Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has been accused of undermining trust in the police service by making comments described as ‘nonsense’ about an operation which saw three people arrested for trying to stop trees being cut down in Sheffield.
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings criticised the MP after being questioned about the pre-dawn council operation to remove trees from Rustlings Road, which resulted in three protesters, including two pensioners, being arrested.
Angry scenes erupted in November when contractors arrived at dawn as part of a street improvement scheme, with residents demanding that the trees remain. Three people arrested after confrontations with workers were released without charge.
Sheffield council said the work needed to be done as part of a £2bn scheme to get rid of diseased, damaging or dangerous trees, but the controversy has prompted strong criticism of the authority and South Yorkshire Police.
In a letter to The Star newspaper in Sheffield, written soon after the operation, Mr Clegg, Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam, described the scenes as something “you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia, rather than a Sheffield suburb”.
He said “council contractors and police descended on Rustlings Road under the cover of darkness, dragged people out of bed to move their cars and detained peaceful protesters – all to chop down eight trees”.
To speak about ‘a premeditated ambush’ is not helpful and seems designed to heighten emotions in a quite gratuitous fashion.Dr Alan Billings
Dr Billings, a Labour crime commissioner elected in 2014, made his comments in a written response to one of a series of questions by Liberal Democrat councillor Joe Otten ahead of the police and crime panel meeting.
Mr Otten wrote: “A council’s powers to close roads and tow vehicles are limited by regulations requiring notification and signage intended to prevent a premeditated ambush of parked cars such as we saw.
“What are the consequences of police assistance in this aspect of the operation should it be shown to be unlawful?”
Dr Billings said in response that the road closures were the responsibility of Sheffield council. He added: “The police did not have any involvement in obtaining authorisation for the road closures for the 17th and the removal of vehicles were arranged and undertaken by council contractors.
“To speak about ‘a premeditated ambush’ is not helpful and seems designed to heighten emotions in a quite gratuitous fashion.
“This emotive language was also employed by the MP for Hallam, Nick Clegg, when he spoke about people being ‘dragged from their beds’ by the police. This undermines trust in the police service and I hope he will think twice before uttering such nonsense in the future.”
Dr Billings added later in a statement: “I have said before that I do not believe the police should have been put in a position where they were drawn into the operation on Rustlings Road. Equally, I do not think it is very responsible to use the kind of emotional and exaggerated language that has been used with respect to police involvement.
“The job of the police is to keep the peace and to protect people from harm and we should do everything we can to support them.”
Mr Clegg declined to comment further, but a Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “This is yet another a distraction tactic by Labour politician attempting to shift the debate from the real issue.
“Before the PCC dismisses genuine complaints as “nonsense”, we’d ask him what has undermined trust in the force more?
“The words of an MP in a local paper or the actions of Sheffield City Council’s Labour leadership which put front line officers in a compromising position and led to many people drawing the understandable conclusion that South Yorkshire Police were being used by the council and its contractors for unjustifiable operations.”
Earlier this month, South Yorkshire’s chief constable said police would continue to arrest Sheffield tree protesters if they attempt to illegally prevent their removal.
Stephen Watson said council contractors involved in the tree-felling process ‘have the right not to be harassed or assaulted or impeded or anything of the sort’.
Recently, Dr Billings criticised Sheffield Council for causing ‘reputational damage to the force’ over the controversial tree felling.