By Phil Turner
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2861

Sheffield council’s apology ignores roots of tree scandal

A dead wood Labour council signed a £2.2 billion privatisation deal over street tree maintenance
Issue 2861
Protest to save the Trees in Sheffield

A rally to save street trees in Sheffield in 2018 (Picture: Tim Dennell/Flickr)

Sheffield council has issued a full public apology for the trees scandal that began more than a decade ago. But it’s not for the issue at the heart of the battle it resoundingly lost to protesters—the then Labour-led council’s failure to fight Tory cuts and privatisation.

It chose to hand over maintenance of street trees to a multinational company in a shady £2.2 billion privatisation deal, rather than protect its own workforce.

It hatched secret plans to chop down half of the city’s 35,000 street trees under a 25-year private finance initiative (PFI) outsourcing contract with global corporation Amey. These were only revealed through a long-running Freedom of Information battle.

Shamefully councillors and council officials still denied it and defended their stance. And they used the courts to victimise campaigners and try to stop protests. Two elderly women were arrested amid dawn raids in a bid to dodge protests.

It’s not the first time the council has apologised. A report by the Local Government Ombudsman in 2020 into council actions on one particular road ruled that the authority misled the public and ordered an apology.

That investigation vindicated the five-year trees campaign, which was supported by unions demanding the contract be scrapped and work done by council workers. A peace plan ended felling, unless agreed with victorious campaigners.

Work being carried out for Amey, by private contractor Acorn, was stopped in 2018 by protests from those of us living on Meersbrook Park Road.

Neighbours stood shoulder to shoulder. Pensioners, some in their 80s, united against corporate greed. Campaigners held firm in the face of bullying and intimidation.

Along the way we had “trumpet gate’ with a woman arrested for blowing a toy trumpet, and allegations that tree felling workers were given poisoned tea by residents.

Mob-handed security—laughingly called “evidence gatherers”—videoed everybody. But despite violent “forceful removal” of protesters, they failed. “Axe PFI, not trees,” was the shout.

Without the protests—which would now be outlawed by Tory legislation—up to 17,500 trees would have been lost. The council now admits healthy trees were axed.

Recent elections have seen a backlash produce victories for the Greens. No party is currently in overall control with Labour, Greens and Lib Dems sharing responsibilities.

This latest four-page statement—following an independent investigation report in March— comes from new Labour leader Tom Hunt and new chief executive Kate Josephs. The previous leader quit because of his role in the scandal, while a councillor who led the tree policy resigned earlier.

The belated apology admits misleading the public, media and courts. But it should totally reject privatisation and bring all contracts back in-house.

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