Sheffield Council's secret policy for tree-felling revealed
Sheffield Council's secret contract for the controversial felling of thousands of street trees focuses on minimising maintenance costs while containing no mention of removals only happening as a 'last resort' as the authority has repeatedly claimed in the past, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.
The council’s Highway Tree Replacement Policy has been made public today after The Yorkshire Post requested an internal review of a decision to keep the document secret last month.
The removal of thousands of trees and their replacement with saplings is part of a 25-year highways maintenance contract between the council and a company called Amey which started in 2012. Around 6,000 trees have been felled so far.
It was revealed in March the contract contains a target to remove 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees ‘in accordance with the Highway Tree Replacement Policy, unless authority [Sheffield Council] approval has been obtained for deviation from this policy’.
The council subsequently confirmed the contract figure has not been altered but council leader Julie Dore has since said less than 17,500 trees will be removed. Work is currently on hold while a review takes place following a national outcry after dozens of police officers and private security guards were sent out to support operations earlier this year.
The contract policy, which is less than two pages long, contains no mention of the so-called ‘6 Ds’ - the criteria the council had previously said is used for deciding whether to remove trees, assessing if they are deemed to be dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging or ‘discriminatory’ in preventing wheelchairs and prams for using the pavement.
There is also no mention of a series of engineering solutions to save trees that the council previously said could be used under the contract to save threatened trees from felling.
Instead, the contract policy focuses on what new saplings are suitable to be used as replacements, with one of the key considerations ‘minimising future maintenance requirements and nuisance’ - including a ‘preference for small leaves’ in choosing replacements.
It adds that 'all tree replacement work shall be carried out in accordance with good arboricultural practice' and the requirements of British Standards Institution for tree work.
It says that where felling is planned, ‘there shall be a period of consultation with residents to ensure they are fully aware of the replacement proposals and have sufficient opportunity to make comments or suggestions regarding the proposals’, while the choice of replacement saplings should aim to maintain 'the visual and historical integrity of the tree planting' on affected streets.
Tree campaigner Paul Selby said today: “I think the biggest shock for me in reading this is just how short, vague and high level it is. It leaves Amey with huge freedom to do pretty much whatever they want.
“The history of this dates back to the 2010 period when everything was starting to come together and they were thinking it was a great idea to get rid of half the trees. The document is all about what they are going to be replaced with, it doesn’t really care about what is coming down.”
The policy contrasts with the council’s Five Year Tree Management Strategy, which was published in 2016 and says tree-felling is a ‘last resort’, with engineering solutions to save them considered first. But an FOI response earlier this year confirmed the contract supersedes the strategy if there is a conflict between them, leading campaigners to describe the latter document as ‘worthless’.
Last month, Paul Brooke, co-chair of the Sheffield Trees Action Groups, accused the council of fabricating the strategy document, which was cited in a 2016 court decision to rule out a judicial review of felling operations in the city.
The strategy was first made public in early 2016, shortly before tree campaigner Dave Dillner went to High Court to seek a judicial review of council decisions. In April 2016, Mr Justice Gilbart rejected the application as ‘misconceived’ after citing the strategy, which had been brought to the court’s attention by Mr Dillner, as an “important document” in assessing the council’s approach to felling.
The five-year strategy for 2012 to 2017 lists six previous versions of it dating back to February 2013 on its opening page. But a subsequent Freedom of Information request by campaigners to see the previous versions was initially rejected on the grounds they were “commercially sensitive”. The council subsequently revised its position to say the information was “not held” in any form and said there was no statutory requirement or “business purpose” to retain earlier versions of the document.
Sheffield Council said documents used in the proceedings contained “legitimate information” and categorically rejected the suggested there had been an attempt to mislead the court after Mr Brooke said at a press conference that he believed the document had been produced “to provide positive evidence” for the High Court case.
Sheffield Council today said the information guiding felling decisions is found in its tree management strategy.
When asked by The Yorkshire Post if there was anywhere else in the contract outside the Highway Tree Replacement Policy that set out felling is a last resort and includes details of the ‘6 Ds’ criteria or the engineering solutions, a council spokeswoman said: “We won’t be adding anything further on this occasion other than to say that the information is available online in the Highway Tree Management Strategy.”