Sheffield City Council says it would face “catastrophic financial consequences” if the work, which is part of a Â£2.2bn PFI contract for highways improvements, is not completed by the end of the year and will now “accelerate” the programme in the wake of a High Court judgement barring campaigners from “direct action” protests.
In a ruling on Tuesday by Mr Justice Males granting injunctions against protesters who have been stopping the removal of trees by standing directly underneath them inside workmen’s “safety zones”, the judge said: “The council is concerned that this work should be completed by December 31, 2017 within the core investment period of the PFI contract. At the present time, there remain about 1,000 trees which in the council’s view need to be removed.”
But the council today said around 500 trees have already gone since the court papers the judge's remarks were based on were filed in early July. All trees are being replaced and the council has promised to plant an additional 600 around the city.
The council and PFI contractor Amey have been attempting to remove 6,000 of Sheffield’s 36,000 street trees as part of the 25-year highways contract, which started in 2012 and involves the majority of work taking place by the end of this year before the contract moves into a “maintenance” phase.
While the council insist only trees that are dead, dying, diseased or dangerous are being removed and then replaced, protesters argue that many do not need to be chopped down and the work is being carried out as a cost-cutting exercise.
Mr Justice Males said there had been “some mistakes” in the removal of healthy trees, that Amey is “not a charity” and is seeking to make money from the PFI contract and Sheffield Council’s decision-making process on the issue was “largely dictated by financial considerations”.
But he rejected an allegation made by campaigners “that healthy trees are being felled because Amey is exercising improper influence over the council with a view to illegitimate profiteering”.
“I have found that allegation to be detached from reality in the light of the evidence before me,” he said.
Labour-led Sheffield Council had asked for orders barring three named people, including one of its own Green Party councillors, and “persons unknown” from “continuing to take unlawful direct action” or from encouraging others to direct action.
The three named people were Councillor Alison Teal, David Dillner and Calvin Payne.
In a 27-page ruling which followed a three-day trial in Leeds, Mr Justice Males said the council was entitled to the injunctions sought and they will apply from August 22.
Speaking outside Sheffield Town Hall following the judgement, Councillor Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for environment and street scene, said: “We have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Sheffield to do everything we can to avoid catastrophic financial consequences if the Streets Ahead work is not completed by the end of the year.
“Court action has been a last resort option for us. We had no choice but to pursue these injunctions to stop a small number of people from causing major delays, not only to tree works, but also to work on roads, footpaths and street lights across the city."
Campaigners are now going to decide whether to appeal against the judgement and are expected to make an announcement today.
Mr Dillner said he was disappointed but unsurprised by the court’s decision.
“Every single body of experts outside of this city is telling this council they have this wrong," he said.
“The campaign is far from over. We will pursue methods inside the law.”