Campaigners have called for a change in approach to Sheffield's hugely controversial tree-felling programme after the politician in charge of the project resigned days after local election results saw the city’s ruling Labour party lose seats in areas most affected by the policy.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Bryan Lodge, who had been cabinet member for Environment and Streetscene for two years, said “nasty, aggressive and personal abuse” had been directed towards “awesome” council officers involved in implementing the policy.
The work as part of a £2.2bn PFI contract with private firm Amey to remove thousands of street trees and replace them with saplings, is currently on hold in the wake of a national outcry against the scheme following the use of dozens of police officers and private security guards during operations. In March, the council was forced by the Information Commissioner to reveal the 25-year contract contained a target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees.
While Labour maintained its majority in last week’s local elections, the Green Party took two seats from Labour and in Nether Edge and Sharrow emphatically increased the majority of Councillor Alison Teal - who was arrested and taken to court by her own council for protesting against felling in her ward – by nearly 1,500 votes. The Liberal Democrats also took three seats from Labour.
Coun Lodge is the fourth person to hold the cabinet post responsible for the contract since the deal started in 2012 and it is understood he will be replaced in the role by Coun Lewis Dagnall.
Coun Dagnall’s partner is Sheffield cabinet member for finance Olivia Blake, the daughter of Leeds Council’s Labour leader Judith Blake.
He was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Yorkshire Post but prior to his appointment being confirmed, council leader Julie Dore told BBC Radio Sheffield that the change may assist with the continuing talks with Amey as the company reviews the way tree-felling work is carried out.
She said: “Amey have finally come to the table to consider and discuss concessions. We have spoke to STAG [the Sheffield Trees Action Groups] about this. I have had meetings in the last several weeks with different representative groups of the protest movement.
“We are in a pause and I think Bryan thinks in the round it is easier for him and certainly for the council and in the interests of all the citizens of Sheffield if during this pause someone else takes over and helps us achieve a satisfactory solution for everyone.”
Coun Dore said Coun Lodge’s departure had been a mutual decision and said he had been subject to “an enormous amount of personal abuse” because of the tree-felling issue.
She said: “Over the last several weeks, Bryan has been expressing concern about his ability to continue in his role because of the impact on his family and his own personal health and wellbeing. It has been an extremely stressful period, especially for Bryan but for all of us on the cabinet.”
Coun Dore said fewer than the 17,500 trees figure contained in the contract will be felled. “We are not going to remove 17,500 trees, I have made that clear,” she said.
The council has previously suggested around 10,000 will be felled and the contract figure represents a form of “insurance” for the council should there be an unexpected outbreak of tree disease and more need to be removed than expected. However, the authority admitted in March that if fewer than 17,500 are removed, a “financial adjustment” will be made to the contract. But it said it cannot yet say how the "adjustment" would work and whether the council or Amey would lose out financially.
Tree campaigner Paul Selby said he had mixed emotions about the news.
“I’m actually quite sad for Bryan Lodge - having met him, I think he is a nice guy who has been misadvised. But hopefully this is an opportunity for a fresh start.
“I would advise Lewis to seriously question his officers rather than taking everything as read.”
Shaffaq Mohammed, Leader of Sheffield Lib Dems, said: “Clearly things have become very difficult for Coun Lodge because of the decisions taken by this Labour council.
“The local election results showed a massive swing from Labour in the wards of Nether Edge and Crookes where trees have been particularly under threat.
“The challenge will continue unless the new Cabinet Member can come up with a fresh approach. I hope Coun Dagnall doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes.
“Sheffield has voted for something different. People are not happy with this policy and want change. We can’t keep going on as we have.”
Green councillor Alison Teal, who was arrested during a tree protest, said the swing from Labour in the council elections showed “clear dissatisfaction” with how Labour is running the city.
“It is clear that Coun Lodge had profoundly mishandled the tree felling by private contractor Amey, and entirely lost the confidence of Sheffield people.
“We have already lost more than 5,000 mature, healthy trees that could still be cleaning up our air, improving our wellbeing and catering to our wildlife. They can’t be returned.
“It would be deeply frustrating if the new Cabinet Member just ploughed on but we have to be optimistic that Coun Dagnall will try to do something different.
“My message would be please listen to the experts and speak to the campaigners and take all these messages on board. Work with the community rather than aggressively forcing through this deeply unpopular programme.
“We need a innovative, sustainable, holistic approach which takes account of the vital importance of maintaining canopy cover across the city.”
Coun Lodge’s resignation is part of a cabinet reshuffle that has also seen the departure of Coun Ben Curran, who was Cabinet Member for Planning and Development and recently stood against Dan Jarvis to become the Labour candidate for Sheffield City Region mayor, while Coun Cate McDonald has been replaced as Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care.