Sheffield trees dispute put people on both sides 'through hell', says council leader

People on both sides of the Sheffield tree-felling dispute "went through hell", city council leader Terry Fox has said.

Sir Mark Lowcock's inquiry report published earlier this week set out how councillors, council staff and contractors had faced verbal attacks and online abuse over the felling programme from some protesters, while campaigners facing threats of jail and huge legal fees suffered from mental health problems.

An increasingly-bitter dispute over the mass felling of street trees and their replacement with saplings as part of a council highways contract lasted for years until being paused in March 2018 in the face of increasing protests.

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Sir Mark’s report said: “People on all sides suffered anxiety, stress, injuries and wider physical and mental health problems which, as would have been evident to anyone who watched the Inquiry’s public hearings and was even clearer from our private discussions, some continue to carry.”

Tree protestors and police on Abbeydale Park Rise as Amey attempted to cut down more trees in 2018.Tree protestors and police on Abbeydale Park Rise as Amey attempted to cut down more trees in 2018.
Tree protestors and police on Abbeydale Park Rise as Amey attempted to cut down more trees in 2018.

The report said some council staff faced abuse in the street over the issue.

It said: “Junior and senior Council staff report being confronted in the street, supermarkets and parks while with their children. Some report being subject to scrutiny from family members or friends as tensions around the trees spilled over into their personal lives. Others reported that working for Sheffield Council made it harder for them to find other jobs because of the dispute. This was exacerbated for some whose names appeared in FOI request responses but should not have been made public.

"Council staff of all levels were also subject to their names and photographs being posted on social media by protesters, leading to an increase in harassment outside of work.”

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The report said there was a rise in sick leave, stress and mental health issues amongst staff and “some even felt forced to move house” while others left council jobs.

Campaigners also faced what they described as “acute anxiety and distress” at being pursued through the courts and threatened with expensive legal costs.

The inquiry said the council’s combative approach to the overall issue was “the fuel that drove the protests”.

Sheffield Council leader Terry Fox told The Yorkshire Post: “Going through that at the time, it did get very heated and some of the council’s actions fuelled the campaigners and we wholeheartedly apologise for that.

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“Obviously for our staff, for previous councillors, I know some went through hell because I know them personally. I’m sure some campaigners did too.

"This isn’t our finest hour.”

Sheffield Council chief executive Kate Josephs said the council intends to personally apologise to people affected by the dispute.

She said: “It is very clear from the report that we as a council we need to make sincere personal apologies to a significant number of people individually.

“We’re going to take time to identify every single person and reach out to them directly.

“This is a different organisation now and we have moved on in lots of ways.”