A leading Sheffield councillor has apologised for the way in which the authority handled the city’s tree-felling saga which involved dozens of arrests, multiple court cases and the use of private security guards and police officers to support operations.
Speaking after it was revealed last week that more than 200 trees previously listed for felling as part of a £2bn highways improvement programme have now been saved from the axe following fresh inspections, Councillor Lewis Dagnall, cabinet member for Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change, told BBC Radio Sheffield this morning he regretted how the situation had been dealt with previously.
“I’m personally sorry about the situation we got into and the impasse that was reached,” he said.
“I’m sorry to those workers on this programme, the campaigners and the residents most of all who just wanted good quality highways without this controversy. I’m personally regretful that we reached the position that we did. But that underlines how happy I am that we have found a way forward.”
In March 2018, work to remove thousands of street trees in the city and replace them with saplings as part of the £2bn Streets Ahead highways programme with Amey was put on hold following increasing protests against the strategy and national political condemnation of the use of dozens of police officers and private security guards to support operations.
Councillor Dagnall was appointed to the cabinet post overseeing the issue in May 2018 after his predecessor Bryan Lodge resigned following what council leader Julie Dore called “an enormous amount of personal abuse” directed towards the latter man.
At that time, around 300 trees earmarked for felling during the first five years of a 25-year contract had still yet to be removed after about 5,700 trees had been axed already. Campaigners argued many healthy trees could have been saved but the council repeatedly said removals were only carried out as a “last resort”.
Following several months of talks, a new approach was introduced this year using other solutions such as kerb repairs to reduce tree removals. Of the at-risk trees inspected so far, just one has been deemed unsaveable with 191 “retained on a longer-term basis” and 26 requiring “bespoke solutions”.
Coun Dagnall told the BBC he did not accept the council was wrong to previously say trees were only being removed as a “last resort” despite the u-turn on many of those previously earmarked for removal. He said the change in policy was due to Amey agreeing to foot the bill for additional repair work.
“There was a programme agreed between the council and Amey and supported by the Department for Transport,” he said.
“If the council had wanted to change the policy, we would have taken on greater financial liability and had to put in money up front. What has changed is as part of the compromise, we have got Amey to compromise. Amey are putting the money in upfront.”
But campaigners say many of the solutions now being used to save trees were already available for use according to a past Streets Ahead strategy document which listed 14 engineering solutions that would be considered before felling took place.
Paul Brooke, co-chair of Sheffield Trees Action Groups, said: “We are happy to accept that the 26 in the council report that require a ‘bespoke solution’ need something that will cost extra money but the others that have been saved don’t require anything bespoke.
"We haven’t seen anything done so far that isn’t one of the solutions and I am aware of two trees on one road which they have said can be retained and they have done no work on because no work has been required.”
Mr Brooke gave a qualified welcome to Coun Dagnall's apology.
"It is the first time we have a senior politician apologise for the situation we are in. It is a start. We have always said we can continue to work with Lewis and he has tried to make a difference. But we need some real honesty on this."