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Independent Report finds Scandal in Sheffields Tree Felling Plans

Sheffield Meersbrook Park Road 1 before

Sheffield City Council "stretched proportionate use of its authority beyond reasonable limits," a new report has found.

Some 5,500 trees were felled in Sheffield as part of a contract to replace 17,500 or half of Sheffield’s street trees over 25 years. But protestors said this was unnecessary and was a way to save tree maintenance money. The £2.2bn PFI project followed a "misinterpretation" of a 2007 report into the city's street trees following which the council developed plans to remove and replace an "arbitrary" number.

Inquiry chair Sir Mark Lowcock said there was a "serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership" and "misleading and dishonest" communications by the council in his independent inquiry into the Street Trees Dispute, published on 6 March.

Contractor Amey "could and should" have stopped the tree replacement programme before 2018, but the council's pressure did not allow that.

Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG) welcomed "the thoroughness and fairness with which the Inquiry team conducted their evidence gathering, including the often compelling live-streamed public hearings held between September and December 2022". STAG' co chair Rich Ward said: Sir Mark has shown that pretty well everything we had believed about our city council’s actions is true. A lot of people will be feeling relieved and vindicated today. We are committed to working with the council to rebuild trust, explore reparation and to ensure that something like this never happens again in our city."

Lowcock said thousands of trees were lost unnecessarily and trust in the council declined.

He recommended reconciliation - recognition of errors and issuing of apologies.

The inquiry has identified lessons. The dispute was a dark episode. Much  has been done to recover from it.


"Eleven years ago, the streets of Sheffield were in a sorry state. Now the roads, pavements and lighting in most of the city are much better. That brings significant benefits to residents, local businesses and other organisations, visitors and the neighbouring region. It is important to keep that closely in mind in what follows.

2. The only practical option available to the Council in the years from about 2005, when it was developing ideas on how to tackle problems with the highways, was a scheme under the Private Finance Initiative. It was, essentially, a choice between PFI or potholes.

3. The Council’s development, in the years up to 2012, of the Streets Ahead programme followed standard processes, as required by central government who were looking at providing £1.2 billion in grants.

4. But the approach to street trees was flawed. The provision to remove and replace 17,500 trees, about half the total in the city, was misjudged. It largely ignored the value of street trees. It failed to anticipate the views of significant numbers of people across Sheffield.

5. Developing and then adopting a flawed plan was a failure of strategic leadership. Responsibility for that rests primarily with senior Council officers and senior politicians in the administrations of the governing groups between 2008 and 2012.

6. Amey also bear part of the responsibility. Late in the design phase, they advised against a cost saving proposal from the Council to reduce the tree replacement programme by half – from 17,500 to 8,750. Amey’s advice, which the Council accepted, was substantially based on the rationale that a larger and front-loaded tree replacement programme would better facilitate the upgrading and maintenance of the built highways infrastructure.

7. It was, however, not inevitable that the flawed design would lead to the serious dispute that arose.

8. Between 2012 and mid-2015, Amey and the Council thought that the Streets Ahead programme was proceeding well. They failed to take seriously advice from a number of knowledgeable people who said, at the time the contract was signed in 2012, that the tree elements would be problematic. They failed to understand the extent of the public opposition that built in the next three years, the significance of the emergence of groups of local residents concerned about what they were seeing, or how things might evolve.

9. The strategy the Council and Amey deployed was to explain the programme to people concerned about it, not to listen and respond seriously to those concerns. Some work was postponed in the light of public disquiet, but the approach was not changed.

10. In late 2015, the Council decided to set up an Independent Tree Panel. From the perspective of its proponents, the ITP was a genuine attempt to find compromise and build public support by demonstrating the Council was acting reasonably. But others in the Council, not least senior staff responsible for highways and the Streets Ahead programme, were not bought in to this approach. The ITP was misled over what could be done at Amey’s cost under the contract, as were the public and, later, the courts. From 2016, the Council rejected many of the recommendations the ITP made in good faith to save trees. Setting up an independent panel, misleading it and then ignoring substantial numbers of its recommendations was destructive of public trust and confidence.

11. Starting in 2013, and in an increasingly coordinated way from 2015, campaigners launched a growing wave of correspondence (including Freedom of Information requests), gathered petitions, and continuously raised issues in Council meetings in pursuit of their concerns. The Council did not have or put in place the capacity to deal adequately with all of this. Sheffield Street Trees Inquiry 13

12. Campaigners sought a judicial review of what the Council was doing in early 2016. They were granted a temporary injunction which paused some tree removals. The High Court ruled that the Council was not acting unlawfully by refusing to halt the tree replacement programme. One consequence of that was to harden the Council’s position. It felt validated and endorsed, and increasingly its mindset was to defeat those opposing the tree replacement programme, not to seek an agreement with them.

13. The Council had opportunities in 2016, and later, to propose contract amendments which might have dealt with the dispute. It failed to take them. It had leverage over Amey which it could have used to seek a solution in which the costs may have fallen largely to Amey. But it did not wish to go down that route until its position became untenable in early 2018.

14. The Council did not, between 2016 and early 2018, adequately consider whether its strategy of facing down the campaigners would work. Nor did it adequately consider whether the increasingly drastic action it was taking, and was seeking from both Amey and the police, was wise. It stretched the proportionate use of its authority beyond reasonable limits.

15. 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: they were responsible for setting the direction and tone.

16. The Inquiry did not find evidence of officers acting in ways that were contrary to political direction. However, political decision-makers were not well enough supported by senior officers: a. Senior officers directly responsible for the highways and the contract believed strongly in the programme they were delivering, and did not want even limited compromises in the standards of built infrastructure to allow a larger number of healthy trees to be saved. They wanted their political masters to continue with the programme as it was designed and failed to do enough to develop alternatives. b. The Council’s in-house lawyers focused on what legal action it was entitled to take. Better legal practice would have been to ask more questions about whether the legal action contemplated would, in practice, have the intended effect of deterring the protesters, and encourage consideration of alternative approaches when it became clear that it was not doing so. It would have been better practice to have questioned whether all the legal steps the Council took were a reasonable and proportionate use of its authority. A more rounded approach should have been taken to advising on the Council’s problems. c. Senior executives with direct responsibility for the programme, at Executive Director level and above, sometimes failed to step in on operational issues when they should have done, and did not, before the spring of 2018, adequately take responsibility for helping their political masters resolve the dispute. On occasion, however, the most senior officers blocked some of the most egregious proposals.

17. 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. On occasion, that was inadvertent, but the Council long persisted in putting out messages that it knew conveyed a false impression. That further eroded public trust and confidence, in ways that went beyond the narrow issue of the street tree dispute.

18. Some people involved in or supportive of the campaign also behaved in ways which were unacceptable, including abusing and harassing public officials and others. Assessment, conclusions and recommendations 14

19. A combination of factors led the Council to change course in the spring of 2018. The escalated measures to deter the campaigners were not working. Amey were concerned that health and safety risks had reached unacceptable levels, and they had already offered to meet costs of a different approach, allowing more trees to be saved. The police were concerned that attending protests was diverting resources from more important work. The ruling party’s backbench councillors reported to their leaders that the public mood was against the Council. Politicians from Sheffield with national responsibilities privately and publicly expressed growing concern to the Council, pressurising them to find a solution.

20. Amey paused the tree replacement programme for the final time on 26 March 2018. They could and should have done that earlier: pressure from the Council to keep going deterred them for too long.

21. In early May, after local elections, a new cabinet member was appointed to handle the issues. Through dialogue, the Council was then able to agree with the campaigners to enter mediation. The mediation, conducted on all sides with skill, sensitivity and patience over a period of months, was successful in facilitating progress towards resolving the dispute.

22. The Street Tree Partnership has been successful in developing a new, more consultative approach, to the extent that Sheffield has now earned external plaudits for its approach. But the Council and Amey have yet to resolve a number of issues hanging over from the dispute for streets not so far covered by the Streets Ahead programme, some of which are in an unsatisfactory state. These issues need to be addressed more energetically.

23. The contract for the Streets Ahead programme has another 14 years to run. The financial consequences, for all parties, of early termination mean that it is likely to be seen through. New problems – and opportunities – will probably arise. A spirit of partnership on all sides will need to be sustained if they are to be dealt with effectively.

24. The dispute did significant harm. Thousands of healthy and loved trees were lost. 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.

25. And people on all sides suffered anxiety, stress, injuries and wider physical and mental health problems which, as would have been evident to anyone who watched the Inquiry’s public hearings and was even clearer from our private discussions, some continue to carry.


Reconciliation In public discussions at the time it was setting up the Inquiry, the Council referred to the desirability of truth and reconciliation. Reconciliation is supported by recognition of errors when they have been established, and the issuing of apologies. The Council issued a limited apology in early 2017 for some aspects of how it undertook the removal of trees in Rustlings Road. It issued a further apology in the wake of an investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman into the way it handled requests for information it received from a resident during the dispute. The Inquiry’s view is that apologies issued to date do not do justice to the scale of what went wrong. Accordingly:

1. The Council should apologise for developing and adopting a flawed plan.

2. Amey should also recognise, and apologise for, its part in developing the flawed plan.

3. The Council should issue a comprehensive and fulsome apology for the things it got wrong in the course of the dispute, especially between mid-2016 and early 2018, drawing on the material presented in the Inquiry’s report. 

4. In the spirit of reconciliation, the Council should drop outstanding financial claims against protesters in order to relieve them of the financial and wider burdens these claims continue to impose. The Inquiry also found examples of unacceptable behaviour – in particular, involving the harassment and abuse of public officials and their families – by a number of people supportive of or involved with the campaign. An acknowledgment of that would be appropriate and would also support reconciliation. Minimising future risks The Streets Ahead contract still has many years to run. The condition of a small number of roads and pavements in the city, which have not so far been addressed by the programme, is unsatisfactory. It is also likely that new problems – and new opportunities – will emerge. The financial pressures on the Council, already acute, are likely in the foreseeable future to increase further.

5. The Council should provide more staffing and senior support for the Street Tree Partnership Strategy. Amey should put more resources into enhancing its effectiveness.

6. While sustaining its current partnership mindset, the Council should consider whether it has the skills and capacity needed adequately to pursue its interests in managing the contract with Amey.

7. Amey should recognise that its part in the creation and sustaining of the dispute creates a moral and reputational obligation to be flexible and constructive in finding and resourcing solutions to legacy issues and such future problems as may arise.

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