Apology to Sheffield tree protesters over “omission” by council leader

The leader of Sheffield City Council has apologised that he gave an incorrect response to a street tree campaigner’s complaint about protesters who were subjected to “illegitimate pressure “over a court threat.
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Russell Johnson spoke at the March 6 meeting to accuse Sheffield City Council of taking three years to tackle the issue of protesters who had been arrested being subject to pressure to sign a legal undertaking in order to avoid the council pursuing court action against them and claiming legal costs.

Mr Johnson asked council leader Tom Hunt in March: “Why has a formal complaint from those illegitimately pressured to sign a draconian undertaking so far taken three years to process and it’s not expected to be concluded for several more months?”

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Coun Hunt replied: “The complaint submitted in 2021 was not progressed at that time. This is because the independent street tree inquiry was announced at that time and it was felt that the inquiry was a better way of resolving the issues that were raised.”

Sheffield City Council leader Coun Tom Hunt, who has admitted an omission in his response to a street tree protester's complaint. Picture: LDRSSheffield City Council leader Coun Tom Hunt, who has admitted an omission in his response to a street tree protester's complaint. Picture: LDRS
Sheffield City Council leader Coun Tom Hunt, who has admitted an omission in his response to a street tree protester's complaint. Picture: LDRS

Fellow protester Martin Pickles pursued the issue with Coun Hunt, who responded that he had wrongly read out his written response and omitted six words from it.

Coun Hunt said that he should have told Mr Johnson: “The complaints submitted in 2021 were not progressed at that time. This is because the independent Inquiry into the street trees dispute was announced, and it was felt that the inquiry, and the council’s response to it was the better way to resolve the issues raised.”

Misleading

The heavily-critical Lowcock Inquiry into the street tree scandal reported in March 2023 that the council had acted in a misleading and at times dishonest way in its actions against campaigners who sought to stop the felling of thousands of street trees.

Sir Mark Lowcock, chair of the street tree inquiry into the actions of Sheffield City Council, speaking on screen at a council meeting. Picture: Sheffield Council webcastSir Mark Lowcock, chair of the street tree inquiry into the actions of Sheffield City Council, speaking on screen at a council meeting. Picture: Sheffield Council webcast
Sir Mark Lowcock, chair of the street tree inquiry into the actions of Sheffield City Council, speaking on screen at a council meeting. Picture: Sheffield Council webcast

Coun Hunt and chief executive Kate Josephs have repeatedly publicly apologised for the council’s actions following the Lowcock Report findings.

Sir Mark Lowcock concluded in his report: “The dispute did significant harm. Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost. Many more could have been.

“Sheffield’s reputation was damaged. Public trust and confidence in the council was undermined. It has not been fully rebuilt.”

Chief executive of Sheffield City Council, Kate Josephs, apologises on behalf of the council for its actions during the street trees scandal. She was speaking during an extraordinary meeting of the council held to discuss the Lowcock Inquiry. Picture: LDRSChief executive of Sheffield City Council, Kate Josephs, apologises on behalf of the council for its actions during the street trees scandal. She was speaking during an extraordinary meeting of the council held to discuss the Lowcock Inquiry. Picture: LDRS
Chief executive of Sheffield City Council, Kate Josephs, apologises on behalf of the council for its actions during the street trees scandal. She was speaking during an extraordinary meeting of the council held to discuss the Lowcock Inquiry. Picture: LDRS

Mr Pickles wrote to Coun Hunt that the protesters pressurised to sign an undertaking in April 2022 received an “unequivocal, crystal clear reply from Lucy Heyes of the inquiry team: “The inquiry is here to investigate events, not to deal with individual complaints. If you wish to pursue your outstanding complaint to SCC [the council], or lodge a new one, you should approach them in the normal way.

“The inquiry does not replace any of those processes and does not affect the right to complain, so you are free to pursue the complaint as you see fit.”

Incorrect

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He wrote that two days later he quoted that statement to the council’s general counsel David Hollis.

“So, less than three weeks after the inquiry’s launch it was clear to anyone concerned with the undertakers’ complaints that the inquiry was certainly not “a better way of resolving the issues that were raised.”

Mr Pickles added: “I am concerned that such an incorrect statement is being issued by the council leader and that it could be prejudicial to the handling of the investigation into undertakers’ complaints which is about to get underway."

“Is Tom Hunt aware this information is erroneous? Whether he is or isn’t shows that SCC need to seriously get their facts and words straight. It appears lessons are not being learned.

“One year on from the Lowcock Inquiry report, those most seriously affected by the council’s actions (those taken to court, those sentenced and those intimidated into signing undertakings with deceitful information) still wait for their issues to be dealt with.”

Coun Hunt replied: “Unfortunately, there was an omission of words in the response that I gave to Mr Johnson at full council in March. The response should have been:

“The complaints submitted in 2021 were not progressed at that time. This is because the Independent Inquiry into the Street Trees Dispute was announced, and it was felt that the Inquiry, and the council’s response to it was the better way to resolve the issues raised…”

Error

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“Regrettably, for no reason other than my own error, the words in bold were omitted from my verbal response. My response was never intended to state that the work of Sir Mark Lowcock’s inquiry would deal with the complaints because that has never been the council’s position. I apologise for this error and the distress it has caused.

“I will contact council officers to ask that the correct wording is reflected in the record of the meeting.

“As you know, an independent investigator is now looking at the complaints and how the council has dealt with the complaints.

“I have been assured by the general counsel that when the investigation is complete the council will look again at the apology to the undertakers, taking into account the findings of the investigation.”

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