Sheffield Council says inquiry into tree dispute would be 'a distraction'

Sheffield Council has said an independent inquiry into its handling of the long-running dispute over the felling of thousands of street trees in the city would be a 'distraction' after it unveiled a new approach to the highways work.
Councillor Lewis Dagnall has led talks with campaigners on behalf of Sheffield Council.Councillor Lewis Dagnall has led talks with campaigners on behalf of Sheffield Council.
Councillor Lewis Dagnall has led talks with campaigners on behalf of Sheffield Council.

The authority has rejected calls for an inquiry examining “the conduct of all parties” during a dispute which has resulted in multiple arrests and civil court cases following the felling of 5,500 street trees in the city so far.

The council accepts around 2,000 of the felled trees were healthy but says they needed to be removed for causing problems to highways or pavements, a position challenged by protesters who argue many were removed unnecessarily.

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But a joint position statement published following two months of mediated talks between the council, its contractor Amey and representatives of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) said the council believed such an inquiry would be “potentially detrimental” to improving relations between the two sides.

The statement said: “STAG Steering Group has set out key areas where they believe that evidence shows that information being provided to the public is misleading. For lessons to be learned and given the seriousness of events that unfolded during the dispute, STAG’s position is that an inquiry is essential.

“STAG believe that this might restore the trust and confidence of the tree campaigners in the management of the programme for the remaining years of the contract.

“The council is of the view that whilst there may be lessons to be learned about the conduct on all sides that, at this stage, an inquiry would be a distraction from the delivery of the new approach, and potentially detrimental to the improving relations and understanding between Amey/Sheffield City Council and the campaigners.”

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Paul Brooke, co-chair of STAG, said at a press conference on Thursday that he is now satisfied the council and Amey are not working towards a target of felling 17,500 trees, a figure contained in the highways contract which the authority has said is a contingency measure.

But he said he believed an inquiry was still important. “I don’t think that Amey and the council are working to a target any more. Whether it solves it as to how we got to this point and the history of it, I think that’s a little bit more complicated.

“We haven’t managed to reach agreement over looking at an independent inquiry or an independent review as to how we got into this mess as a city.

“We think it’s essential. There were legal actions and police actions. We would like to be able to do that review but the target, we think that’s probably history.”

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The new approach involves the council felling fewer of the 305 trees that had been due to be removed by the end of 2017, through the use of engineering solutions and ongoing maintenance work paid for by Amey.

The planned removal of scores of other trees will be delayed for up to a decade in a ‘phased’ approach to felling, while a new street tree strategy to cover the remainder of the contract running up until 2037 is to be developed next year.

A Forestry Commission investigation into the legality of the work that has taken place so far remains ongoing.

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Talks to continue

Informal talks will continue between the council and campaigners after the authority said a contract requirement which prioritises highways work delivers straight pavement kerbs over saving trees was only being relaxed temporarily.

Campaigners want a permanent change to the way work is approached.

“STAG Steering Group considers that this is common practice and supported by national guidance and would prevent the unnecessary removal and reduction of mature tree canopy,” the joint statement said. “Sheffield City Council believes this will not deliver the quality of highway that its elected members have promised to the people of Sheffield through the Streets Ahead programme.”