Sheffield Council must apologise to the people of the city for tree controversy, says Ombudsman
"Apologise to the people of Sheffield for the tree controversy" – That's the instruction to Sheffield Council from an Ombudsman after "numerous problems" were found with the way it removed street trees.
The Local Government Ombudsman has found the council did not, at times, act with openness and transparency when removing trees across Sheffield, and when dealing with people’s complaints about that work.
The Ombudsman investigated after receiving a complaint from a man who has since passed away.
It has instructed the council to make a "public unreserved apology" to the city and a private apology to the man's family.
Ombudsman Michael King said: “This case highlights the imperative for councils to act with honesty, openness and transparency - without this people can lose faith in their integrity and not trust they are doing the right thing."
Sheffield Council put a statement on its website saying it would apologise to the complainant's family but it seemed to stop short of saying sorry to the people of the city.
A spokesperson for the local authority confirmed they intended to issue an apology to the complainant’s family ahead of a public apology to be released on Thursday.
The complaint from the late campaigner concerned the infamous Rustlings Road felling of eight trees during November 2016, despite specialists and the council’s own independent tree panel recommending only one of the trees needed removing.
Contractors Amey had surveyed trees to identify those which needed to be removed.
The council said removal would be a ‘last resort’ and Amey would consider a list of 14 engineering or other solutions before trees would be felled.
On the day the trees were removed, the council only published its response to the specialists’ recommendations at 4.30am. It said this was to prevent a significant protest by residents.
Contractors turned up on site and started work just 30 minutes later. Residents had not been given notice the work was scheduled. The council said this had been done ‘on police advice’ but South Yorkshire Police stated they had no input into the plans.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council at fault for the way it corresponded with the man about his complaints, the delay and the sometimes misleading responses he received.
The investigation also found fault with the way the council placed information in the public domain surrounding the tree removal, and the selective detail of that information.
It found the council misrepresented advice received from specialists about the viability of one tree they assessed.
The investigation criticised the council for making public a version of its strategy that did not follow earlier versions, and that did not reflect its policy in practice.
It listed solutions to retain trees that were never part of the contract with Amey, and therefore would never have been used.
The Ombudsman’s investigation has also criticised the council for not considering residents’ distress and outrage for starting work on the trees at 5am, and without prior notification.
It used a Temporary Road Traffic Regulation Order that deliberately did not identify when it would take effect for the multiple roads it covered.
The Ombudsman says since the events, the council has reconsidered its approach and put in place a number of new strategies for dealing with street trees in an effort to retain as many mature specimens as possible.
Mr King added: “I welcome the hard work the council has since done to restore people’s faith, and publish more information to increase transparency. Apologising to the people of Sheffield for its past actions and acknowledging what went wrong will help build that trust further.
“I have also recommended the council shares with us how it will take the learning from this case and embed accountability and transparency in both its new trees strategy and its wider services.”
The council must share with the Ombudsman how it will "embed transparency" within its new trees strategy.
It has to show how contracts and management agreements reflect its new strategy and should consider further how it can ensure contractors and managers are aware of the need to signpost people to the council’s complaints process when appropriate.
It should also consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services plus any lessons to be learned.
In a statement, Cabinet member for Environment Coun Mark Jones said the council accepted the report and recognised its approach need to change.
“We got some things wrong and whilst this report is reflective of a very different and difficult time, we are continuing to make real and significant progress towards a more transparent and collaborative future when it comes to managing our valuable street tree stock.
“Many of the actions outlined in the report are already underway, with the creation of a partnership group and the recent production of a new Street Tree Partnership Working Strategy.
"Whilst the report recognises this, we know we must do better and we are confident that through our new collaborative approach, we are now in a much more positive and favourable position to ensure our street trees are properly and effectively managed.
“The new working partnership street tree strategy recognises the many benefits trees bring to our urban environment and proposes a more open and inclusive way of working to ensure more transparent processes going forwards.
"What’s more, we are already in the process of finalising plans to make all historic materials relating to street trees publically available via an online archive. In doing so, we can allow those who want to look over past documents to do so, but equally, we can all start to look forward as we embark on a new, more constructive chapter.
“Through our new approach, we are committed to retaining trees wherever possible, planting additional trees, increasing canopy cover and building a diverse and resilient street tree stock with varying species and age profiles.
"We are also committing to engaging with stakeholders and the wider public about our plans for street trees in a more proactive way, to avoid any uncertainty about what we are doing and why. Engagement is key for creating a future-proof strategy that works for us all.
“In this specific case, we will be apologising to the complainant’s family and giving reassurances that we are already on the right path towards a more open and sustainable vision for how we manage street trees, not just for now, but for many years to come.”