Tree campaigners are taking legal advice after it emerged a Sheffield Council officer significantly underestimated the number of trees that were due to be felled in the city when giving evidence to a court hearing that resulted in protest injunctions being issued.
The Yorkshire Post reported yesterday that Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at Sheffield Council, had provided a statement to a High Court hearing in Leeds last summer which said 6,000 trees were to be removed in the city and replaced with saplings as part of a £2.2bn highways maintenance contact with private firm Amey signed in 2012.
But previously-redacted parts of the PFI contract made public last week on the orders of the Information Commissioner revealed it contains a target to replace 17,500 trees by the end of its 25-year term.
The court case Mr Billington gave evidence to last year resulted in the judge in the case, Mr Justice Males, issuing injunctions banning protesters using a tactic of standing directly underneath threatened trees to prevent them being felled.
Since the injunctions were granted by Justice Males, two campaigners have been found guilty of breaching them, which is a criminal offence of contempt of court. The pair have been ordered to pay combined legal costs of £27,000 to Sheffield Council as a result.
Campaigners asked Justice Males to view an unredacted version contract as part of the court case but he said it was not necessary.
Calvin Payne, one of those to have been convicted, said today campaigners are now in discussions with their legal representatives about the potential impact of the new information.
“I believe my conviction for breach of the injunction and the injunction itself are seriously in doubt,” he said.
He added: “What I think is important to say is our whole defence was based on seeing the contract. We had a suspicion there were things like this in the contract and we were remarkably accurate in what we predicted.
“The judge said a contract does not become public because of ‘far-fetched allegations’. But it turns out the target was half of Sheffield’s street trees.
“What has been released is a small part of the contract but the target would have taken five minutes to show the judge.”
Sheffield Council say Mr Billington’s comments were a reference to work being carried out in the first five years of the project, which started in 2012. The council said it does not accept replacing 17,500 trees is a contractual target and its position has not changed since a press release published in February 2017 stated that after 6,000 trees were removed and replaced in the first five years of the contract, around 200 per year would be replaced for the remaining 20 years - giving an “implied figure” of 10,000 trees over the course of the contract.
A spokeswoman for Sheffield Council said: “We have been consistently open about the number of street trees set to be replaced over the duration of the Streets Ahead contract, which remains at an estimated 10,000. This includes the 6,000 trees identified as requiring removal in the core investment period in the early years of the contract.
“This figure of 6,000 and the implied figure of 10,000 were confirmed in a press release issued by Sheffield City Council in February 2017, approximately five months prior to the High Court hearing.“