Sheffield Council commits to tree-felling saga inquiry as part of Labour and Green Party deal

Sheffield Council has ordered an independent inquiry into the management of its notorious tree-felling saga as part of a new power-sharing deal between Labour and the Green Party.

Following local election results earlier this month which saw Labour lose overall control of the council but remain its largest party, a new "cooperative administration" between Labour and the Greens was announced this morning.

A press release on the "first-year steps" for the new administration, whose Cabinet will initially be run by seven Labour councillors and three Greens, includes the appointment of an independent person to run an inquiry into the management of the street trees dispute.

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The inquiry is expected to start in the autumn. A statement said: "Details are yet to be confirmed but this work is expected to launch in the autumn, with the aim of reflecting on and understanding what unfolded, to learn any lessons, and to support Sheffield to move forward confidently."

A protest against the council's tree-felling strategy in 2018. Picture: Dean Atkins.

Prior to this month's election, 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 tree 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 last year, the council was ordered to apologise to the people of the city after a damning Ombudsman report found it had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a "lack of honesty" over the course of the saga.

The saga was also the catalyst for the It's Our City referendum to shake up the way the city is governed. Voters backed the council moving to a committee system for making decisions to replace the 'strong leader' Cabinet system that is currently in place. Part of the new administration's work will be piloting a new committee model.

The Green Party's Alison Teal and Douglas Johnson, with Labour's Terry Fox and Julie Grocutt. Picture: Chris Etchells

Justin Buxton, co-chair of Sheffield Trees Action Groups who campaigned against the felling work, said of the inquiry: "We welcome the long-hoped for announcement of an inquiry into the council's controversial street tree felling programme.

"Without an independently chaired investigation into what went wrong, it's difficult for residents to believe that mistakes like these won't be made again in this or other areas.

"As major stakeholders we look forward to contributing to and advising on the terms of reference of the inquiry from the outset, including the selection of an independent chair. Once the inquiry has been instigated, we would like to maintain an ongoing contribution and consultation role."

Councillor Terry Fox, Leader of the Labour Group and the new council leader, said of the power-sharing arrangement: “We are delighted to announce this agreement today which represents a new era of politics in our city. Our priority is to put Sheffield first and party politics aside.

"I know that many people thought that this sort of agreement would not be possible and parties wouldn’t be able to work together. I would like to thank the Greens for the way in which they have conducted the negotiations. I look forward to working with them in this partnership.”

Among the appointments to the new cabinet is the Green Party's Alison Teal, who has been given the portfolio of sustainable neighbourhoods, wellbeing, parks and leisure. Coun Teal faced legal proceedings in 2017 in which Sheffield Council applied for her to be committed to prison for allegedly breaching a civil injunction against protesting directly under threatened trees but the case against her was dismissed in court.

She said today: "I don’t underestimate the personal, as well as political, challenge of working with the Labour group, considering my history in opposition. However, we are facing unprecedented circumstances which demand new ways of working. We must co-operate with other parties in the best interests of residents, the city, and the environment. I am pleased to be a part of this, and I am optimistic for this new co-operative Cabinet."

The Liberal Democrats, who are the second-largest party on the council, declined an offer to be part of a "rainbow coalition" with Labour and the Greens.

The party's leader Coun Shaffaq Mohammed said there needed to be a strong opposition to challenge decisions made by the new administration.

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