The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has told the council to make an unreserved public apology to the people of Sheffield after also finding it had acted with “a lack of honesty” and falsified specialist advice as thousands of trees were removed from the city’s streets as part of the £2bn highways improvement project with contractor Amey which began in 2012.
Felling work was paused in spring 2018 as increasing protests against the work attracted international condemnation when dozens of police officers and private security guards were sent to support the operations and numerous arrests were made. A new strategy focused on retaining trees has now been introduced.
Sheffield Council said it fully accepted the LGO findings – which followed a complaint by a now-deceased member of the public called Alan Robshaw – and it had “got some things wrong”.
The LGO report followed a complaint by Mr Robshaw, who died in May, after the removal of eight trees on his street in November 2016 – despite an Independent Tree Panel appointed by the council saying only one needed removing.
It was revealed in 2018 that the ITP, which was set up to evaluate the most controversial tree-felling proposals, had running costs of over £130,000 and the council paid Amey £700,000 in compensation for delays to the highways programme caused by waiting for its findings. Where the panel had recommended trees were saved, the council rejected the advice on 223 occasions and accepted it in only 73 cases.
One of the central findings of the LGO related to the “unacceptable” decision by the council to publicise documents saying its strategy required Amey to investigate 14 possible fixes to prevent the need for a tree removal before one was taken down. The LGO said these options were never part of the contract and the council had acknowledged “its contractor would never use some of the ‘solutions’ referred to”.
It said the council had never presented this in its public communications and had provided the complainant with “misleading information”. The report – which refers to the complainant as Mr G – said this also applied to the panel.
“The published version of the strategy also formed the basis of the instructions given to the ITP. The council, therefore, embarked on a process of consultation and independent review that referred to a strategy retaining elements that it had never followed and never intended to.
“We find this led to the council not using engineering solutions to retain trees on Mr G’s road despite the ITP advice to do so and their availability.
“We note in three cases where the ITP advised retaining a tree the council did not dispute the availability of an engineering or alternative solution. But rejected it on grounds of cost. Cost was not directly mentioned in the published strategy document as a reason for not carrying out an ‘engineering solution’ to retain a tree.”
Council ‘has made major changes’
Sheffield Council has said it has made “real and significant progress” in working alongside campaigners to manage the city’s street trees.
Councillor Mark Jones, cabinet member for Environment, Street Scene and Climate Change at Sheffield City Council, said: “We fully accept the findings of this report and recognise that our approach to managing the city’s street trees needed to change.
“We got some things wrong and whilst this report is reflective of a very different and difficult time, we are continuing to make real and significant progress towards a more transparent and collaborative future when it comes to managing our valuable street tree stock.”