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Plan to remove street trees in Sheffield revealed ‘failure of strategic leadership’

Deniz Huseyin
22 March 2023

 

Sheffield City Council’s scheme to remove thousands of street trees and replace them with saplings was “flawed” and a “failure of strategic leadership”, an independent inquiry has found. 

In 2012 when the council signed a 25-year £1.2bn private finance initiative (PFI) deal with the outsourcing firm Amey for the Streets Ahead programme. This included the removal and replacement of 17,500 street trees, about half the total in the city.

But approach taken by the council “largely ignored the value of street trees” and “failed to anticipate the views of significant numbers of people across Sheffield”.

In his 227-page report, chair of the inquiry Sir Mark Lowcock, said there is “no dispute” that, before the Streets Ahead programme, the roads, pavements and street lighting of Sheffield were in a poor state. There was a “rationale” for gradually removing mature street trees.

However, the risk assessments carried out before the contract was signed were inadequate: “Decision-makers simply did not foresee the problem. The council was slow to understand the scale and nature of opposition that was building gradually in several parts of the city from 2013 up to mid-2015.”

Lowcock stated: “The council’s behaviour amounted to a serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership. Responsibility for that ultimately rests with the political leadership – in particular, the relevant cabinet member and the Council Leader.”

Campaigners sought a judicial review in early 2016, and were granted a temporary injunction, which paused some tree removals. But the High Court ruled that the Council had not acted unlawfully by refusing to halt the tree replacement programme. One consequence of that was a “hardening of the Council’s mindset”.

The inquiry did not find evidence to back the council’s argument that campaigners opposed the tree felling were “a tiny and unrepresentative minority”. What was clear, said Lowcock, was that early 2018 “many people across Sheffield were unhappy about the dispute and the damage it was doing to their city”.

The council exacerbated its problems by the approach it took to explaining to the public what it was doing. “It lacked transparency, and repeatedly said things that were economical with the truth, misleading and, in some cases, were ultimately exposed as dishonest,” the inquiry found.

A campaign to save the trees resulted in clashes between protestors and police, as well as private security staff hired by Amey, the organisation contracted to carry out the felling operation.

Between July 2012 and April 2018 5,474 trees were felled, according to an investigation by the Forestry Commission.

“Thousands of healthy and much loved trees were lost,” the report concluded. “Many more could have been. Sheffield’s reputation was damaged. Public trust and confidence in the council was undermined. It has not been fully rebuilt. And people on all sides suffered anxiety, stress, injuries, wider physical and mental health problems and other harms which some continue to carry. ”

“Responsibility for that rests primarily with senior Council officers and senior politicians in the administrations of the governing groups between 2008 and 2012. Amey also bear part of the responsibility.”

Lowcock said there is a now consultative approach in the city since the appointment of a new cabinet member and a new Street Tree Partnership. 

In a statement, Sheffield council said: “The council has already acknowledged that it got many things wrong in the handling of the street trees dispute, and we wish to reiterate our previous apologies for our failings. We have taken huge steps already to ensure past mistakes are not repeated and we hope the release of this report will further help us to learn lessons as we move forward from the dispute.”

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