The PFI contract between Sheffield City Council and Amey, a Spanish multinational corporation, is a disaster. The public have not been allowed to see this 25-year contract to maintain Sheffield streets, pavements and trees, but we have been able to see its effects. Against the advice of expert after expert, healthy trees across the city are being felled for no good reason. Public opposition is so strong that arborists are being hired to stealthily chop down branches in the pre-dawn hours, even over private property against occupiers’ expressed wishes. Dozens of out-of-town security forces have been repeatedly brought in and given apparent free rein to use violence on peaceful pensionerstrying desperately to save the beloved healthy trees on their own streets. Week after week and month after month, the battle just keeps escalating. Tree-fellings have been conducted so unsafely that the Health and Safety Executive has issued a Notice of Contravention citing multiple violations of Health and Safety Legislation. Such notices are only issued in cases of a serious breach. And even many of the much-needed pavement repairs have proven to be of terrible quality. Within weeks of their being laid down, plants grew through the pavement in many places. Once the weather turned cold, we learned that the new pavement — for the sake of which these healthy trees are supposedly being killed — is far more dangerously slippery than the old pavement.
The National Labour Party has a policy of opposing PFIs. Council leader Julie Dore has declared that the council would consider bringing the Amey contract in house if possible. And yet, the council has consistently failed to enter into meaningful negotiations with tree campaigners, and indeed has escalated its actions against them. The only explanation that would seem to make sense of this is that the council feels trapped by the contract, unable to withdraw or even to suggest changes in light of clear evidence that the planned tree fellings are unnecessary and the pavements are of poor quality.
Given the disastrous implementation of this contract, and the Labour Party’s opposition to PFIs, one would expect the council to eagerly embrace a way of escaping the contract. That’s just what the research of Richard Davis, a health and safety professional, has handed them. Davis has learned that Amey made several false declarations during the bidding process, about crucial matters: they made three false declarations, regarding “acts of grave misconduct”, criminal convictions, and pending criminal legal proceedings. Because breaches of health and safety law are criminal matters and acts of grave misconduct, they should have said ‘yes’ when queried about these but they said ‘no’. This was not about a minor health and safety matter. It was about the death of one of their workers in a cherry picker, a matter very relevant to the tree work in Sheffield. According to Davis’s research, these false declarationsmean (due to the Misrepresentation Act) that the contract with Amey can be declared null and void (“rescinded”), and therefore terminated with no penalty. Much of this information has now been published in the Yorkshire Post.
So how has the council responded to this information that would apparently allow them to terminate the contract at no cost? Have they embraced the chance to bring the contract in house, in line with their party’s anti-PFI policy? Entered into negotiations which could bring an end to the horrible and violent scenes occurring more and more often on the streets of Sheffield, as paid security forces assault peaceful campaigners?
Sadly, they have not. When asked by the Yorkshire Post, the council responded by claiming that Amey had made a full declaration about the fatality, despite the clear evidence against this. Richard Davis explains: “In the first instance, the council stated (via a Freedom of Information request) that they had no record of having been informed by Amey, only to backpedal and contradict themselves in a later email from Paul Billington stating that they became aware of the incident when it was reported by the media in 2011 — a discovery made by pure chance some two and a half years after it should have been declared.” And yet they are still utterly refusing to consider an end to this contract.
Instead, the council is doubling down on its hostility to residents seeking to protect the beloved trees on their streets. This week, we have seen an escalation of last week’s assaults on peaceful residents trying to save their trees. There is a video clearly showing a security person punching a protestor as police stand by, not intervening.It has reached the point where even the council’s own party is beginning to turn on them. Gleadless Constituency Labour Party has adopted a unanimous statementcondemning the tree felling programme and Labour MP and Shadow Policing Minister Louise Haigh (who may have been able to hear the cries of pain from her office window) has called for the felling programme to stop.
Why is the council continuing to support Amey over its citizens, even apparently licensing the use of violence on peaceful pensioners? Why are they fighting so hard to defend an apparently fraudulent contract which is producing work of terrible quality? We have no idea. We can only hope that someone soon comes to their senses.