Comment - compromise is the only way ahead with trees clash
With the local elections finally over for another year, it is a case of back to business as usual for our elected representatives on Sheffield City Council.
But unfortunately, that ‘business as usual’ is the ongoing stalemate with campaigners over the felling of the city’s trees.
And stalemate is probably an understatement, to be fair.
STAG, the campaign group fighting to prevent the felling, are threatening another legal challenge, while Sheffield City Council and their PFI contractors Amey could resume the currently-suspended programme any day.
And in the meantime, South Yorkshire Police are stuck in the crossfire with an overtime bill of around £50,000 a month - just to police the chopping down of trees.
Sheffield City Council are in a pickle to be fair - signed up to a £25bn 20-year PFI deal with Amey, and faced with massive penalties if they want to alter the legal arrangement between the two parties.
Amey are also on shaky ground - contracted to remove trees at an agreed weekly rate and only removing a fraction of those on the list. Cynics could argue that the city council is waiting for this failure to provide the authority with its own ‘get out of jail free
More than five thousand trees have gone so far under the arrangement, but protests have seriously stalled the process.
Even Michael Gove has waded into the row, hinting that the Government may be willing to step in and contribute towards contract termination penalties - effectively bailing out the city council.
“We will make sure that we will do anything that is required in order to stop this,” he said at the time.
But that was back in March and the Government has since gone very quiet.
So on one side we still have the tree protesters - determined to disrupt felling operations and cause as much disruption and financial inconvenience as possible, despite High Court injunctions in place against some of them.
There is even talk from the STAG camp of a fresh legal challenge of their own, which they hope will show the arrangement between the city council and Amey is not contractual.
On the other side we have Sheffield City Council, sticking to its guns that the trees must go - and now elections are over, can we expect the current ‘suspension of activities’ to be lifted?
And in the middle are Amey - a purveyor of the new economics of PFI; of signed in exclusive deals away from the free market; where in can cost ten grand to carry out work to preserve a mature tree, or about 900 quid if you listen to STAG.
So what exactly are the options?
1) The council could bite the financial bullet and ask for the contract with Amey to be renegotiated. This could have massive financial implications for the authority, potentially leaving it millions out of pocket.
2) The tree campaigners could cease their activities and allow the felling to continue. Although based on recent discussions, STAG seem poised to re-commence as soon as the contractors are back out on the streets.
3) The council could carry on regardless - head in sand, blaming STAG and ignoring the massive police overtime budget that is being ramped up. With the resignation of Brian Lodge, are we likely to see a change of policy?
4) The government could intervene and throw money at Amey to meet the costs of the city council pulling out of the contract. They could also look at changing the law - either in the council’s favour or in STAG’s.
5) The council could ceace the operations - but this would mean forking out to pay off Amey, and Labour leader Julie Dore has already stated that ‘there is no more money on the table’.
So how about a compromise? How about the council only goes after the damaged trees and starts listening to its residents rather than lecturing them? How about Amey comes to the table and looks beyond merely profit? How about South Yorkshire Police get more proactive,
start billing the city council and Amey for this outrageous waste to the public purse? How about the Government stump up some cash, or change the law . . . or literally anything to break this idiotic deadlock.
At the end of the day, compromise is the only way ahead.
Andy Done-Johnson - Local Democracy Reporter