Sheffield Council boss underestimated city's tree-felling numbers in court case

A senior Sheffield Council officer in charge of the city's controversial tree-felling strategy significantly underestimated the number of trees that were due to be felled when giving evidence to a court case that resulted in campaigners being handed protest injunctions, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.

Paul Billington oversees Sheffield Council's tree-felling work.
Paul Billington oversees Sheffield Council's tree-felling work.

Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at Sheffield City Council, provided a witness statement to the High Court in Leeds last summer which said 6,000 trees were to be removed in the city and replaced with saplings as part of a £2.2bn highways maintenance contact with private firm Amey signed in 2012.

But a previously-redacted part of the contract published on Friday revealed the contract contains a target to replace 17,500 trees by the end of its 25-year term.

Thousands of trees are being removed in the city and replaced with saplings.

Contained in the witness statement obtained by The Yorkshire Post, Mr Billington said around 6,000 trees were programmed to be felled between 2012 and December 2017. He added: “For the avoidance of doubt, the vast majority of street trees in Sheffield are being retained (30,000 out of 36,000).”

Sheffield Council said today Mr Billington's reference to 30,000 being retained was related to the first five years of the contract. There is no reference in the rest of Mr Billington’s 17-page witness statement to numbers of other trees to be felled after the first five years.

Mr Justice Males, the judge in the High Court case, subsequently granted the injunctions banning protests in August taking place directly underneath threatened trees.

He described in his ruling how Mr Billington had explained that Amey had surveyed all 36,000 street trees in Sheffield and recommended to the council which needed to removed, with the authority making the final decision.

Thousands of trees are being removed in the city and replaced with saplings.

Justice Males said: “The result of this process was that about 6,000 trees were identified as requiring removal.”

But on Friday night, the council was forced by the Information Commissioner to publish previously-redacted sections of the highways contract linked to felling work which includes a target to replace 17,500 trees, including a contractual obligation to fell “not less than 200 per year”. Sheffield Council today highlighted a press release it had issued in February 2017, prior to the court hearing, which said around 200 trees per year would be replaced over the last 20 years of the contract “to ensure the health of the city’s tree stock”.

Mr Billington’s statement said trees were selected for removal for one of six reasons; if they are either dead, dying, diseased, decaying, damaging to the highway or third party properties or ‘discriminatory’ - affecting the ability of members of the public to use the highway.

In contrast, campaigners argued that healthy mature trees were being felled for cost and contractual reasons rather than environmental or health and safety grounds.

Justice Males said in the August ruling: “I accept Mr Billington’s evidence that the objective of the council has been to retain trees where possible within the financial constraints under which the council has had to operate.

“As he said, nobody in his team wants to fell healthy trees unnecessarily.

“Although some mistakes have no doubt been made resulting in the removal of trees which ought to have been retained if the criteria had been properly applied, removal of trees for its own sake has never been an objective of the council.”

However, the newly-released contract information, published by Sheffield Council on the orders of the Information Commissioner following a year-long battle for it to be released by tree campaigners, says: “The service provider [Amey] shall replace highway trees in accordance with the annual tree management programme at a rate of not less than 200 per year so that 17,500 highway trees are replaced by the end of the term, such replacement to be in accordance with the Highway Tree Replacement Policy, unless authority [Sheffield Council] approval has been obtained for deviation from this policy.”

The council has continued to keep details of the Highway Tree Replacement Policy secret, with it currently remaining among the redacted elements of the contract.

The council published a statement at the same time saying replacing 17,500 trees was not a contract requirement but it now estimated 10,000 trees will be removed over the course of the 25-year contract, which started in 2012.

Since the injunctions were granted by Justice Males, two campaigners have been found guilty of breaching them, which is a criminal offence. The pair have been ordered to pay combined legal costs of £27,000 to Sheffield Council as a result.

During the High Court hearing, Mr Justice Males rejected an application on behalf of the tree campaigners for an unredacted version of the PFI contract between Sheffield Council and Amey to be released.

He said: “It remains my view that disclosure of this contract is unnecessary for resolution of the issues which I had to determine.

“Although the defendants have made a number of sweeping allegations about the conduct of the council, for example that healthy trees are being felled because Amey is exercising improper influence over the council with a view to illegal profiteering, I have found that allegation to be detached from reality in light of the evidence before me. A document does not become disclosable just because a party chooses to make far-fetched allegations about it.”

A spokesman for Sheffield Council today said: “We have been consistently open about the number of street trees set to be replaced over the duration of the Streets Ahead contract, which remains at an estimated 10,000. This includes the 6,000 trees identified as requiring removal in the core investment period in the early years of the contract.

“This figure of 6,000 and the implied figure of 10,000 were confirmed in a press release issued by Sheffield City Council in February 2017, approximately five months prior to the High Court hearing.”