Sheffield Council '˜has no obligation to axe 17,500 trees despite contract payment'

Sheffield Council has admitted it is paying for the replacement of almost half of the city's street trees - but insists there is no obligation or intention for that number to be removed.

Tree-felling work in Sheffield has caused considerable controversy
Tree-felling work in Sheffield has caused considerable controversy

In a statement provided to The Yorkshire Post, a council spokesperson suggested it may be financially beneficial to both the authority and its contractor Amey that as few as possible are replaced below the 17,500 figure contained in the highways maintenance contract.

“Whilst financial considerations do not influence the council’s decision making on trees, one could argue that in theory both the council and Amey may have financial advantage in replacing fewer than 17,500 trees; Amey because they’re better off by doing less work (replacement) than they’ve priced for and the council, because keeping well below 17,500 minimises the risk of incurring extra costs of exceeding the allowance of 17,500 already paid for in the contract,” the statement said.

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The council has previously told The Yorkshire Post twice that if fewer than 17,500 trees are felled, a “financial adjustment will be made” to the contract when it ends in 2037 but said it was unable to state whether Amey or the authority would benefit.

However, the council now says any potential change to the amount Amey is paid for the tree replacement element of the contract is not certain and would be subject to negotiation.

“Given that the council has agreed a contract price that allows us, if needed, to require Amey to replace, in a worst-case scenario, up to 17,500 trees over the life of the contract, then in theory, if the council requires say only 10,000 trees to be replaced, the council in 2037 may wish to consider an end of contract discussion with Amey about how their actual end of contract costs for tree replacement are likely to be less than what they included in their initial bid. Amey will have their own views on the end of contract financial position,” the statement said.

Work to remove thousands of the city’s 36,000 street trees in the city and replace them with saplings has been on hold since March following a national outcry at the use of dozens of police officers and security guards to support operations in the wake of growing protests by campaigners who argue healthy trees have been cut down unnecessarily.

Talks chaired by the Bishop of Sheffield are to take place between the council, Amey and activists in the coming week in an attempt to find a way forward.

The pause in March to review the way operations are carried out came just weeks after it emerged the £2.2bn highways maintenance contract between the council and Amey, which started in 2012, contained a clause which stated 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”.

The council has said this does not represent a removal target and has now revealed the only contractual obligation for which Amey may be penalised relates to any failure to fulfil the “annual tree management programme”, under which the two parties agree planned fellings, prunings and inspections for each year.

The statement said: “The 17,500 figure and the 200 per annum figure are simply an estimate of how many trees might need to be replaced over the duration of the contract. The actual contractual obligation, where there is the risk of performance failure and an associated financial adjustment to the monthly charge, is where Amey fails to replace the number of trees detailed in the Annual Tree Management Programme, which is approved, or rejected, by the council.

“The council and Amey have not and will not be proactively replacing trees for reasons other than they are dead, diseased, dying, dangerous, discriminatory or damaging the highway and/or third party properties.

“The only contractual penalty potentially applied by the council on Amey is based on Amey not delivering the agreed figures for tree replacement as set out in the Annual Tree Management Programme.

“The replacement programme is not driven by financial considerations and the council makes the final decision on every tree based on the condition of the tree.

“We pay a fixed monthly sum to Amey, which is inclusive of all areas of work delivered on the contract, irrespective of the levels of work carried out.

“Any claim that Amey are to benefit financially if more trees are replaced is simply untrue. Their monthly payment would remain unchanged irrespective of the number of trees replaced.”

The council said the 17,500 figure in the contract was arrived at through analysis of historic tree maintenance data and a tree survey done in 2006/07 which assessed 75 per cent of the city’s street trees as “mature and over mature”. It said the council had taken a “measured view of an ‘affordable worst-case scenario’” in deciding the figure.

The statement said: “The 17,500 figure is effectively an insurance policy/contractual allowance for the council and was based on a pre-contract guesstimate in 2008 which derived from survey results from the Elliott Tree Survey 2006-2007 plus other historic tree maintenance data. It considered how many highway trees might, in the worst-case scenario (weather events, disease, etc) need replacing over the 25-year contract term. Given the paucity of investment in street trees for many years preceding 2007 and the fact the survey showed that the vast majority of trees were ‘mature or over mature’ – it made sense for the council to be cautious about the level of replacement that may be required over the coming 30 years.

“The number was used to give bidders an idea of the level of operational risk they were pricing for to ensure that they did not underestimate the level of tree maintenance or replacement that might be required to manage the highway tree stock. Having priced for this level of work, then the council, if it so wishes, can expect this level of work without it costing the council more than the prior agreed contract price. The figure was also offered to bidders to ensure that all bidders were pricing on the same basis.”

Almost 6,000 trees were removed in the first five years of the contract, a timeframe known as the ‘Core Investment Period’ when the majority of work on the highways maintenance programme, also involving upgrading roads, pavements and street lights, was due to be carried out.

The council statement said: “The CIP covered circa 65 per cent of network renewal and required the replacement of around 6,000 trees. Therefore if you apply similar ratios, the renewal of the remaining 35 per cent of the network will not take us close to 17,500 – especially when a disproportionate number of the city’s trees were in the CIP areas.”