Sheffield Council set to axe PFI deal after tree furore

SHEFFIELD Council leader Julie Dore has indicated the authority is considering ending the highly-controversial PFI highways deal which has involved the felling of thousands of street trees in the city.

Council leader Julie Dore.

A source said Dore told a private meeting of Labour activists to discuss plans for the May 2018 local elections that the council may bring the contract with Amey “in house” if possible.

A statement given to The Yorkshire Post by the Sheffield Council Labour group which it said “reflects what was said” by Dore at the meeting said the party “will consider any insourcing of contracts at any point if it is proved to be financially viable to do so”.

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It comes after Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said in September the party wanted to end “wasteful” Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts where public sector organisations like local councils pay private firms to deliver infrastructure projects.

Last month, Labour-run Liverpool Council announced it was going to end its own highways services contract with Amey four years early by mutual agreement and bring services back in house to save money.

A Sheffield Council Labour Group spokesman said: “We have never supported PFI, however, the Government insisted that we used this model to secure the funding to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements. If we did not adopt that model we would have been turning away over a billion pounds of Government investment.

“We fully support the policy John McDonnell outlined at conference of bringing to an end to PFI contracts, and bringing services back in house where possible, such as contracts due to expire, and will consider any insourcing of contracts at any point if it is proved to be financially viable to do so, and will be ready to work with a newly elected Labour government to implement this policy in Sheffield.

“This is not new, we have always taken this position on PFI contracts and said this in September when John McDonnell’s announcement was made.”

More than 5,000 trees have already been felled in Sheffield as part of the £2.2bn Streets Ahead contract signed in 2012, with the five-year ‘Core Investment’ phase of the contract ending this month before being due to move into a 20-year maintenance phase.

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 many of the tree removals are necessary.

Tree campaigner Alan Story said while Councillor Dore’s remarks represented a “significant change in position”, work is continuing at pace to remove mature trees.

“Sheffield residents often suffer badly when a council service or programme is shut down as a result of austerity measures or other political choices made. But a closed library can later be re-opened or a slashed benefit restored; a tree felled in 2017 cannot be brought back to life in 2019,” he said.

“The felling needs to stop immediately so that we can all take stock of future developments.”

He said while he welcomes the seeming shift on the issue, much of the damage has already been done.

“Talk is cheap. Over 5,000 trees have gone so to then say after that ‘We are not in favour of PFI’ is like ending the war after you have dropped the atomic bomb.”

Mr Story said the confidential nature of the PFI contract means it is currently unclear what the financial consequences of bringing the work back in house would be.