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City council apologises after Ombudsman criticises lack of openness during tree removal programme

Sheffield City Council has issued an apology after the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman issued a report accusing the local authority of not, at times, acting with openness and transparency when removing trees across the city, and when dealing with people’s complaints about that work.

The LGO said a man had complained after Sheffield removed eight trees in his street during November 2016, despite specialists and the council’s own independent tree panel recommending only one of the trees needed removing.

Amey, the council’s contractors, had conducted a survey of trees to identify those which needed to be removed. The council said removal would be a ‘last resort’ and Amey would consider a list of 14 engineering or other solutions before trees would be cut down.

However, the LGO said that on the day the trees were removed, the council only published its response to the specialists’ recommendations at 4.30am. It claimed this was to prevent a significant protest by residents.

The Ombudsman said contractors turned up on site and started work just 30 minutes later. Residents had not been given notice the work was scheduled. The council insisted this had been done ‘on police advice’ but South Yorkshire Police stated they had no input into the plans.

The LGO’s investigation found Sheffield at fault "for the way it corresponded with the man about his complaints, the delay and the sometimes misleading responses he received".

The investigation also found fault with the way the council placed information in the public domain surrounding the tree removal, and the selective detail of that information. It found the council misrepresented advice received from specialists about the viability of one tree they assessed.

The investigation went on to criticise the council for making public a version of its strategy that did not follow earlier versions, and that did not reflect its policy in practice. It listed solutions to retain trees that were never part of the contract with Amey, and therefore would never have been used.

The Ombudsman’s investigation has also criticised the council for not considering residents’ distress and outrage for starting work on the trees at 5am, and without prior notification.

“It used a Temporary Road Traffic Regulation Order that deliberately did not identify when it would take effect for the multiple roads it covered,” the LGO said.

The Ombudsman noted that since the events, the council had reconsidered its approach and put in place a number of new strategies for dealing with street trees in an effort to retain as many mature specimens as possible.

In addition to calling for an apology, the LGO recommended that Sheffield should share with the Ombudsman how it will embed transparency within its new trees strategy.

The Ombudsman also said the council should:

  • share how it proposes to ensure its contracts and management agreements reflect its new strategy;
  • consider further how it can ensure contractors and managers are aware of the need to signpost people to the council’s complaints process when appropriate;
  • consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it should learn.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said: “This case highlights the imperative for councils to act with honesty, openness and transparency – without this people can lose faith in their integrity and not trust they are doing the right thing.

“I welcome the hard work the council has since done to restore people’s faith, and publish more information to increase transparency. Apologising to the people of Sheffield for its past actions and acknowledging what went wrong will help build that trust further.

“I have also recommended the council shares with us how it will take the learning from this case and embed accountability and transparency in both its new trees strategy and its wider services.”

Responding to the Ombudsman’s report, Cllr Mark Jones, Cabinet member for Environment, Street Scene and Climate Change at Sheffield City Council, said: “We fully accept the findings of this report and recognise that our approach to managing the city’s street trees needed to change. We got some things wrong and whilst this report is reflective of a very different and difficult time, we are continuing to make real and significant progress towards a more transparent and collaborative future when it comes to managing our valuable street tree stock.

“Many of the actions outlined in the report are already underway, with the creation of a partnership group and the recent production of a new Street Tree Partnership Working Strategy for Sheffield. Whilst the report recognises this, we know we must do better and we are confident that through our new collaborative approach, we are now in a much more positive and favourable position to ensure our street trees are properly and effectively managed.”

Cllr Jones added that in this specific case, the council would be apologising to the family of the complainant, who had passed away, and giving reassurances that it was “already on the right path towards a more open and sustainable vision for how we manage street trees, not just for now, but for many years to come”.

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