First then, to the talks. I attach an image of the press release from STAG Steering Group about the talks. To be clear, there is still a huge degree of scepticism about the talks across campaigners, and the first meeting is only really a meeting to discuss how the full main talks might be conducted. Whilst it’s easy to be sceptical, particularly given everything that has happened this last 3 years, it is still important to realise this is the first time that Sheffield Council seem to be wanting to handle conversations with campaigners properly. All historic conversations, prior to March 2018, were pretty much lectures by various Councillors or Officials about why the campaign was wrong. The campaign has for a long time sought external facilitation of any talks, to ensure the Council acted appropriately and didn’t simply filibuster meetings with non-core issues and lectures. These new talks will have external facilitation, as the Council have now agreed to this important step. The tone from the Council has also changed.
Where there are still real concerns, it is that appears that the Council are going to be coming to the campaign with a fully formed plan. No external independent tree experts have been involved in formulating the plan, it is has been created by the Council and Amey alone. Now, theoretically, the plan could be a perfect one, but given the lack of consultation in constructing the plan, this is clearly a cause for concern.
Two side issues to the talks, a personal perspective from me, about realism.
Firstly I’ve heard a number of people in the campaign stating that the aim of the talks should be to end the PFI contract. We’re all entitled to our views, but let me clear from a Save Nether Edge Trees perspective, we are a local street tree campaign group. Yes we have major concerns about the PFI contract. But our primary aim is (and always has been) to ensure that all healthy street trees that can reasonably be retained using industry best practice, are retained. That is the aim of our campaign and indeed is what we’ve fed into the overall city wide STAG position. Now it may be that this aim can’t be achieved without a change to the PFI contract (or termination of it). But it may be that our aims can be achieved without changes to the PFI contract. So to repeat, ending the PFI contract is not a primary aim. If people have that goal as a primary aim, they need to also join other groups.
Secondly, I’ve heard a number of people state that the talks should be 100% recorded on video. I totally agree that, in a perfect world, they should be. The fight for transparency is something that drives me in both my job and my personal life. But I’m also a pragmatic realist. I know that there are things that the Council can say in private that they couldn’t say publicly. Key things. Things that may be crucial in helping the talks move forward to our desired outcome. I say this from a strong evidence base. Very few (if any) peace deals in history have been held in full open transparency. The honest truth is that we don’t live in a perfect world, and so to achieve the outcomes we want, and to allow the Council to be honest (privately) about potential solutions that are available, we need to be realistic about how much transparency is possible. To be clear, that doesn’t mean there won’t be ongoing open feedback to wider campaigners as talks progress. There will be.