STAG meeting with Police & Crime Commissioner

STAG Meeting with Police and Crime Commissioner, 30/01/18

At PCC Office, Carbrook, 3:30-4:30 pm

Dr Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner
His assistant taking notes
Chris Rust, on behalf of STAG Steering Group
Paul Brooke, Meersbrook Park Rd resident on behalf of Save Gleadless Valley Trees
Russell Johnson, witness and Tree Campaign evidence gatherer present at recent events on Meersbrook Park Rd and other felling sites.

Prior to the meeting we had sent Dr Billings a briefing note (below) setting out some recent history and some significant issues we wanted to discuss. As Police and Crime Commissioner he has no operational control, that’s up to the Chief Constable who has direct responsibility for enforcing the law and ensuring public safety according to his experience and expertise, but the PCC controls budgets and has a great deal of influence over policy in a general way.

We had three main aims for the meeting​:

1. To ensure that Dr Billings understood how matters had escalated and how each new development in Amey’s efforts to fell trees despite protests had resulted in a strengthening of campaign support and reciprocal efforts from campaigners that had made the Amey approach largely ineffective.

2. To explain to Dr Billings our view that there was a deadlock between Amey and SCC, with Amey apparently obliged to pursue increasingly uneconomic and draconian efforts to fell trees and SCC remaining obdurate in their unwillingness to seek a solution that would be acceptable to all parties.

3. To tell Dr Billings about the most recent events, in particular focusing on the role of the police and our concerns about police being unwilling to monitor the actual events at felling sites closely enough to see whether unreasonable or criminal force was being used.

We also took the opportunity to stress that protestors were undertaking peaceful action which sometimes involved standing or sitting in barriered zones but they were not interfering directly with the tree workers or their safety.

It was apparent that Dr Billings is very uncomfortable​ with the way things are developing and in particular the way the police are being drawn into what he sees as a political problem that should be solved by the council working with citizens. In his view “politics is about solving problems.” The cost to the police in terms of their limited funds, their reputation and their ability to work with the public is of great concern to him. He acknowledged that SYP have historic problems from well-known events such as Orgreave and Hillsborough and of course they are anxious to avoid being sucked in to further difficulties.

He was very interested in our account of the history and developing issues and asked pointful questions. He had the impression that the ITP was a pointless exercise as it led to no change in the felling programme and did not reduce public opposition to the programme.

We discussed the point that, in many cases, if ITP recommendations to save a significant proportion of trees had been followed, many residents may have been happy to accept the remainder of the fellings.

He was interested in the dynamics between Amey and SCC and we feel he gained a better understanding of how the contract was operating in relation to our trees. We made it clear that while it was Amey who are doing the work and seeking to enforce the contract on the streets, Darren Butt has acknowledged to several of us at different times that what they are doing is completely uneconomic but forced on them by their contract, the compensation consequences of not pressing on being potentially even more damaging. Meanwhile we believe that SCC Councillors and officers seem to be determined to stick with the contract and oblige Amey to carry on.

Political Issues

Dr Billings has no direct influence on the Council but he was deputy leader of SCC, when David Blunkett was leader, and is a distinguished member of the Labour Party who has dealings with both senior councillors and some senior officers of the council. It was clear that he was interested in any opportunity to help resolve this mess and was very interested in the political and contractual issues we raised. His own political instinct is for the council to work with the public.

We also mentioned the ‘Strong Leader’ model in force at SCC, and how it diminished the power of the cross-party Highways Committee who would normally have a good deal of say in these matters. Dr Billings commented that this was very different from his experience as a councillor so we hope we have alerted him to some significant problems, including the role of Council Officers who seem to him to have much more control of things than in the past.

We told him about our impression of the way council officers operate, especially the role of Paul Billington, who appears to be caught between professional highways engineering officers who work for him but have the technical authority and whose professional standing may be tied up in the contract, and his superiors Laraine Manley and John Mothersole who have been involved in the contract for a long time.

Police Issues

Regarding policing, especially in the past two weeks, we told him about some particular incidents where we believe excessive force was used. In particular we mentioned the evidence of SIA staff prising a protestors hands free of the park railings, and video evidence that an SIA person appeared to deliver a very vigorous punch to a protestor.

We explained that in these cases onlookers had attempted to draw Police Officers’ attention to the excessive or inappropriate use of force but the police officers had been determined to remain passive and at a distance from the action, as shown on video.

The point in each of these cases was that observers and evidence gatherers from the tree campaign were prevented from approaching closely enough to see properly what happened, eg a crucial part of the punch evidence on video was masked by a bystander’s body but would have been visible to an observer able to stand closer. Police Officers had the opportunity to enter the barriered zone and keep a closer watch for criminal, dangerous or disorderly behaviour but they chose not to.

We explained also that we were seeking a Barrister’s opinion on the use of force to enforce section 303 of the Highways Act and that may show that the law is not as liberal as Amey believe. It appears that previous court judgements may not support the use of force against people who do not enter an established barriered zone, eg if they were already in position when the zone is set up or they are protesting outside the barriers.

If this is established in an Opinion or in a court case, it is likely that some of the actions by SIA witnessed recently may be assault, and the Police may receive complaints of standing by while assault was committed. Dr Billings understood this point so we hope it will give him and the Police food for thought.

Current Situation – Pause in fellings

We discussed the current pause in fellings. Dr Billings was not aware of what decisions had been made although he had been told by SCC that there was a pause. We said we believed that the Police had the power to allow or prevent the use of force as it appears that Police observers must be present for the SIA to use force in situations like this.

This led to a discussion about the likelihood of Amey being able to persuade the Police that they can ensure a safe and secure workzone, clearly that was not happening last week in Meersbrook when large numbers of residents were engaged in treehugging and it is difficult to see how Amey might achieve that without the use of extraordinary numbers of staff and time-consuming preparations. Dr Billings was obviously very worried about the resources that police may need in such situations and the likelihood of escalation of protests as has happened in the past.

We also touched on the impending start of fracking work in South Yorkshire. Clearly the impact of political decisions on local communities that are prepared to protest imposes a huge burden on the police, Dr Billings mentioned the cost to Lancashire Police of fracking protests. We mentioned the situation revealed in the ‘Bentley Effect’ documentary in which the New South Wales Police were faced with 1000 protestors and, given the impossibility of enforcing fracking without a huge cost in resources and loss of political standing, the NSW government withdrew the fracking licences. The parallels with our situation with Street Trees were clear.

Police drawn into PR war

We mentioned the way that Amey had sought to embroil the police in arresting protestors for criminal damage or obstruction, largely to create an antisocial impression for Amey’s and SCC’s PR effort. We pointed out that so far none of these cases have come to court and all but one were dismissed very quickly when the police saw the evidence, despite frequent assurances from Amey’s Evidence Gatherers that they had witnessed and recorded the alleged crimes on video.

We also took time to explain some of the ways in which people protested at felling sites, stressing the peaceful and passive nature of direct action focused on standing in safety zones, and not attempting to interfere directly in the work or endanger the safety of workers.

We did not have time to mention the allegations of poisoning of Amey workers and the way the police, who appear to have given little credence to the claims, seem to have been railroaded into unnecessary action by SCC’s PR department releasing details of the case to the press. We are including it here so Dr Billings will be alerted when we send him a copy. The result seems to have been widespread public ridicule of the claim.

In conclusion this was a positive discussion​ with somebody who has influence, if not direct control, with both the Police and SCC. We felt he now has a clearer picture and we were particularly encouraged that he saw real dangers for the police in this situation, and sees the solution in political compromise rather than confrontation. The latest developments have brought the tree campaign back onto his agenda and he has a strong interest in avoiding further confrontations on the street so we will hope that he is able to influence the different parties for a worthwhile change of policy.

/pre-meeting briefing note follows…

STAG Meeting with Police and Crime Commissioner, 30/01/18 Outline of issues, sent to PCC ahead of meeting

Our main concerns are to do with the use of ‘reasonable force’ by Amey employees at tree felling sites, and the way in which this has escalated the conflict between Amey and citizens, with the Police caught in the middle.

1. The pattern over the past two years ​has been that SCC and Amey have sought to impose their tree felling plan on the city, despite objections, and each time the PFI contract partners have taken a new initiative it has heightened the conflict with citizens, who have pushed back in whatever way they can, generally the SCC and Amey schemes have failed to achieve their aims.

a. Summer 2016​ The first ‘dawn raid’ by Amey led to police involvement as well as stimulating the tree campaign.

b. Nov-Dec 2016 ​Amey’s request for arrests under TULRA at Marden Road followed by the pre-dawn raid on Rustlings Rd led to public outcry and a great many difficulties for the police.

c. Feb 2017 ​The attempts to use TULRA in February 2017 led to mass protests, 14 arrests and eventually a legal opinion that brought Police involvement to a halt.

d. Summer 2017 ​The injunction sparked a wave of civil disobedience with protestors defying the injunction to halt fellings.

e. Autumn 2017 ​The prosecutions for Contempt of Court in the autumn were, arguably, a complete failure. One defendant was found guilty but he had set out to break the injunction in a public and deliberate way, the other defendants were found not to have broken the injunction and it was clear that Amey had been cavalier in the interpretation of the law and gathering of evidence.

f. Since then campaigners have become ever more determined. Amey have made several attempts to involve the police with accusations of lawbreaking which have not been supported by the evidence.

g. January 2018 ​Once again the Police are involved directly, through facilitating use of force, but this has not enabled Amey to carry out their planned work. Instead it has led to even more determined resistance and large scale civil disobedience.

h. Since Christmas Amey have called the police to arrest campaigners on several occasions. Three people have been arrested following assurances by Amey’s professional Evidence Gatherers that they had video evidence of the alleged crime. One arrest lasted 10 minutes until it was pointed out that it was mistaken identity, another led to no prosecution once the police had examined the video. The third is going to court but only on one of the charges alleged by Amey and the defendant’s lawyers appear very confident that it will be dismissed as the video evidence contradicts the claim.

2. Public outrage against Amey is now complemented by outrage against the Police. ​Amey’s repeated escalation of efforts to fell trees has led to corresponding increases in the number of people coming out to protest. Unfortunately their anger is now turning into strong criticism of the police when they are perceived to be standing by and enabling unreasonable force and this can be seen every day on social media.

3. We are seeking a Barrister’s Opinion ​on use of force in relation to S303 Highways act and S3 Criminal Law Act. We believe that at least some actions taken by Amey contractors may not be sanctioned by precedent. If we believe that contractors have gone beyond what the law allows we may decide to seek prosecutions for assault.

4. You will know that, following her observations on Meersbrook Park Rd on 22 January, Louise Haigh MP ​has called for a halt and review of the situation which we welcome.

5. Darren Butt of Amey has acknowledged​ (conversation with Chris Rust) that the present situation is absurd and Amey are spending ridiculous amounts of money to fell very few trees. Any economic argument has been left well behind. It appears that Amey find themselves trapped by contractual obligations that they cannot avoid, and SCC are standing back and insisting that Amey meet those obligations. Our best interpretation is that the PFI contract has put both of the main partners in an impossible situation facing compensation claims from the financial partners and they are so determined to limit those claims that any consideration of what is technically or economically needed is off the agenda. The present debate about the problems of PFI and other large scale outsourcing schemes certainly indicates the problems that might lie behind this crisis.

6. STAG has recently approached SCC​ with a proposal for an open discussion and examination of the decisions to fell trees, following the widely used process of ‘Root Cause Analysis’, in the hope that might reveal unrecognised issues and lead to a better shared understanding. Such an approach may reveal decisions that might reasonably be changed within the contract scheme. However SCC have said that they feel it is too late to carry out such a review. We feel that it has always been difficult to have an open discussion with SCC. In 2015 we experienced great hostility from the then Head of Highways. In 2017 attempts to work together were frustrated by a very fragmentary process and lack of continuity in discussions. We are also very concerned about what we perceive as a culture of hostility and ill-temper in SCC.

7. The particular situation on Meersbrook Park Road​ encapsulates the problem. The first attempts to fell trees there started early in the autumn of 2017 and over the months the level of determination to resist by residents in that street and nearby has risen steadily. The great majority of protestors are local residents and most of them are older people who have never had any conflict with the law in the past. They are honest people who feel that civil disobedience is necessary if the authorities are no longer protecting their local environment from corporate power.

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Posted in Minutes from official meetings, News

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