Why an inquiry into the street tree debacle is necessary.

Julie Dore eventually gave an apology at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday 21st October.  It is an “unreserved apology” but fails to mention many of the things she has done wrong. She says “the dispute shouldn’t have been allowed to get to the point it did” and that the “council’s poor practice in managing the issue did contribute to the opposition to the programme”.

She obviously hopes this will be the end of it, but it can’t end here. Is she sorry for the arrests of peaceful campaigners, the stressful and expensive court cases,  the attempts to imprison and bankrupt campaigners, the false accusations of assault or the assaults on campaigners by Amey security, none of which were investigated?

Is Julie Dore sorry for the way she treated Councillor Alison Teal? I remember the day she was expelled from the Council Chamber, for calling out the lies of the ruling administration. All of the opposition politicians left the chamber to show their solidarity with her.

Alison wrote “Three years ago today I faced the possibility of going to prison for allegedly breaking the Council Injunction to prevent the use of Non Violent Direct Action to protect street trees. The evidence against me was fabricated. Camera angles, altered timings, contributed to the ‘misleading’ picture that Amey and the Labour Council chose to paint. Mr Justice Males heard the evidence against me and then dismissed the case. I didn’t even have to take the stand, and yet, the Council PR spin team said:  “The dismissal of the case against Ms Teal was clearly on a technicality.” Wrong. The case against me was clearly politically motivated. As more of the truth about the depths of their deceit comes to light, the calls for an inquiry will continue to grow. This Labour administration must be held to account for their actions.”

Russell Johnson from Sheffield Tree Action Groups demanded that the Council pay back the costs that had been incurred by campaigners who broke the injunction.  This injunction was designed to stop people protecting the street trees that we now know should never have been targeted for felling. He listed five reasons for compensation to be paid.

1. “The injunctions were granted by the High Court based on dishonest submissions on behalf of, or by, Sheffield City Council.” The court was told the Council was obliged to fell healthy street trees under Highways legislation. This was later shown to be untrue. The court was told that there was ‘wild speculation’ that the Streets Ahead contract called for the removal of half of City’s street trees. Freedom of information requests later revealed that this was true.

2. “The felling of thousands of healthy trees was almost certainly illegal.” The Forestry Commission found that 600 trees may have been felled illegally.  Felling without a licence where it is required is an offence that can result in large fines. Due to the Council’s poor record-keeping and failure to provide information, there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

3. “The grounds invented by Sheffield City Council for ‘last resort’ fellings were largely spurious.” Joint Tree Investigations, where campaigners accompanied Amey personnel to inspect trees, found that most of the trees threatened with felling could be saved with very simple engineering solutions. The Council insisted on felling trees to ensure perfectly straight kerbs, when leaving out a kerbstone would have been a perfectly good alternative. Trees surrounded by big humps of tarmac, assumed to be caused by roots, were actually caused by build-up of tarmac from previous repairs. 

4. “SCC’s approach to decision making and communication was/is deeply flawed.” The Local Government Ombudsman Report found the Council had made misleading responses, misrepresented specialist advice,  listed solutions to retain trees that were not part of the contract with Amey and not considered residents distress and outrage for starting work without warning at 4.30am in the morning.

5. Large sums of public money were squandered on expensive barristers and intimidating peaceful campaigners, both in the use of police, sometimes 30 at a time,  and “bouncers” who were employed to physically prevent members of the public protesting.

Meersbrook Park Road by Russell Johnson

Thousands of pounds were extracted from tree defenders with no legitimacy. If Sheffield Council is sorry, reimbursement of costs will give some credibility to the apology. 

Russell Johnson’s suggestion is that reimbursed monies that had been crowdfunded by tree campaigners should be placed in a new tree planting fund for the City. Tree campaigners have already raised £5000 to plant trees along Abbeydale Road. Hundreds of new trees throughout Sheffield would be a marvellous tribute to the massive efforts to save our glorious street trees. 

Policing at a tree felling by Russell Johnson

Sheffielders are eagerly awaiting  genuine green shoots of a ‘new dawn’ of honest and open governance. An independently chaired Inquiry with full Council cooperation would go a long way to restoring citizens’ confidence.

Footnote

Unfortunately, the Sheffield Telegraph did not publish this article, but Now Then magazine published this update.

References

Julie Dore Apology

https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/politics/council/it-shouldnt-have-got-point-it-did-sheffield-council-leader-julie-dore-issues-tree-felling-apology-3010911

Review of Tree Investigations

https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/content/dam/sheffield/docs/roads-and-pavements/managingtrees/Review%20of%20Tree%20Investigations%20Lessons%20Learned%20and%20Actions.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3m3ybpfNATrv_ED7CJ6gHSm1g3m-0YCqPcbimpVQ0tPqfLJ3oo9Tm6Arw

Ombudsman’s Reports

https://www.lgo.org.uk/information-centre/news/2020/oct/council-should-apologise-for-tree-controversy-ombudsman-says

https://www.lgo.org.uk/decisions/environment-and-regulation/trees/17-016-034

Illegal felling of trees-Forestry Commission

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/politics/five-damning-findings-sheffield-trees-investigation-485487

Abbeydale Road Trees

Alison Teal on Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/groups/392913244219104/permalink/1671181199725629/

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