Sheffield Council: Deceptive or Stunningly Incompetent?

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Throughout the saga of the Sheffield trees, much has remained murky, due in significant part to the vast, secret 25-year contract with multinational corporation Amey to maintain Sheffield’s roads, pavements, and trees. It is only in recent weeks that the full extent of the council’s likely duplicity has become apparent. And it’s shocking.

First, take the claim: “Felling is always a last resort.” That’s what the council and Amey have said throughout the Streets Ahead contract. Councillor Terry Fox, then Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport, even declared on 28 December 2015 that Flexipave, one of the pre-paid solutions for saving mature street trees, had been used 143 times. Asked for more details, via a Freedom of Information Act request, the council first claimed that the information wasn’t available, then that records were irretrievably scattered across weather-stained notebooks and finally that they were under no obligation to provide this information. The Information Commissioner impressed upon the council the need to keep better records and told them they were obligated to comply with the request within 35 days, which they have now done. They have explained that they lack records of the 143 instances, and conceded that the claim was false. However, they have provided documentation of 29 instances of Flexipave. Unfortunately, some of these instances turned out not to be street trees, none was a mature tree, and some of them aren’t anything to do with the Streets Ahead contract. There have been, it seems, absolutely no instances of Flexipave being used to preserve existing street trees. On the very most charitable reading, this is a council in disarray, giving false answers to questions asked, and failing to keep records of the most basic sort. On a more plausible reading, the ‘143’ claim was a lie—as was the claim that felling is always a last resort.

The council, and Amey, have also lied about the safety of their working practices. In August, contractors felled a large tree directly into a resident’s garden, without permission or even warning. In response to written complaints, they maintained (falsely) that the resident had given permission and that the felling was perfectly safe. By late August the Health and Safety Executive had ruled otherwise, issuing Amey with a Notice of Contravention (indicating that they had broken the law). On 7 September, this was reported to the council. And yet, on 5 October the council issued a “Mythbuster” document, flagging as a “myth” the clearly true claim that Amey have not been complying with Health and Safety Regulations. Lying about safety is a very grave matter, and it’s hard to see this as anything else.

So is lying about the law. Since Mr Justice Males handed down the injunction on 15 August, the council has been distributing several different versions of the injunction, changing the wording in crucial ways so that it appears to apply to areas other than public highways. They have been threatening people with jail time for standing in public parks or on private property (with permission), or even for just walking by. The injunction dictates no such thing, as Justice Males clearly indicated in the most recent case. Again, there is what one might call a charitable explanation available. But the “charitable” explanation involves shocking incompetence from the council’s legal team— a failure to appreciate the importance of correctly stating the content of the injunction. Again, the less charitable explanation is deception.

Justice Males’s occasion for this ruling was even more shocking: the council had tried to imprison an opposition councilor, Alison Teal, for breaking the injunction, hiring a QC for £70,000 of public money. Justice Males threw this case out on the basis of the council’s own evidence—because that evidence showed that she had been following the correct understanding of the injunction. Instead of apologizing, Sheffield Labour began tweeting that she had only avoided conviction based on a technicality. A council that believes not being guilty is a technicality has moved so far beyond the bounds of reasonableness that it is hard to fathom the state we are in.

The trust between Sheffield Council and the citizens it serves has been badly ruptured by this series of enormously consequential falsehoods. However, a glimmer of hope has recently appeared, with the possibility of mediated negotiation. We can only hope that this takes place quickly.

[For more on the campaign to save Sheffield’s trees, go to the STAG website.]

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