Sheffield Council facing financial penalty of millions after delays caused by tree panel consultations

Sheffield Council faces a financial penalty running into millions because of major delays to highways improvements caused by its decision to set up an independent panel to advise on its controversial tree-felling strategy, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.

Protests over ongoing tree-felling in Sheffield have resulted in more than a dozen arrests.

The “knock-on effect” of waiting for the panel’s advice has contributed to delaying highways work that needs to be completed by the end of the year on more than 300 streets - despite the panel’s recommendations to save trees being ignored in 75 per cent of cases.

A Freedom of Information response sent by the council in March this year reveals the costs of delays related to the panel will fall on the council instead of its PFI partner Amey and were at that stage “forecasted to be a seven-figure number which cannot be confirmed exactly”.

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Details have been revealed after the council suggested the actions of campaigners attempting to prevent the felling of trees had left the council facing “catastrophic financial consequences” - only to later admit that the terms of its Streets Ahead highways improvement deal with Amey meant any additional costs relating to protesters should be covered by the PFI firm.

Around 6,000 of the city’s 36,000 street trees are being felled and replaced with saplings as part of road improvements works also involving resurfacing roads and pavements and replacing street lights - with an ongoing row between the council and campaigners about whether some of the tree removals are necessary.

Highways work and tree removals need to be completed by the end of the year under the terms of PFI contract.

The council today refused to provide any further information on the potential costs it could be facing in relation to the tree panel delays, saying the details are “commercially sensitive”.

The panel was set up in November 2015 to look at the issue of highway trees in the wake of concerns for campaigners. The process saw surveys sent out to residents who lived on affected streets. In instances where more than half of the residents raised objections about the proposals for the trees, then the proposals were referred to the panel to make recommendations on whether felling should go ahead.

The panel’s work was ended in July this year.

In an FoI response in March to Paul Selby, of the Save Nether Edge Trees group, the council said it did not hold in “recorded form the length of the delays caused by the ITP”.

But it added: “The council will have to pay the costs associated with this delay. The costs are forecasted to be a seven figure number which cannot be confirmed exactly at this stage.”

A spokeswoman for Sheffield Council said today it was not possible to provide further information on what the likely costs will be.

“We are unable to comment on commercially-sensitive details in this or other contracts. However, we know the costs will be significant and these costs are still being incurred. No figures have so far been finalised," she said.

“Not only have the delays had an impact on the tree replacement part of the Streets Ahead programme, but they have also resulted in months of lost time and prevented 75km of pavement being resurfaced and 6km of road. This impacts on more than 300 streets overall and has a knock-on effect on the programme in its entirety, including the installation of new LED street lights across the city.”

Council rejected most tree retention recommendations

Despite the delays caused by the panel process, information recently revealed in the High Court shows that many of the panel’s recommendations on saving trees were rejected by the council.

The panel agreed that 454 trees should be removed but in cases where it said trees should be saved, the council accepted its advice on 73 occasions and rejected it 223 times.

Mr Selby said: “The tree panel was a bit of a sham consultation. I don’t think the council realised it would be forced to disagree with the ITP on so many occasions.”