Sheffield Council has blamed being under “exceptional pressure” from protests against its controversial tree-felling programme as it apologised for misleading information being provided to residents about the findings of an expert report linked to the issue.
Earlier this month, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman made a finding of fault against the council after receiving complaints relating to an alder tree on Aldam Way, Totley, that the authority wished to fell as part of its Streets Ahead highways project with contractor Amey.
The ombudsman found two residents were 'deliberately' misled by the contractor about the contents of an independent report which had recommended the tree was saved after they were given the impression the expert had backed the council’s assessment it needed to be removed.
In a letter sent to Sally Goldsmith, one of the complainants, Laraine Manley, executive director of place for Sheffield Council, said: “I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to you for our handling of the case.
“As we expressed in our response to the Ombudsman, the responses were given to you during a period of exceptional pressure resulting from the public reaction to the street tree replacement programme.”
Ms Goldsmith, a member of the Sheffield Tree Actions Group, said today she was unhappy with the “inadequate and insincere” apology.
“The council imply that their reply was a mistake because at the time they were under pressure. The reply to me was definitely not a mistake,” she said.
The alder was due to be removed as part of efforts to remove thousands of street trees in the city and replace them with saplings - a policy that attracted growing protests from residents who argued many of the fellings were unnecessary and ultimately led to dozens of police officers and private security guards being sent out to support operations as tensions rose.
The tree had been recommended for removal in 2015 after an inspection noted some decay. But in June 2017, an independent panel established by the council in the wake of growing concerns about felling work, advised it could be saved as the damage had almost healed.
The council rejected the advice, saying the tree was damaging the pavement and two attempts were made to remove it but were prevented by protesters.
Ms Goldsmith was subsequently told by Amey that an independent surveyor had “confirmed a decay pocket… as well as damage to the highway network”. Another resident was provided with a similar response.
However, when she got hold of a copy of the surveyor’s report using Freedom of Information laws, she found the surveyor had actually recommended the tree was retained and said the tree decay was healing well and the pavement damage was “minor”.
The council accepted the ombudsman’s findings in the case that misleading information had been provided and agreed to apologise to the two residents.
Ms Goldsmith said today: “There is immense distrust in this city over the council’s reasons for felling up to half of the city’s street trees. This is only one tree for which I have had to forensically put together a lot of evidence.
“The Ombudsman has done a really thorough and professional job investigating this. I believe however that this is only the tip of the iceberg."
The council’s letter of apology said the Aldam Way tree is now due to be reinspected under a new approach to the issue, which is designed to reduce the number of fellings through the increased use of work such as pavement repairs.
The new approach has started this year following months of talks between the council, Amey and campaigners to find a way forward.
Since the Streets Ahead contract started in 2012, around 5,500 trees - 2,000 of them healthy but deemed to be damaging pavements or road surfaces - have been axed.
Ms Goldsmith said: “Positively, since the joint talks, Amey and Sheffield Trees Action Groups are currently every day investigating a lot of trees previously threatened with felling and Amey in most cases are now saving them with simple, pragmatic and crucially very cheap solutions - new tree pits and kerbs. This shows, I believe, that the reasons for felling were often unnecessary.”