committed" by Sheffield Council and its highways contractor Amey as it removed mature trees from city streets and replaced them with saplings.
The felling programme has attracted repeated protests from campaigners who have argued many healthy trees have been felled unnecessarily and in early 2018, increasing demonstrations resulted in the use of dozens of private security guards and police officers to support operations, with multiple arrests made. The work was put on hold in March 2018 and a new approach designed to save more trees from the axe by employing solutions such as kerb repairs introduced earlier this year following talks. Over 200 trees previously scheduled for felling have been given a reprieve so far.
Sheffield Council had previously repeatedly claimed that felling was only undertaken as a "last resort".
The Forestry Commission report said that under the Streets Ahead highways contract between the two parties, 5,478 street trees were felled in the city between 2012 and 2018 with the Streets Ahead contract containing "a commitment to fell 200 trees per annum".
The Forestry Commission said concerns about potentially illegal felling had been first raised with the Government agency in autumn 2016 but at that stage it had been content to accept the council's claim that its felling work was covered by its legal duties to maintain public highways and therefore a licence was not required. But it said the situation changed in early 2018 when details of the Streets Ahead contract were revealed in early 2018 which revealed a commitment to fell 200 trees per year.
The report said: "This commitment left open the possibility that those trees were not felled in response to a statutory duty, but as a result of a contractual agreement and SCC policy decision. As such there was a credible possibility that a felling licence may have been required."
It said that as a result, an investigation was launched which had to rely on historic photographic and Google StreetView evidence to determine whether or not a licence would have been required due to a lack of existing evidence at the various felling sites.
The investigation has now concluded that there is "insufficient evidence" to bring a prosecution but has strongly criticised Sheffield Council in a number of areas.
It said: "The Forestry Commission believes Sheffield City Council, and other local authorities, must take note of these lessons learnt for future operations."
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who has been an outspoken critic of the Sheffield felling programme and whose department oversees the Forestry Commission, said today: “Councils across the country should be taking note of the lessons from this report.
“Not only did Sheffield City Council fell swathes of precious street trees unnecessarily, it failed to keep proper felling records, it did not adequately consult the community and it did not openly engage with the Forestry Commission on its subsequent investigation. This demonstrated a casual disregard which the report says may have even resulted in greater costs to the taxpayer.
“We must not let this happen again, which is why we are bringing forward legislation to create greater protections for our vital urban trees and make sure residents have a say on the management of these important natural assets.”
A Forestry Commission spokesperson said: “The Forestry Commission investigation into alleged illegal felling as part of Sheffield City Council’s Streets Ahead programme has found insufficient evidence to say that an offence of felling without a licence has been committed, however they did not follow good practice when it comes to the management of street trees.
“Alongside the publication of these findings we have provided good practice guidance for councils across the country to ensure all viable alternative solutions are considered before felling.”
Sheffield Tree Action Groups campaigner Paul Selby said: “STAG has submitted lots of evidence to the Forestry Commission throughout the course of their 15 month investigation. This includes before and after photos of hundreds of trees that have already been felled, together with the weak Sheffield Council justifications for their felling.
"We’ve also shown them evidence from the recent joint investigations of trees that were previously listed for felling as a last resort, but which have now been saved using simple cheap solutions.
"There is no difference in the alleged damage being caused by the trees that have been saved, and those that have already been felled. In other words, the trees already felled were unnecessarily felled, and did not need to be felled to meet Highways Act obligations.
"Sheffield Council therefore did not have an exemption, and hence were required to apply for a licence, but didn’t. This means these trees were felled illegally.
"I’m disappointed that the Forestry Commission felt there was not enough evidence to take Sheffield Council to court, even though I fully agree with their criticisms of Sheffield Council and Amey.”
A Sheffield City Council spokesperson said: "The Forestry Commission have confirmed that the tree replacement work between 2013 and 2018 was authorised by the duties imposed on the Council by the Highways Act 1980. We will carefully consider the findings of their report and consider what lessons can be learned.
"Since March 2018 the programme of work has been paused, to allow sustained engagement with community stakeholders. The Council's Cabinet received a report earlier this week on progress that has been made as a result, with the new approach seeing the retention of many more trees."