Sheffield Council will consider inquiry into tree-felling scandal, senior politician says

Sheffield Council will consider ordering an independent inquiry into what caused the multiple failings around its controversial policy to fell thousands of street trees, one of its most senior politicians has said.

Members of the public look on as contractors cut down a tree in Rustlings Road on November 17, 2016. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Members of the public look on as contractors cut down a tree in Rustlings Road on November 17, 2016. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Cabinet member for streetscene Mark Jones told The Yorkshire Post such an inquiry could be part of the “healing process” following a damning report by the Local Government Ombudsman earlier this week which found the council had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a “lack of honesty” over the issue.

He said: “I think we can’t take anything off the table or we risk going back to where we were before. Whatever we do going forward, it needs to be real and genuine. Whatever we do needs to be genuinely a reconciliation process, not looking for revenge.”

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Around 5,500 trees - 2,000 of them healthy but deemed to be damaging pavements and road surfaces - were chopped down and replaced with saplings under a £2bn highways project called Streets Ahead that started in 2012. Felling work was paused in spring 2018 as growing protests against the work attracted international condemnation when dozens of police officers and private security guards were sent to support the operations and multiple arrests were made

The council also made attempts in court to have a number of demonstrators jailed for breaching a protest injunction, with three given suspended jail sentences.

A new strategy has since been introduced following lengthy talks with campaigners and hundreds of previously at-risk trees have now been saved from the axe through solutions such as kerb repairs.

One of the key findings of the Ombudsman’s report was that prior to the change in approach, the council had taken the “unacceptable” decision to publish official strategy documents which said its contract Amey would consider 14 possible fixes before removing any tree.

The council repeatedly claimed in public that removing trees was a “last resort” but the Ombudsman found the 14 fixes were never part of the contract and Amey “would never use some of the ‘solutions’ referred to”.

Coun Jones, who was elected as a councillor in 2016 and took up his cabinet post last year, said he was unable to explain what had gone so wrong.

“That is the bit I can’t quite get my head around,” he said. “The desire was to develop better roads and somewhere along the way we seemed to lose sight that the trees are not just something that damaged them but have value in themselves. At some stage that seems to have got lost. I don’t know how that happened.”

The Ombudsman has given Sheffield Council three months to respond to explain what action it plans to take or proposes to take as a result of its findings and will then decide whether sufficient steps have been taken to put things right.

As part of the process, the findings of the report must be discussed by councillors either at a cabinet meeting, during full council or an “appropriately delegated committee”.

Coun Jones said the idea of ordering an independent inquiry - something that campaigners have long called for - into what went wrong is likely to be among the discussion points but said he could not yet say whether one would be ordered.

“There may be, there may not be. There may still be need for one or there may not be one,” he said.

“We need to reflect on everything and where we are. It may be needed as part of the healing process.”

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Thank you

James Mitchinson