Sheffield council hits out at Gove

Sheffield City Council cabinet member Bryan Lodge has defended the local authority's controversial tree regime in a letter to Defra secretary of state Michael Gove.

image: Julia Bodle
image: Julia Bodle

Environment portfolio holder Lodge wrote back to Gove after the minister criticised the tree replacement programme that forms part of the Streets Ahead PFI contract in Sheffield.

Tree felling has been a divisive issue in Sheffield since 2016 and Gove has been dragged into the controversy recently.

Some local residents have been arrested trying to protect the 6,000 trees that face felling as part of a 25-year £2bn highway maintenance scheme Streets Ahead.

This August, Sheffield City Council won a court battle to bring injunctions against three protesters including Green councillor Alison Teal taking "unlawful direct action" to prevent trees being felled. The council say the ruling will prevent "catastrophic financial consequences".

Also this month, Gove sent a letter to the council demanding an end to the "destruction of thousands of mature trees", which he said would "damage our children’s rightful inheritance".

He has concerns about the "transparency in the decision-making process", adding: "It is clear that many of Sheffield’s residents are deeply frustrated and angry at the decision to remove a large number of trees from local streets.

"Understandably, local people place a significant value on their green spaces, and their local environment, and these trees are a really important part of that. We know trees and and leafy streets make places healthier, cleaner and more desirable places to live."

But Lodge said: "I was surprised that your letter calls for us to breach the terms of the StreetsAhead contract, particularly given the fact that the Government (through Department forTransport) are party to the contract, and that it was at your government’s instruction that thePFI model was used to finance this programme of work. The reality is that the consequences of withdrawal would, as you should be aware, represent profound financial imprudence, dire environmental consequences, be counter to what a majority of Sheffield residents want, and would put the Council in neglect of our legal duties.

"Your letter contains a number of inaccuracies, and we would like to extend an invitation to
you to come to Sheffield and find out first -hand what is really happening with the Streets
Ahead work. For example, how only a very small minority of people in Sheffield object to the
tree replacement programme, with the majority of people either in support of or indifferent to
the works; how we have planted an additional 65,000 trees in the city since the beginning of
the Streets Ahead programme, making Sheffield greener than ever by the end of the
contract; and how we have gone to great lengths to consult and work with the people in
Sheffield affected by the programme.
"We would ask you to note: The street tree replacement programme is only one small part of the Streets Ahead contract, which presents Sheffield with a unique opportunity to bring our roads, pavements and streetlighting up to standard and maintain them over a 25 year
period.
"Every street tree on the prog ramme will be replaced on at least a one for one basis,
meaning that Sheffield will be able to enjoy a diverse age profile of street trees for generations to come.
"Around 6,000 of Sheffield’s 36,000 street trees are set to be replaced by the end of
2017, as well as 600 additional trees planted as part of the Streets Ahead work before
the end of the programme.
"We are not removing healthy trees because we take any satisfaction in doing so, a tree
is only marked for replacement under the Streets Ahead contract if it is dead, dying,
diseased, dangerous, damaging (footpaths, private property or roads) or discriminatory
(meaning the tree creates difficulty for elderly, disabled and partially sighted people
when using the footpath).
"Streets Ahead is the biggest investment ever seen in roads, street trees and infrastructure in Sheffield. It represents our opportunity to replace trees where necessary so that they don’t just last for the next ten years, but for the next hundred years. For our children and our
grandchildren. We simply won’t get this chance again with public sector funding going the way it is.
"The Streets Ahead programme uses different engineering solutions to try and retain trees which are causing significant problems according to an overt and transparent set
of criteria. We know that most people in Sheffield do not want us to divert funds away
from caring for those in need and into expensive alternative solutions for retaining
street trees for a limited period.
"The total estimated number of street trees to be replaced over the full contract period
amounts to less than 0.15% of the city’s overall tree stock
"Over 65,000 trees have been planted by the Council across Sheffield in the last three
years, including th ose planted as part of the Streets Ahead contract and those in parks
and woodlands included in the Council’s community forestry programme.
"All residents have been surveyed prior to work commencing on their streets. We know
from the survey results that a majority of residents are in support of the works, or
indifferent to them. On streets where a majority of residents did not support the
proposals we sought advice from the independent tree panel to look at the feasibility of
additional work. This advice w as taken where it was appropriate to do so.
The process is fully transparent, detailed accounts of why work may or may not be needed for
every single street tree looked at is publically available.
"Failure to do anything, or to stop midway through the programme, would be morally
reprehensible and penalise a majority of Sheffield residents at the behest of a vocal
minority. This would create a two-tier system with some streets worked on and others
neglected. This cannot be right.
"The programme has been found not only to be lawful, but that we have a duty to
continue with its delivery, by a high court. The campaigners have had a fair chance to
scrutinise and challenge the council in the courts. They had their say and
comprehensively lost. The Judge in the High Court was very clear about the Council’s
obligations to maintain the highway: it isn’t something that we have a choice about (at
paragraph 24 of the judge ment in Dillner v Sheffield Council [2017] EWHC 1930
(Admin)). "It follows that, if a tree is a source of danger, or constitutes an obstruction to
traffic (be it vehicular or pedestrian) or requires removal to enable repair to take place,
the Highway Authority is under a duty to take measures to remove the source of
danger or obstruction as a matter of statutory obligation."
"We are sure that, as a former Lord Chancellor, you would want to support the council in
now looking to uphold the rule of law. It i s a shame that during your recent trip to Yorkshire you did not try to contact us. I would have been happy to meet with you to discuss any concerns in person, and this offer still stands. The truth is that a small number of people in the city have strong v iews against the tree replacement programme. We respect this, but we cannot allow them to stop work that the majority of people in Sheffield want to see completed.
There is a lot of misinformation around, and it is surprising that you would not seek a full
understanding of an issue before announcing a position. I know that you have publically
stated that you believe 'the country has had enough of experts"' but our council believes
they still have a role to play. We would rather follow the robust workings of the many expert
groups involved in the Streets Ahead programme, and deliver what the majority of Sheffield
residents want us to, rather than follow the ill-informed whims of a Conservative minister."

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