Sheffield Council officer asked about tree felling targets under oath

During a hearing brought by Sheffield Council against four tree campaigners accused of breaching a High Court injunction, one of its senior officers was accused of 'not being open' with the court about tree felling targets.

Thousands of trees have been felled in Sheffield
Thousands of trees have been felled in Sheffield

Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at Sheffield City Council, was questioned as he gave evidence in a High Court hearing against four tree campaigners accused of breaching a injunction barring ‘direct action’ protests under threatened trees.

Barrister Paul Powlesland, representing two of the campaigners, asked Mr Billington whether he had previously misled the court in relation to tree-felling targets.

It comes after a previously-redacted part of the highways contract with private firm Amey was revealed earlier this year to contain a target to replace 17,500 trees by the end of its 25-year term.

Last summer, Mr Billington provided a witness statement to the High Court hearing which resulted in the injunction being imposed which indicated 6,000 trees would be replaced.

The witness statement read: “For the avoidance of doubt, the vast majority of street trees in Sheffield are being retained (30,000 out of 36,000).”

In court yesterday, Mr Powlesland asked Mr Billington: “Would you agree you have not been fully open with the court in previous evidence provided, stating the number of trees being removed in the contract?”

Mr Billington said the 6,000 figure related only to the ‘Core Investment Period’ - the first five years of the 25-year contract,

He said: “Both long before I gave evidence in July last year, and after, I have made it clear that 6,000 related to the Core Investment Period. We have never tried to suggest that 6,000 would be the total number. That is not the case, and has never been suggested.”

The core investment period came to end in December last year, the court was told.

When asked about the figure of 17,500 trees, Mr Billington told the High Court at Sheffield that the figure did not relate to a ‘target,’ and said it was a figure used in order to give bidders for the contract the opportunity to ‘consistently price things’.

“What it means is, the council, if needed, they could request that 17,500 trees to be removed or felled without it costing the council any more,” he said, adding that while they could not know the final figure until the end of the programme, the total number of trees removed was more likely to be in the region of 10,000.

Mr Powlesland asked: “If the council does not have a target of 17,500, then is it fair to the taxpayers of Sheffield that they have paid for 17,500 trees to be removed?”

Mr Billington said: “It might be in their interest to fell less than that number, but as I’ve said, we won’t know what the final number is until the end of the contract.”

The council is attempting to have Simon Crump, Paul Brooke, Benoit Compin and Fran Grace sent to jail for allegedly breaching the injunction.

Sheffield City Council was granted the injunction last summer in response to a growing number of protests opposing the council's controversial tree felling programme which aims to replace thousands of the city's 36,000 street trees. The case continues.