An independent investigation into the policing of Sheffield’s tree-felling protests has levelled several criticisms at Sheffield City Council which is accused of leaving the South Yorkshire force “in the eye of the storm” when the controversy was at its peak earlier this year.
The panel has also suggested a change to UK law should be investigated so police can claw back the costs of operations such as those around the tree-felling work from profit-making private contractors employed by local authorities, stating “the law does not appear to have caught up with the outsourcing of local authority functions”.
The report was compiled by South Yorkshire’s Advisory Panel on Policing Protests, which reports to Police and Crime Commissioner, as a result of the growing tensions surrounding the way police were deployed to allow tree-felling operations to go ahead as part of the council’s controversial Streets Ahead PFI deal, which uses contractors Amey to repair and maintain the city’s roads.
South Yorkshire Police have been accused of lacking impartiality over the way they have operated in dealing with protesters wanting to prevent trees from being removed by contractors and a lack of proportionality in the resources committed to the operations.
Although some recommendations have been made, including advice that police vehicles should not travel in convoy with those of contractors, the force has been exonerated from the accusations it has faced of acting on behalf of Amey.
However, the report is critical of Sheffield City Council on several levels, including a suggestion that the authority dodged the spotlight as controversy raged earlier this year, with the report stating: “At the end of February and through March, Sheffield City Council appeared to step back from public engagement in the media and elsewhere, leaving South Yorkshire Police in the eye of the storm.
“It will appear to those attending that SCC had simply washed its hands of the issue and left Amey to it, and the police on the front line of enforcement as a result of its positive obligation to uphold the right to carry on lawful activity.”
A memorandum of understanding has been drawn up, which would recognise the police’s responsibilities were “considerably more limited”, working with other parties to minimise the likelihood of criminal activity and to respond proportionately to “properly assessed threats and risks necessitating police action” when the occurred.
However, when the report was filed, that had still not been signed by SCC, something the panel describe as “disappointing”.
A key recommendation is that Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings should approach the Home Office to seek modern regulations which would allow police to recover costs for operations conducted specifically to allow private firms to conduct work for local authorities – something which could become increasingly relevant if anticipated anti-fracking action materialises in future.
The report suggests: “In an age where private organisations carry out public functions for commercial gain, it is unclear in policy terms, why the cost of policing which facilitates the performance of a commercial contract, should come at nil cost to the contractor.
“In our view, the activity of police in support of a private contractor on public land needs review, and we recommend that the PCC invites the Home Secretary to undertake such a review.
“South Yorkshire Police resources will no doubt be required to police fracking activities on private land.
“In the light of the expense of policing tree protests, we recommend that SYP develops a policy for charging for policing services on private land where these are provided to commercial entities.”
The panel have recommended that police do more to demonstrate their impartial role, by minimising the number of officers engaged in operations and to ensure there are channels available to those seeking to report allegations of criminal behaviour at the scene.
The report’s authors say in their conclusion: “Only if SCC takes steps to modify the controversial aspects of the programme, will policing return to the low key levels seen before February.
“It is important that SCC recognises that if policing at pre-Easter levels is still required, that will impact on policing resources.
“We understand that, if there is no initiative by SCC and Amey which would have the effect of reducing the call on policing resources, the PCC is prepared to convene a meeting with SCC and Amey to explore whether there is scope for a change to the programme which would result in a return to low key policing, or better still, no policing at all.”
Cabinet member for Environment and Street Scene at Sheffield City Council, Councillor Lewis Dagnall said: “As we're currently reconsidering how to move forward with tree replacement work, we welcome today's report as an opportunity to reflect and learn lessons from previous experience.
“Whilst operational decisions regarding policing are rightly a matter for South Yorkshire Police, the report to the Commissioner also presents suggestions for improving engagement between the police and the council.
"We will consider these seriously, and I will now look to meet with the Commissioner to further discuss the findings of the report and update him on our progress towards reaching a compromise.
"It's our sincere hope that achieving a compromise will mean further police involvement proves unnecessary when work recommences, as noted in the report. I am continuing to meet with residents and stakeholders to listen to their views, and I remain confident that a compromise from all sides will enable us to move forward as a city."