Council should apologise for tree controversy, Ombudsman says

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has asked Sheffield City Council to make a public apology to the people of the city after numerous problems were found with the way it removed street trees.

In a report issued today, the Ombudsman has found the council did not, at times, act with openness and transparency when removing trees across Sheffield, and when dealing with people’s complaints about that work.

A man complained to the Ombudsman the council removed eight trees in his street during November 2016, despite specialists and the council’s own independent tree panel recommending only one of the trees needed removing.

Amey, the council’s contractors, had conducted a survey of trees to identify those which needed to be removed. The council said removal would be a ‘last resort’ and Amey would consider a list of 14 engineering or other solutions before trees would be cut down.

On the day the trees were removed, the council only published its response to the specialists’ recommendations at 4.30am. It said this was to prevent a significant protest by residents.

Contractors turned up on site and started work just 30 minutes later. Residents had not been given notice the work was scheduled. The council said this had been done ‘on police advice’ but South Yorkshire Police stated they had no input into the plans.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council at fault for the way it corresponded with the man about his complaints, the delay and the sometimes misleading responses he received.

The investigation also found fault with the way the council placed information in the public domain surrounding the tree removal, and the selective detail of that information. It found the council misrepresented advice received from specialists about the viability of one tree they assessed.

The investigation criticised the council for making public a version of its strategy that did not follow earlier versions, and that did not reflect its policy in practice. It listed solutions to retain trees that were never part of the contract with Amey, and therefore would never have been used.

The Ombudsman’s investigation has also criticised the council for not considering residents’ distress and outrage for starting work on the trees at 5am, and without prior notification. It used a Temporary Road Traffic Regulation Order that deliberately did not identify when it would take effect for the multiple roads it covered.

Since the events, the council has reconsidered its approach and put in place a number of new strategies for dealing with street trees in an effort to retain as many mature specimens as possible.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King said:

“This case highlights the imperative for councils to act with honesty, openness and transparency – without this people can lose faith in their integrity and not trust they are doing the right thing.

“I welcome the hard work the council has since done to restore people’s faith, and publish more information to increase transparency. Apologising to the people of Sheffield for its past actions and acknowledging what went wrong will help build that trust further.

“I have also recommended the council shares with us how it will take the learning from this case and embed accountability and transparency in both its new trees strategy and its wider services.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should make a public unreserved apology accepting the report’s findings, and a private apology to the man who made the complaint. As the man has since passed away, the council should make this apology to the man’s family.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case, the council should share with the Ombudsman how it will embed transparency within its new trees strategy. It should also share how it proposes to ensure its contracts and management agreements reflect its new strategy. It should consider further how it can ensure contractors and managers are aware of the need to signpost people to the council’s complaints process when appropriate.

It should also consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it should learn.

Article date: 14 October 2020

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