“For the avoidance of doubt, the vast majority of street trees in Sheffield are being retained (30,000 out of 36,000),” his witness statement given last summer very clearly states. It is a number that would be enough to reassure a judge being asked to assess the public impact of the scale of the felling programme, but a number which now bears no resemblance to reality.
In fact, the felling number uncovered by the ICO is 17,500 – half of the city’s trees – which is significantly more than Mr Billington stated to the High Court.
The council claims this number is not a target, instead suggesting felling 10,000 trees is its aim. This remains 4,000 more than Mr Billington told a court. Quite why Sheffield’s director of culture and environment underestimated the number of trees that were due to be felled under the Streets Ahead contract is unclear, ergo he now has a responsibility to satisfy residents of Sheffield with a credible explanation.
Unless he does so, this misguided policy which is now earning national notoriety will prove to be even more damaging to Sheffield’s reputation. The lack of clarity, transparency and accountability that has gone before has already eroded confidence in both the council and South Yorkshire Police, which also faces serious questions of its own about the heavy-handedness of officers being deployed to assist Amey’s security staff at tree-felling sites.
It is now incumbent upon Mr Billington and Sheffield City Council to explain quite why he was previously so wide of the mark.
Today’s anodyne response from the authority, which does nothing to defend its under-fire director, simply will not do.