Sheffield Council accused of 'fabrication' of tree strategy cited in court case

A leading tree campaigner has accused Sheffield Council of the 'fabrication' of a strategy document cited in a court decision to rule out a judicial review of felling operations in the city.

Paul Brooke (centre) made the claim during a press conference in Sheffield.

Paul Brooke, co-chair of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups, made the claim at a press conference on Friday about the ongoing row over the removal of thousands of street trees, which are then replaced with saplings.

The strategy - which stated felling was only being done under a £2.2bn highways maintenance contract between the council and contractor Amey as a ‘last resort’, with a range of engineering solutions considered first - was first made public in early 2016, shortly before tree campaigner Dave Dillner went to High Court to seek a judicial review of council decisions.

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In April 2016, Mr Justice Gilbart rejected the application as “misconceived” after citing the strategy, which had been brought to the court’s attention by Mr Dillner, as an “important document” in assessing the council’s approach to felling. Sheffield Council today said documents used in the proceedings contained “legitimate information” and categorically rejected the suggestion there had been an attempt to mislead the court.

The five-year strategy for 2012 to 2017 lists six previous versions of it dating back to February 2013 on its opening page. But a subsequent Freedom of Information request by campaigners to see the previous versions was initially rejected on the grounds they were “commercially sensitive”. The council subsequently revised its position to say the information was “not held” in any form and said there was no statutory requirement or “business purpose” to retain earlier versions of the document.

Last week, it was revealed a separate Freedom of Information response had confirmed the strategy, which is currently in the process of being updated, is superseded by what is contained in the contract - leading campaigners to describe the strategy as ‘worthless’.

The council is currently refusing to reveal the wording of its ‘Highway Tree Replacement Policy’ contained in the contract on the grounds it is reviewing whether it can publish it at a later date.

At the press conference, Mr Brooke said: “If that document [the strategy], as we suspect, was created in 2016 for publication but is dated as though it started in 2012, there are serious questions about whether that may present an issue of misleading the court and misleading the public. We consider that to be a very serious matter.

"My personal opinion is that document was produced in order to provide positive evidence at the High Court judicial review Dillner case of each tree being assessed independently, there not being a target for felling and each tree being considered on its merits. That resulted in the much-used phrase ‘trees are only felled as a last resort’.

"My personal view is that was created for that purpose and did not exist in 2012. In terms of then being able to identify the list of highway engineering solutions, eight of those are actually prohibited by the terms of the contract. So to produce a document that led the public to believe that each tree was assessed and looked at 14 highway engineering solutions appears to be a fabrication.”

A council spokeswoman said: “There has been categorically no attempt to mislead the court by any council officers and we reject any such suggestion. All documents which were relied upon during court proceedings in 2016 were in existence and contained legitimate information to support the council’s case.”