Sheffield Council has been forced to reveal a hugely-controversial PFI highways maintenance contract contains a target to cut down almost half of the city’s 36,000 street trees and replace them with saplings.
Information has been published following a year-long battle by campaigners for non-commercially sensitive parts of the 25-year contract with private company Amey to put placed in the public domain.
The council has previously insisted in Freedom of Information responses that there was no target for tree removal but the new information has come to light after the Information Commissioner ordered the publication of the previously-redacted sections of the contract. The council had claimed it intended to publish the information at a future date but last month the Commissioner warned the authority it could face legal action unless it published the information within 35 days.
One passage of the newly-published information states: “The service provider [Amey] shall replace highway trees in accordance with the annual tree management programme at a rate of not less than 200 per year so that 17,500 highway trees are replaced by the end of the term, such replacement to be in accordance with the Highway Tree Replacement Policy, unless authority [Sheffield Council] approval has been obtained for deviation from this policy.”
In a statement issued by Sheffield Council, cabinet member for environment Bryan Lodge today said it “remains difficult” to estimate how many trees will be felled over the lifetime of the contract and “any suggestion that 17,500 trees is a target or a requirement is an incorrect interpretation of the contract”. The council has suggested it currently estimates around 10,000 trees will be replaced over the course of the contract.
But tree campaigner Paul Selby, whose complaints to the Information Commissioner about the handling of Freedom of Information requests he was submitting to Sheffield Council led to the information being brought to light, said the publication of new details is a “smoking gun” that proves what campaigners have been saying about planned removal targets.
He said Councillor Lodge has not said the council has approved any change from the 17,500 figure mentioned in the contract.
“If they had decided to deviate from the contract figure, surely he would have said so,” he said.
The council and Amey have previously said around 6,000 trees were going to be cut down and replaced with saplings over the first five years of the contract, which started in 2012. That work has been delayed, partly as a result of protests against felling, and dozens of police officers and private security guards have now been attending felling operations in the city in an attempt to ensure the work is carried out.
The council and Amey insist that only dead, dying, diseased and damaging trees are being removed. But campaigners say that many of the trees being removed are healthy and do not need to go – claiming the option is being taken for cost rather than environmental or health and safety reasons.
Councillor Lodge’s statement added the council “continues to aim to minimise the number of trees being replaced”.
He said: “It has taken longer than we would have wished, but it was always our intention to release more of the Streets Ahead contract in the wider public interest, through a structured, phased approach and we have been working since April 2017 to achieve this.
“One of the things people will see is that the contract allows for the replacement of up to 17,500 highway trees.
“Over the last two years, the council has been asked many times about the number of trees that will need to be replaced over the life of the Streets ahead contract. In the first five years we have upgraded around 65 per cent of the roads and have replaced around 6,000 trees in that time, including trees that required urgent replacement, sometimes on streets yet to be improved.
“It has always been, and remains, difficult to estimate an exact final figure for the number of trees that will need to be replaced, as tree condition will vary with time, but the figures to date demonstrate that our tree replacement work is not driven by a need to replace a set amount of street trees, but by a measured and restrained approach which guarantees our street trees will flourish in the future.
“Any suggestion that 17,500 trees is a target or a requirement is an incorrect interpretation of the contract, and indeed the High Court was clear that the ‘objective of the council has been to retain trees where possible.’
“The contract wisely gives the ratepayer ‘insurance cover’ to ensure we aren’t vulnerable to long term risks as the health and impact of our street trees continue to change over time. If for any reason, such as major disease outbreak, the council has to replace a number of trees it can do so without any extra cost to the Sheffield ratepayer.
“However, the council continues to aim to minimise the number of trees being replaced.
“An independent survey as long ago as 2007 showed that 75 per cent of our street trees were found to be mature or reaching maturity. The replacement trees will help shift the balance towards younger, more diverse street trees which are not causing damage to the highway or private property and causing accessibility problems. What’s more, given we are unable to predict how major potential outbreaks of disease may affect our tree stock in coming years, the diversity of species will help to protect against this. .
“The Streets Ahead highways programme will see the upgrade of Sheffield’s roads, paths and street lighting and ensure they are maintained to a standard expected of a modern-day city.”