South Yorkshire Police 'thrown under the bus' over tree-felling dawn raid in Sheffield

South Yorkshire Police felt the force was 'thrown under the bus' after being blamed for the timing of a controversial pre-dawn tree-felling operation in Sheffield that resulted in the arrest of three people.

Police on Rustlings Road on the day of the tree-felling
Police on Rustlings Road on the day of the tree-felling

Partially-redacted emails relating to ‘Operation Testate’ released under Freedom of Information laws by South Yorkshire Police show the force was angered by Sheffield Council’s response to the heavy public criticism of the operation on Rustlings Road in November.

In what was later described by then Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg as ‘scenes you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia’, three people, including two pensioners, were arrested after tree-fellers arrived at 5am to remove eight trees as part of the city’s Streets Ahead tree replacement programme being carried out by council contractor Amey.

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Because of a lack of council and Amey staff on scene, police officers accompanying the contractors ended up knocking on the doors of local residents at 5am to wake them up and tell them to move their cars.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, Sheffield Council cabinet member Bryan Lodge issued a statement saying the timing of raid was down to the advice of the police.

But it has now been revealed a Streets Ahead official, whose name is redacted, emailed colleagues on the same morning to say: “SYP remain upset that our corporate comms have somewhat thrown them under the bus - they would like us to be clear this is a council/Amey operation supported and advised by SYP to ensure it could be delivered safely”.

One hour later an email was sent by a Streets Ahead official to Superintendent Shaun Morley, who was in charge of the police’s involvement in the operation, to say: “SYP had no input into writing the plans or finalising start times and merely provided operational support based on our plan.”

The email trail reveals planning for the operation began in September, with a secret meeting between the police, the council and Amey happening on October 12 - over a month before the tree-felling took place.

A background note sent by police the following day said protests against tree removals in Sheffield had been ongoing since October 2015 by members of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups.

It said: “Amey contractors are regularly followed from their depot to their work site. If the tree is to be felled the protesters will sit at the base of the tree which prevents the work from being carried out. No hostility is ever displayed and no incidents of disorder have occurred.”

Twenty-two police officers were sent to Rustlings Road, with traffic regulation orders relating to the removal of the trees not posted as normal beforehand and local councillors not informed of the plan due to concerns about protests.

The handling of the incident led to hundreds of people attending a protest rally in nearby Endcliffe Park two days later.

On November 25, Councillor Lodge issued an apology “for the disruption and distress caused by the work starting at 5am” and said future operations would not begin before 7am.

The council has said it is removing thousands of trees that are dangerous, diseased, dead or dying or causing damage or obstruction to pavements and replacing them with new ones.

But campaigners claim many of the tree removals are unnecessary - including several of those on Rustlings Road.

Cases were later dropped against those arrested at Rustlings Road and at other protests around the city. A total of 14 people have been arrested as part of the bitter dispute but in March police commissioner Alan Billings said no further arrests would be made as the CPS is “not prepared to criminalise peaceful protesters.”