Sheffield Council pledges ‘open and democratic’ future following street trees scandal

Sheffield Council has agreed to act on all the findings of the Lowcock Report into the street trees scandal and pledged “new, open and democratic ways of working”.
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An extraordinary meeting of the council held to consider the Lowcock Report that was at times chaotic and bad tempered also agreed to a Green Party proposal to install a plaque in the entrance to the town hall, next to the Kinder Scout mass trespass plaque.

It will be installed “in recognition of those who fought for our environmental heritage and were vindicated, and to serve as a reminder to all elected members that this failure of leadership will never happen again”.

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The idea came from street trees campaigner Annette Taberner, who was one of several protesters who spoke at the meeting.

Councillors watch on screens as Sir Mark Lowcock speaks about his inquiry into the street trees scandal at an extraordinary Sheffield City Council meeting called to discuss his findingsCouncillors watch on screens as Sir Mark Lowcock speaks about his inquiry into the street trees scandal at an extraordinary Sheffield City Council meeting called to discuss his findings
Councillors watch on screens as Sir Mark Lowcock speaks about his inquiry into the street trees scandal at an extraordinary Sheffield City Council meeting called to discuss his findings

The meeting also heard from inquiry chair Sir Mark Lowcock, who said he was encouraged that the council had accepted his findings and agreed to put his recommendations into practice. He urged the city to go forward in a spirit of partnership.

Councillors confirmed at the meeting that they have accepted all the conclusions and recommendations from the independent inquiry led by Sir Mark. It found that the council misled the public and the courts over its ill-fated £2 billion highways programme contract with Amey that included a decision to fell 17,500 street trees.

Apologies

The lord mayor Coun Sioned-Mair Richards and chief executive Kate Josephs both repeated apologies for the actions of the council. Coun Fran Belbin also apologised on behalf of the Labour Party.

Sheffield City Council chief executive Kate Josephs apologises on behalf of the council for its actions over the street trees issue during an extraordinary council meeting looking at the highly-critical Lowcock ReportSheffield City Council chief executive Kate Josephs apologises on behalf of the council for its actions over the street trees issue during an extraordinary council meeting looking at the highly-critical Lowcock Report
Sheffield City Council chief executive Kate Josephs apologises on behalf of the council for its actions over the street trees issue during an extraordinary council meeting looking at the highly-critical Lowcock Report
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Councillors pledged to draw up a timescale for implementing all the Lowcock recommendations by the end of June, to be put in place by a meeting of the strategy and resources committee. This will include mechanisms to provide “better accountability for actions of councillors, officers and other stakeholders”.

The Greens’ motion pointed out that the report was only commissioned because the party entered into a co-operative executive with Labour in 2021-22. That ended when the cabinet method of governance was scrapped following a city referendum calling for wider involvement of all councillors in decision-making.

The Greens argued that the council remaining in no overall control has been instrumental in finding new ways of collaboration.

Coun Paul Turpin put forward the Green proposal. He said that he had been involved in tree protests and his eight-month pregnant partner was almost run over deliberately by someone while chalking about the trees on the road, so it was an emotional issue for him.

The view from the public gallery of Sheffield council chamber during an extraordinary meeting called to discuss the highly-critical report into the street trees scandalThe view from the public gallery of Sheffield council chamber during an extraordinary meeting called to discuss the highly-critical report into the street trees scandal
The view from the public gallery of Sheffield council chamber during an extraordinary meeting called to discuss the highly-critical report into the street trees scandal
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He said that the divisions caused “can’t go on forever. We need to move on, we can’t keep having the same battles” and added that reconciliation is important. Coun Turpin urged the need for solutions “to fix what has been broken”.

Distressing

A LibDem amendment also welcomed the new committee system as a way to ensure more open, transparent and democratic processes.

It condemned the harms identified by Sir Mark, such as the distressing experience for protesters who were arrested, and the council’s hostile approach to protesters which was “dishonest, bullying and destructive of public trust”. It also spoke of the harm done to council officers and Amey staff.

A sign on tree cut down by contractors in Rustlings Road, Sheffield.A sign on tree cut down by contractors in Rustlings Road, Sheffield.
A sign on tree cut down by contractors in Rustlings Road, Sheffield.

A LibDem proposal that council cabinet members serving from 2015 to 2018 should resign from public office was opposed by Labour councillors but was agreed. (NB: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the amendment had been rejected).

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LibDem group leader Coun Shaffaq Mohammed told protesters: “It was really important that we hear your views and we actually start to listen to you. It was one of the many problems that we didn’t listen to you and ignored your concerns.”

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He said he doubts that some of the Labour leadership can change and they have lost people’s trust. “More than just stepping down from this positions in this top table, they should vacate other civil roles they have to let the city have a fresh start.”

Coun Mohammed added: “We have just had an election where Labour wanted overall control. Ten days before the election they knew they were in special measures. That shows a lack of transparency.”

Wrongs

He continued: “We do need you to be on board to right some of those wrongs that were done to the people of Sheffield.”

Labour currently has no leadership team after the central party put Sheffield Labour into special measures and forced council leader Coun Terry Fox to resign. The news broke on the morning of the council election count last Friday (May 5).

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Coun Bryan Lodge, who led on council policy on street trees for much of the time that protests were taking place, resigned as finance committee co-chair in March.

Coun Fran Belbin said: “I would like to make a formal apology on behalf of the Labour group because of the way that we as a group behaved during this. It was wrong, we made lots of mistakes.”

She also referred to a statement that the group put out this week. The statement said that it wanted to try to win back people’s trust and pledged to work with other parties with “collaboration and transparency at the heart of our approach”.

Coun Belbin said the statement acknowledged “mistakes we’ve made and our intention to make up for those. We want to continue working with you.

Accountable

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“We genuinely have a different approach to how we work in this city. The statement we put out this week genuinely committed us to that.”

Coun Belbin said that the party is acutely aware of the need to be accountable and transparent, which involves discussions with other groups.

She said that the party is electing a new leadership team next week and pledged that it will work collaboratively “to make sure we do better in future.”

After the formal session, the council invited everyone present to join a round-table session led by a facilitator to talk about how the report’s recommendations should be implemented. The outcome of the discussions will be fed into the deliberations of the strategy and resources committee when it meets in June to discuss the way forward.