Details of the 18-month contract with Weightmans LLP, which started in August and is due to run until February 2023, have been published online. It said the contract is for “external legal advice to set up and run an independent tree inquiry”.
The council, which is in the process of appointing an independent chair to oversee the inquiry, said it has not yet set an overall budget for the investigation.
It comes shortly after it was revealed Sheffield Council is facing a £98m funding gap for the next financial year, with hundreds of redundancies planned and council tax due to rise.
The tree inquiry will be formally launched at the end of March 2022 with a public event at which the chair will present their terms of reference for the investigation and outline a plan and timetable.
The inquiry was ordered in May this year 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 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.
Councillor Julie Grocutt, Labour’s Deputy Leader for Sheffield City Council and Councillor Douglas Johnson, Green Party Executive Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport, said: “The overall budget and timeframe for the Independent Street Tree Inquiry has not yet been set. Once the Independent Chair has been appointed, they will set the Terms of Reference and outline any additional support they need to carry out the inquiry as effectively as possible, this will then inform the expected associated costs for the inquiry and the timeframe for it to be delivered.
“It is important that we get this work right for Sheffield and we are committed to delivering a thorough inquiry within a reasonable timeframe. We are on track to appoint a Chair in the early New Year so more clarity on cost and timings will be available then.
“Weightmans LLP are appointed as independent legal advisers for the duration of the Independent Inquiry. They will provide support and advice to council officers around recruitment of the Independent Chair and will remain in place to support the chair once appointed.”
Weightmans LLP was contacted for comment.