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Sheffield City Council Forced To Apologise For Street Tree ‘Injustice’

Rustlings Road, Sheffield
Rustlings Road, Sheffield

The Local Authority and Social Care Ombudsman has asked Sheffield City Council to apologise following an investigation into complaints about a controversial street tree felling programme.

Sheffield City Council forced to apologise

A damning report has been published following an investigation into complaints about Sheffield City Council’s Streets Ahead street tree felling programme.

The report investigates complaints made by a resident of Rustlings Road, which became a strong focus of protests following ‘dawn raids’ on the trees by the council’s contractors Amey, accompanied by South Yorkshire Police.

Findings from the Local Authority and Social Care Ombudsman include the Council having a “lack of transparency, openness and on occasion, honesty”.

Transparency goes to the heart of trust in decision making. It is at the heart of good administration. We consider one of the root causes of the significant loss of trust the Council suffered in carrying out its Streets Ahead policy […] lies in its lack of transparency, openness and on occasion, honesty.Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Investigation into a complaint against Sheffield City Council

Sheffield City Council found to lack transparency, openness and honesty.

The report highlights a number of failings by the council including the Council using subterfuge, misrepresenting expert advice and poorly handling complaints among other things.

In its findings, the Local Authority and Social Care Ombudsman states the Council “drew a veil of secrecy over its consideration of the ITP (Independent Tree Panel) advice”.

In one case the Council misrepresented expert advice to suggest the opposite conclusion.

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Our starting point has been to consider the guidance we publish on the “Principles of good administrative practice”. These include the principle of being “open and accountable”. We say this includes being open and clear about policies and procedures and ensuring information provided is clear, accurate and complete. We consider good practice includes being transparent. We find numerous examples of where the Council did not meet this standard.Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Investigation into a complaint against Sheffield City Council

Ombudsman’s Recommendations

Forming the decision that “we uphold this complaint finding fault by the Council causing injustice,” the Local Authority and Social Care Ombudsman have issued a number of recommendations to the Council, including:

  • Provide a public, unreserved apology accepting the findings and a private apology to the complainant’s family (sadly the complainant passed away before the report was published)
  • Share with the Ombudsman further detailed proposals for embedding transparency within its new tree strategy
  • Share with the Ombudsman how it proposes to ensure its contracts and management agreements reflect the new tree strategy
  • Consider further how it can ensure contractors and managers are aware of the need to signpost correspondents to the Council’s complaints procedure wherever appropriate
  • Consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it shoul learn as a result of how it implemented its Streets Ahead programme. In particular, how it can embed the principles of openness and accountability across all its services

Additionally, the Council must consider the report and confirm to the Ombudsman the action it has taken or proposes to take. Full text of the recommendations can be read in the full report.

Sheffield City Council’s apology

In a statement, the Council have issued an apology:

“The Council unreservedly apologises for mistakes made in its handling of a complaint about the way we removed street trees from Rustlings Road in November 2016 and accepts the findings made in the report of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman which draws attention to general failings in the implementation of the street trees elements of the Streets Ahead programme. We apologise for these failings.”Sheffield City Council statement

Additionally, Councillor Mark Jones has issued the following statement:

“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.

“The new working partnership street tree strategy recognises the many benefits trees bring to our urban environment and proposes a more open and inclusive way of working to ensure more transparent processes going forwards. What’s more, we are already in the process of finalising plans to make all historic materials relating to street trees publically available via an online archive. In doing so, we can allow those who want to look over past documents to do so, but equally, we can all start to look forward as we embark on a new, more constructive chapter.

“Through our new approach, we are committed to retaining trees wherever possible, planting additional trees, increasing canopy cover and building a diverse and resilient street tree stock with varying species and age profiles. We are also committing to engaging with stakeholders and the wider public about our plans for street trees in a more proactive way, to avoid any uncertainty about what we are doing and why. Engagement is key for creating a future-proof strategy that works for us all.

“In this specific case, we will be apologising to the complainant’s family and giving reassurances that we are 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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Councillor Mark Jones, Cabinet member for Environment, Street Scene and Climate Change

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