Sheffield Council to apologise after residents 'deliberately' misled about tree-felling report

Sheffield Council is to apologise following an investigation by the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman.
Sheffield Council is to apologise following an investigation by the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman.
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Sheffield Council is to apologise for misleading residents over the city’s street tree-felling saga in a case a local government investigator said had “undermined trust in the effectiveness of its complaint procedures”.

A soon-to-be officially published ruling by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has made a finding of fault against the council after receiving complaints relating to an alder tree on Aldam Way, Totley, that the council wished to fell as part of its Streets Ahead highways project with contractor Amey.

The report said the council had accepted the findings while noting the authority had said it was under “exceptional pressure” due to public protests at the time about its wider tree-felling policy, which involved the removal of thousands of street trees and their replacements with saplings.

Following a year-long investigation, the Ombudsman ruled that the contractor had “deliberately set out not to reveal the true advice it had received” in regard to a report by a council-commissioned independent tree surveyor who said the tree should be saved.

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The tree in question had been recommended for removal in 2015 after an inspection noted some decay before an independent panel, which had been established by the council in the wake of growing concerns about felling work, advised in June 2017 that it could be saved as the damage had nearly healed.

The council rejected the advice, saying the tree was damaging the pavement. Two attempts were made to fell the tree but were frustrated by protesters.

One of the complainants, Sally Goldsmith, questioned the removal decision and was told by the contractor in August 2017 that removal was recommended because of “decay within the stem”. It added that an independent surveyor had “confirmed a decay pocket… as well as damage to the highway network”. A similar email was sent to another complainant.

However, Ms Goldsmith subsequently used Freedom of Information laws to get hold of a copy of the surveyor’s report. She found the report had actually recommended the tree was retained, saying the tree decay was healing well and that pavement damage was “minor”.

In November 2017, she complained to the council, sending them a detailed chronology of events. The council responded by accepting the damage to the tree might not justify felling but described the pavement damage as “more problematic”.

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The Ombudsman said one of the council’s faults in the case was failing to give the independent panel all of its reasons for wanting to fell the tree, meaning it did not consider the issue of possible highway damage.

The report, which refers to Sally Goldsmith as ‘Ms C’, said: “We find the council at fault for not giving its independent tree panel all its reasons for wanting to remove this tree and for a misleading reply to an enquiry from Ms C.

“We consider the faults have caused uncertainty about whether the tree needs removing. The council has agreed to reconsider its decision as part of its new strategy towards street trees and to apologise to Ms C for misleading her.”

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It added: “I find the email its contractor sent to Ms C in August 2017 misrepresented the expert advice it received from the tree consultancy. No-one reading that email could read it any other way than the third-party opinion supported the council and its contractor in their decision the tree needed replacement. Not that the opposite applied.

“The fact another email was sent in the same terms to a different complainant, by a different officer, means I do not think this was just poor drafting. The contractor deliberately set out not to reveal the true advice it had received. This must lead me to make a further finding of fault against the council.

“I find it disappointing the council and its contractor failed to recognise this when Ms C pursued her complaint. This, along with the lack of evidence showing that it always believed the pavement condition justified removal of the tree, has undermined trust in the effectiveness of its complaint procedures.”

The official strategy for Streets Ahead – which has seen around 5,500 trees removed and replaced with saplings since 2012 – said that the felling of trees is only considered as a ‘last resort’. But the Ombudsman said the evidence in this case that felling was a last resort was “far from convincing”.

The council has now agreed to provide written apologies while saying it will retain the tree “if possible” under a new approach to felling designed to save more trees through the use of engineering solutions paid for by Amey.

A Sheffield Council spokesperson said today: “We will undertake the agreed actions within the timescales outlined in the ombudsman report and consider whether any lessons can be learnt as a result.”

Ms Goldsmith said the case raises concerns about the council’s approach to the wider felling programme, with campaigners believing many have been removed unnecessarily.

“I’m so pleased that the Ombusdman took on and upheld my complaint, asking the council to apologise to me and a resident of the road,” she said.

“I’m also pleased they raised real concerns over the confusing information, the veracity of the council statement that 'felling is always the last resort' and over their lack of transparency when dealing with the public. This reflects on the council, not only with regard to this tree but for many threatened trees throughout the city.”