Sheffield Council is threatening legal action against tree campaigners, including an opposition councillor.
Intended claims for injunctions have been served on several campaigners who have been trying to prevent the removal of some trees in the city as part of the controversial Streets Ahead road improvement programme.
Among those to be threatened with legal action are Green Party councillor Alison Teal, who today described the move as "Stalinist" after she was served with papers this morning.
“Should I go to a tree protest my understanding is I could potentially be arrested or sued for damages. I was shocked and felt quite sick I have to say. It is pretty astonishing the council would pursue their own councillor, plus a resident, in such a heavy-handed way,” she said.
"It is quite shocking. It feels quite a Stalinist action. It is a very sad day and I'm flabbergasted."
Coun Teal said she would be taking legal advice and has to respond to the council before July 12, when the authority intends to bring the case to the High Court in Leeds.
It comes as part of an increasingly bitter dispute which has seen 14 people arrested but no charges brought after the CPS dropped all cases. In March, police commissioner Alan Billings said there would be no further arrests as “the CPS are not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters”.
But Coun Bryan Lodge, Labour cabinet member for environment and street scene at Sheffield Council, said civil action was being considered due to “unlawful” disruption to street tree replacement work.
“The majority of people protesting against tree replacements are doing so in a peaceful and lawful way. However, a handful of the protesters are unlawfully disrupting the work and putting the safety of the workforce, the public and themselves at risk,” he said.
“Following months of unlawful and costly disruption to street tree replacement works across the city by a small number of tree protesters, the council now has no alternative but to consider legal remedies to ensure these works can be completed. This is never a position we wanted to be in but we know from our surveys and contact with the public that only a small proportion of the residents across the city disagree with the work we are carrying out.
“We continue to support the right to peacefully protest, and the majority of protesters who are doing so peacefully will not be affected. But there is a big difference between this and direct action which deliberately and unlawfully stops works from being carried out.
“Despite issuing representatives of the tree protester group a letter several weeks ago confirming that their actions remain unlawful, works continue to be disrupted, causing city-wide delays to the programme and against the wishes of residents.
“We hope that by pursuing civil legal remedies, those involved in unlawfully disrupting tree works will recognise the implications of their actions and allow these vital highway operations to be implemented. The legal process is designed to give the protesters a chance to further and finally consider their position before an application is made to court.
"Streets Ahead is not just about street trees - it’s about ensuring we have roads, pavements and a street scene to be proud of for many years to come. In addition, it presents us with a unique opportunity to sustainably manage, increase and maintain our diverse street tree stock over a 25 year period.”
Campaigners 'are acting peacefully'
Tree protesters have been acting in a “completely peaceful’ manner, Coun Alison Teal said.
She says she is concerned about the implications for local democracy from the council’s legal threat.
“It is going to worry people that if they think they could potentially lose their homes or be jailed if they go against what the council are wanting. It is going to make people more afraid of standing up for what they believe in - it is acceptable in a democracy.”
Contractor Amey is tasked with maintaining the city’s 36,000 roadside trees as part of the Streets Ahead road maintenance agreement. Campaigners claim healthy trees are being unnecessarily destroyed but the council says the work is required to remove diseased, damaged or dangerous trees.