Sheffield Council has ruled it is in the “greater good” to keep its official policy for the controversial felling of thousands of the city’s street trees secret.
The council has rejected a Freedom of Information request by The Yorkshire Post to see its currently-redacted ‘Highway Tree Replacement Policy’ contained in its £2.2bn PFI Streets Ahead contract with Amey. It said it is not in the public interest to reveal the policy while it is still reviewing what information in the deal can be released ahead of potential publication at an unspecified future date.
The response stated: “We believe the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this instance.
“Please note, public interest is what is of greater good to the community and not what interests the public.”
It comes after it was revealed last month that the contract, which started in 2012 and will run for 25 years, contains a target to remove 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees and replace them with saplings. Felling is currently on hold while Amey reviews its strategy following a national outcry after dozens of police officers and private security guards were sent to support operations and deal with protesters earlier this year.
Sheffield Council has previously insisted that felling is carried out as a “last resort” and published a ‘Five Year Tree Management Strategy’ in early 2016 which confirmed this position. The strategy, which covered 2012 to 2017 and is in the process of being updated, says trees will only be considered for removal if they fall into one of six categories; if they are dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging or ‘discriminatory’ - affecting the ability of people to use the pavement.
However, a separate FoI response by the council to tree campaigner Paul Selby has confirmed that the strategy is superseded by what is contained within the contract.
It states: “In the event of any inconsistencies between the documents [the PFI contract and the strategy document], the obligations contained in the Streets Ahead contract take precedence over any document produced under it.”
Mr Selby said this admission appears to show the published strategy is “worthless” and highlights the importance of the contractual policy being released. He said this is backed up by analysis of the limited use of alternative options to save trees from being felled that are listed in the strategy document.
An ‘Independent Tree Panel’ was established by Sheffield Council in November 2015 to assess whether a list of engineering solutions contained within the strategy could be deployed as an alternative to felling threatened trees.
Analysis of ITP documents by campaigners has found the panel subsequently recommended 307 trees out of the 802 they surveyed could potentially be saved using one of the 14 solutions. However, campaigners say Sheffield Council employed these solutions on just 75 occasions and all of these temporarily.
Mr Selby said that evidence garnered from various FoIs and council reports suggests eight of the 14 solutions appear to have been ruled out for a variety of reasons.
The council response to The Yorkshire Post in which it refused to disclose the contract section containing the Highway Tree Replacement Policy said the ongoing review of which parts of the 7,000-page Streets Ahead contract can be made public is “an arduous task and requires appropriate levels of scrutiny”.
It said: “This information is intended in part for publication at some future date and it is reasonable in all the circumstances to withhold the information prior to publication.”
Mr Selby said this was not good enough, particularly given the contract has been in operation for six years.
“All the contract needs to be released so we can get to the bottom of what the truth is.”
When asked by The Yorkshire Post whether there is anything in the contract that confirms felling is a last resort, Sheffield Council said it would be making no further comment as it is currently working on an updated tree management strategy.
A council spokesperson said: "The strategy document is being worked on and will be released in due course. Until this document is finalised internally, we have nothing further to add.”