An inquiry into Sheffield Council’s £2bn Streets Ahead programme, which saw contractor Amey fell thousands of trees as part of its highways contract and sparked violent protests, has found that the council’s behaviour “amounted to a serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership”. It continues: “Responsibility for that ultimately rests with the political leadership, in particular the relevant council member and the council leader: they were responsible for setting the direction and tone”. It adds that Amey “bears part of the responsibility” for the terms of the contract that it put forward. It says that Amey should have paused the tree felling programme sooner once actions had turned violent – although the council threatened a fine of £3M a year if it did not continue. Led by independent chair Sir Mark Lowcock, the inquiry drew on three sources of information; documentary material, private discussions with over 150 people involved and public hearings. The result is a 227 page, 100,000 word report on the creation of the Streets Ahead programme from 2005 to 2015 and the fall out between Sheffield Council, Amey and protesters over the course of 2016 to 2022. In 2006, the council was aware that a major upgrade to its roads, pavements and street lighting was needed as it had fallen into disrepair. There was confusion about the design of the street trees dimension of the plan from the start, the inquiry found. It took delivery of a report from Elliott Consulting in 2007 that said that 74% of the city’s 35,000 trees were mature or overmature. This was misrepresented in the council’s 2008 business plan for its Streets Ahead programme, which said that these mature and overmature trees were “now ready for replacement”. This is not what had been intended as an outcome from Elliott’s report, but Sheffield Council had not consulted with tree specialists. The following year the council invited bidders to develop plans for removing and replacing half of the city’s street trees over the 25 years of the Streets Ahead programme – 17,500 large trees that could have lived for much longer were to be replaced by smaller, younger ones. However, when austerity was introduced in mid-2011, the council had to cut the budget for the Streets Ahead programme and reduced the number of trees to be felled to 8,750 – half of what had previously been proposed.

Nonetheless, Amey Submitted a Bid in Summer 2012 That Said That.

it could replace the initially proposed 17,500 trees while maintaining the savings that Sheffield Council intended when reducing the programme. Amey said that this could be done because fewer old trees would reduce the tree damage to the highways and make a “more ideal” scenario for “adaptability […] to the road infrastructure”. This was more commercially attractive to Amey, which knew at the time that several of the trees to be removed were perfectly healthy. It also decided to front-load the contract with tree felling, with a third of the trees scheduled to be replaced within the first five years of the 25 year deal. Sheffield Council accepted this deal and the figures were written into the contract. According to the inquiry, these decisions are the contractor’s most egregious contribution to the fallout that ensued. But the contractor also holds responsibility, along with the council, for not anticipating the public would be upset by the unnecessary removal of thousands of trees. “A failure to ask the right questions of the right people helps to account for that,” the report states. “A consequence of failing to identify the risk was that nothing was done to mitigate it.” The Streets Ahead programme commenced in 2012 and over the following years, the council denied that there was a target of 17,500 trees to be felled, but the inquiry found the evidence in support of this unpersuasive and believes that it would have happily pursued that target had opposition not arisen. The council also did not “understand the scale and nature of opposition that was building gradually in several parts of the city from 2013 up to mid-2015” according to the inquiry. “Despite a large and growing deluge of information requests, correspondence and complaints, the council and Amey genuinely thought that things were progressing smoothly […] they were deluded into believing all was well.” The case went to the High Court in 2016, which found that the council was not acting unlawfully by refusing to stop the tree replacement programme. The inquiry says that there was a “hardening” of the council’s mindset after this decision. “From that point until early 2018, the prevailing view in the council was not just that [it was] entitled […] to see off the opposition in order to deliver the Streets Ahead programme, but that it was also the right thing to do.” It then became a “battle”, “war”, or “conflict” according to people interviewed by the inquiry. The interviewees also described a culture at the council that was “unreceptive to external views, discouraging of internal dissent and prone to group think”. The council’s legal leadership focused on what it was entitled to do, rather than what was right.

Between 2016 And 2018, The Council Argued.

that it was tied down by the contract and that amending the details would be expensive. The inquiry found this to be baseless. “By early 2018, Amey [was] proactively offering to meet additional costs arising from saving more trees [itself]” the inquiry says. It determines that the council did not look to find any solution because it “was significantly motivated simply by the determination to have its way”. This led to the council adopting increasingly disproportionate measures to deter campaigners and protesters. “Some of the things the council did were, in the view of the inquiry, unacceptable. Some of the ideas it flirted with, but did not pursue, were worse.” By this time Amey had misgivings about the council’s approach but found that it would have to pay £3M a year in penalties if it did not comply with the council’s efforts to deter campaigners. The campaigners were successful in making their case and were even praised by several senior council members who spoke to the inquiry. However, “the inquiry’s assessment is that what the campaigners saw as the council’s irrational, unreasonable, deceitful, dishonest, bullying and intimidating behaviour is what generated the determination, persistence, creativity and ingenuity that the campaigners displayed. The council’s behaviour, in other words, was the fuel that drove the protests.” South Yorkshire Police was drawn into the clashes between 2016 and 2018, but after providing valuable information to the inquiry it was decided that there was no significant evidence that calls into question the police’s actions. “Ultimately, the inquiry’s view is that the police were put in an invidious position because it took too long for the council to adopt an approach which facilitated a calming of the dispute,” it states. A new cabinet member was appointed to handle the issue in May 2018 and an agreement with the campaigners was found through mediation. A new Street Tree Partnership was launched by Sheffield in 2019, which has been more successful in developing a new, more consultative approach. However, the council and Amey have yet to resolve a number of issues hanging over from the dispute for streets not so far covered by the Streets Ahead programme, some of which remain in an “unsatisfactory state”, according to the inquiry. “These issues need to be addressed more energetically,” it adds. It summarises: “The dispute did significant harm. Thousands of healthy and much loved trees were lost. Many more could have been. Sheffield’s reputation was damaged. Public trust and confidence in the council was undermined. It has not been fully rebuilt.” An Amey spokesperson said: “Amey welcomes this report and the thoroughness with which Sir Mark Lowcock approached his task. We have all learned lessons from this difficult period and we apologise for not adequately predicting the strength of feeling around the tree replacement programme. “We will work with Sheffield City Council and other stakeholders to take the learnings forward, as we build on recent progress with the Street Tree Partnership. We remain committed to delivering excellent services to the council and the people of Sheffield.”