A welcome dose of transparency from Sheffield City Council

Analysis by Paul Selby

Since I became active in the tree campaign over 31 months ago, I have fought for transparency around the PFI contract, for all that can be legally released unredacted to be released. I work in the Civil Service, and I know the benefits of transparency in terms of holding authority to account. That famous phrase: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is absolutely true, and I have seen the genuine benefits many times over.

I have always held the strong view that, with maximum transparency of the PFI contract, some of the deep suspicions and conspiracy theories about why the so many street trees were being felled would be proved false. Also that the true root causes of the issue would become known; so that options for solving the argument could be discussed openly, without distrust and doubt, with the aim of saving as many trees as possible, at little or no cost to Sheffield Council.

I made these representations many times to Cllr. Lodge and Council officials throughout 2017 and early 2018, to no avail. However, as the Information Commissioner slowly but surely forced sections of the contract to be released, with those uncontrolled revelations being delivered out of context, the street tree issue looked more and more like a genuine conspiracy, culminating in the mid-March 2018 revelation about the 17,500 tree felling figure contained in Schedule 2 of the contract. Coinciding with the arrival of Cllr. Lewis Dagnall, who also believes in more openness and transparency, the Council decided to hasten work already started to release as much of the PFI contract as possible. On Tuesday this week, the big release of documentation occurred, which can be found on the Council website.

This is to be hugely welcomed, and I genuinely thank and congratulate the Council for doing this, even if it is four years later than it should have been.

What is even more welcome is that, since late April, I have held three conversations with Council Officers, led by Paul Billington, two of these conversations lasting more than 90 minutes. In these conversations, they explained in detail what some parts of the wording of the documentation mean, how contract processes work, the governance arrangements. They allowed me to ask detailed questions, and they gave me open answers.

You can all peruse the documentation at your leisure. It is complex, some of it in legalese, vast chunks of it irrelevant to the street tree issue. (I would suggest focusing on Schedules 12 and 21, plus all the previous versions of the Five Year Tree Management Strategy, if you are most interested in street trees).

Some key points you may be interested in:

1) Whilst still not 100% clear, the 17,500 tree number does genuinely appear to be an “insurance policy” rather than a target. It’s highly complex to explain, but prior to signing the PFI contract, it appears that the Council genuinely feared being charged additional costs for felling and replacing additional trees, if unexpectedly large numbers of street trees died, for example from a new invasive pest or disease. I always worried that by inserting this figure, it provided the incentive for Amey to fell precisely that number over the course of the contract. The newly released information seems to go a long way to demonstrating that governance procedures prevent this. There are two processes in which Amey submit felling recommendations, through which the Council can scrutinise the recommendation, and choose to reject the felling, for valid reasons.

2) As I always suspected, the Council inserted contract requirement for a straight kerb line is what has driven most of the felling recommendations of healthy trees. Yes the governance procedure outlined in point 1 above could allow the Council to reject the Amey felling recommendation. But a Council rejection in this situation would in effect be an invalid rejection, as they would be ignoring their own kerb standards. The proposals that Amey and the Council are currently working on focus on the potential to relax this strict kerb standard, particularly as the Highways Act doesn’t require such strict standards.

3) The previously missing versions of the Five Year Tree Management Strategy have now been found. Previously, in answers to FoI questions, the Council had said the documents had been lost. But determined searching has found them. What is fascinating is that all the missing versions were drafted by Amey, as they were required to in the contract, and are much more technical. The only version previously released is out of line with the other documents, because it was written by the Council. This was very confusing to me at first, but after a lot of questions I understood. Strategy documents are statements of intent, but aren’t always delivered, as operational realities and difficulties mean strategy intent can’t always be realised. The newly released Tree Strategy documents are Amey’s strategy documents. The previously released Strategy document is the Council’s own strategy. They are similar, as you would imagine for a contractor/supplier relationship. But they are different. In particular, the Council strategy includes an intent for 14 free engineering solutions to save trees, many of which are actually in reality ruled out in parts of the PFI contract. Like I say, strategic intent doesn’t always align with operational reality! Obviously, the Council could and should have been clearer about this in the past, as it led to much misunderstanding for campaigners.

4) The first Amey version of the Five Year Tree Management Strategy, the 2012 version, includes a 25 year plan to fell 17,500 trees. The later versions don’t. I was told by Council Officers that this was because the first version was in effect “Version 0,” submitted by Amey in February 2012 prior to the contract being signed. The later versions, after the contract was signed didn’t contain the plan because that wasn’t the agreed plan. This sounded very suspicious to me, so following questions, I was told that the Version 0 plan was in effect a “theoretical best estimate” to demonstrate “what if.” Whilst I still remain suspicious about this, what the Council told me does ring at least some truth for me. In my day job I have been asked to submit demonstration plans which have no real evidence base, and are in effect also “theoretical best estimates” that have limited basis in reality

5) There are sections of the contract still redacted and not released. Having asked questions about all these documents, I’m as confident as it is possible to be without actually seeing the documents myself, that only commercially confidential information and personal information remains redacted. That’s not to say that some of the commercially confidential information would still be interesting and relevant to understanding the tree issue. But I do understand the legal reasons why these sections should remain redacted.

Finally, I want to make this clear that I went to the meetings with the Council as a private citizen concerned about transparency, not as a member of STAG Steering Group or Save Nether Edge Trees.

I am still critical about the way the Council have handled the recent injunction extension, sending out unnecessarily threatening letters, destroying much of the trust that had begun to build since the felling pause began. As a street tree campaigner, I have and will continue to criticise the Council where relevant, and fight as hard as I have done this last 31 months to save as many street trees as possible. As you will understand from having read points 1) to 5) above, some questions still remain.

But credit where it is due, the new broom of Cllr. Dagnall has started to make a difference. Much of the PFI contract has been released, sunshine can begin to disinfect the stench of secrecy, and we can start to work on root cause solutions. Everything I have seen and heard recently from Cllr. Dagnall and Council Officers makes me genuinely believe that good progress is being made to save a significant proportion of the remaining trees, and that a firm proposal will be made over the summer.
Will it be enough? Will it be evidence based and explain in clear detail why some of the trees still need to be felled? Time will tell. But I’m more confident than I’ve ever been.

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Posted in Blog, News, Streets Ahead contract analysis

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