Sheffield Council has won a critical legal battle against anti-tree felling protesters – but the political stakes in the saga have been raised once again. Chris Burn reports.
As Mr Justice Males convicted a retired primary school teacher, a university lecturer and a French magician for breaching a court-ordered injunction banning ‘direct action’ protests against the controversial felling of thousands of street trees in Sheffield, his decision appeared to vindicate the city council’s decision to bring legal action against the campaigners. But the jury remains out on what the verdict will be in the court of public opinion.
While large parts of the three-day hearing at the High Court in Sheffield that finished yesterday afternoon were taken up with technical discussions of legal precedents and what precisely constitutes a ‘safety zone’ – the area around a tree due to be felled that protesters are barred by the terms of the injunction from entering – a greater political drama was unfolding at the same time outside the courtroom.
Just a week before the case, Councillor Lewis Dagnall, the new man in charge of overseeing the council’s tree-felling strategy, who had arrived in post in May with a promise of ‘compromise’ with campaigners following bruising local election results for Labour in areas of the city most affected by the policy, told BBC Radio Sheffield there was nothing he could do to stop the proceedings progressing as he was “insulated from the legal process” and had not been involved in a decision made by council officers.
But on the hearing’s first day on Tuesday, the judge insisted on knowing if the legal action seeking to commit four protesters to prison for contempt of court was being supported by the council’s Labour leader, Julie Dore, as he wanted reassurance “this application is brought on the instructions of democratically-elected councillors”.
In contrast to Coun Dagnall’s remarks, Yaaser Vanderman, the barrister representing the council, said while the ultimate decision rested with the council’s legal director, “there will have been input from the relevant council members, including the leader”. He then clarified that Coun Dore had “positively agreed” that the proceedings be brought and was “happy” with them taking place.
In the following days, Coun Dore has faced mounting political condemnation for her involvement in the decision, most notably by members of her own local party.
On Tuesday night, the city’s Crookes and Crosspool Labour party branch passed a motion that noted “with dismay” her involvement with the decision and called for legal action to be halted. Yesterday morning, Lee Rock, part of the branch’s executive, addressed tree campaigners outside court to reiterate the condemnation. He said: “The final straw for us was this week when the judge asked if the Labour council are supporting these injunctions and the potential imprisonment of citizens of Sheffield. We don’t accept, as socialists in the Labour party, a Labour council that seeks the imprisonment of protesters.”
The Sheffield Not-For-Profit branch of the Unite union also condemned the move, saying “no senior Labour Party figure should ever endorse the imprisonment of protesters fighting for justice”. On social media, several local Labour party members shared resignation letters they had sent the party over the issue.
Coun Dore also came in for fierce criticism from opposition councillors during a stormy council meeting on Wednesday, as she reiterated her support for the legal action while insisting the decision had been made independently of her.
Following the verdicts last night, Shaffaq Mohammed, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Sheffield, said the decision to pursue the prosecutions showed it was “business as usual at the council” despite the recent promises of compromise and a change in direction.
“What we thought was an olive branch turned out to be a prickly stem,” he said. “We’ve seen a council determined to punish people who don’t agree with them.”
The issue of tree-felling in the city has been a thorn in the side of the council’s Labour administration following years of growing protest, with thousands of people now members of what is known as the Sheffield Tree Action Groups. Campaigners believe healthy trees are being unnecessarily felled for contractual reasons.
Last summer, Sheffield Council, which has insisted trees are only removed as a ‘last resort’, decided to pursue civil injunctions to prevent protesters standing directly under trees due to be felled as campaigners used the tactic successfully. In June 2017 alone, 329 of 427 attempted tree-felling operations had to be abandoned.
But the imposition of the injunctions in August last year was not the success the council hoped for as protests continued. Private security guards hired by Amey were brought in to enforce the order and, following heated clashes in January, felling was temporarily halted. It started again in February, with a greatly increased police presence seeing dozens of police officers sent out each day alongside the security team to oversee operations.
Growing protests followed, along with multiple arrests – most notoriously including a woman who had been blowing a toy trumpet at a demonstration.
At the same time, new revelations about the contract, including the existence of a previously-unknown target to replace 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees, came to light. The council say the figure merely represents a form of insurance to provide ‘financial cover’ should that many trees need to be removed in the event of an outbreak of disease and the true number is more likely to be about 10,000. But it is unable to explain how a ‘financial adjustment’ that it says will take place at the end of the contract if fewer than 17,500 trees are felled would work in practice and whether it or Amey would benefit.
The situation brought national condemnation from figures as diverse as Environment Secretary Michael Gove and former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker and in March, work was put on hold once again to allow a review of how work is carried out to take place.
As Justice Males ruled that three campaigners – ex-teacher Fran Grace, lecturer Dr Simon Crump and street artist Benoit Compin – had broken the terms of the injunction, he said that while he expressed no view on the merits of the tree-felling programme, the rule of law must be upheld. The judge added he “would have been uneasy if an application was being made on behalf of the council to commit citizens of Sheffield to prison without the support of democratically elected councillors”.
But he also noted that while the situation has “excited some very strong emotions”, two council elections since 2016 have returned a majority of councillors who support the work and that the authority’s leadership – and their controversial tree-felling programme – are ultimately “accountable to the people of Sheffield through the ballot box”.
Council legal director welcomes judge’s ruling
The judge’s decision to convict three tree campaigners for contempt has been welcomed by the council’s legal director.
Simon Crump and Benoit Compin were handed suspended prison sentences, with no further action taken against Fran Grace. A fourth case, involving a man called Paul Brooke, is yet to be decided.
Council legal director Gillian Duckworth said: “Three individuals have chosen to break the law by ignoring a lawful order.
“It is regrettable that by undertaking these actions, the individuals concerned have endangered not only their own safety, but also the safety of workers and the general public.
“The decision to break the law was one made by those individuals in full knowledge of the potential outcome.”