Law firm's probe into Sheffield Council's secrecy tactics on tree-felling saga nears completion

A long-running investigation into attempts by senior Sheffield Council officials to prevent discussions about the city’s contentious mass tree-felling programme becoming public by marking emails ‘not subject to FoI’ has moved a step closer to completion.

The council hired external law firm Bevan Brittan last year to investigate attempts to use legal privilege to stop emails entering the public domain via Freedom of Information requests following complaints about the practice. It had initially been hoped the investigation would be finished by May 2021 but it is still ongoing.

The council’s interim chief executive Eugene Walker has confirmed Bevan Brittan has now completed a draft copy of the report.

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Mr Walker said: “Due to the scope of the enquiry and the volume of documents involved, it has taken longer than anticipated to identify and provide all the required information to Bevan Brittan.

Tree-felling work in Sheffield was the subject of major controversy. Picture: Scott Merrylees

“However, the council has now received a draft copy of the report and will be giving feedback to Bevan Brittan in coming weeks to enable a final version to be created.

“Once the final report has been through the correct processes, it will then be published.”

Mr Walker has previously admitted some emails had been “incorrectly marked” and were not exempt from release under Freedom of Information laws.

The investigation was launched following a complaint by street tree campaigner and Freedom of Information (FOI) expert Marcus Combie to the council in relation to its use of legal privilege in emails and FoI.

Emails involving senior council officers about Operation Quito - a major police operation supporting the council’s street tree-felling operations in early 2018 in light of increasing protests against the policy - were released to Mr Combie in late 2019.

Several of them were given the subject line ‘Covered by legal privilege and not subject to FOI’ and largely related to the council’s involvement in a shared media strategy with South Yorkshire Police and a wish not to publicise it for fear of ‘politicising’ the force’s operation.

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