Agenda item

Street Tree Inquiry



Statement from the Leader of the Council


Before we begin the main business of today’s meeting, I would like to make a statement regarding the report into the Sheffield street trees dispute written by Sir Mark Lowcock.  I would like to thank Sir Mark Lowcock and everyone who took part in the Inquiry. We wholeheartedly accept the recommendations of the report.


“The street trees dispute was a dark period for Sheffield and ultimately, it was avoidable.  Sir Mark’s report makes clear that there was a sustained failure of strategic leadership within the council at that time, and there were a series of mistakes and significant errors of judgement. This goes right back to the time the Streets Ahead contract and the business case was being drawn-up in 2008, then as the dispute went on until we turned to mediation in 2018.


Sir Mark’s report is clear that those failures, mistakes and errors of judgement caused substantial and irreversible harm to those involved - residents, campaigners and our own staff from the Council and partner organisations are all included in that. We have said sorry in the past about specific failings, and as part of my evidence to the inquiry I have given an unreserved apology for what went wrong during that time.  I would like now to reiterate that unreserved, unequivocal apology to the people of Sheffield about the council’s actions during the course of the dispute.


I am truly sorry.  We got things really badly wrong and that is a cause of absolute regret both for me personally and as leader of the council. I am determined that we will not go back to those days and those politics of that time.  As Leader I recognise that we need to deal with this.


As we knew it would be, the report is detailed, it’s a tough read and there’s plenty of home truths in there. It comes to 25 separate conclusions and makes 11 recommendations about reconciliation, and what we as a council need to do to change how we operate so that this can never happen again.   Over 221 pages it spells out what happened, why it happened and where different decisions could and should have been taken.  It describes the harm – to individuals, to communities, to the environment, to the city’s reputation, and to the trust and confidence that the people of Sheffield have in their council. For me, this is by far the worst bit. 


We accept all of those conclusions and recommendations completely and have committed to doing everything Sir Mark thinks we should.  Following the local elections in May, we will bring forward a paper to this committee that will set out in detail how the council will respond to each of those recommendations as well as other points made in the paper where we need to learn lessons.


To make this happen, I have asked the Chief Executive to work with our partners, including with the campaign groups and the Street Tree Partnership, to develop a collaborative framework for reconciliation, taking on board all of the recommendations made by Sir Mark in his report.  And following the local elections, I would like Members from all parties to be involved in that process too. 

I want to be clear that I know it is not up to the city council about how we reconcile: we can’t just say “right, that’s it, it’s over now, let’s move on” – there’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of personal apologies and a fair few uncomfortable conversations to be had. To be the best we can be as a council we need to listen, and agree with those affected by this what reconciliation looks like. 


As I said, we have a good number of people to apologise to – and it’s important to me that those individuals are identified and they get their apology personally from me – not through the media or from the council chamber – from me, I want to look people in the eye when I say sorry, because I mean it. 


The report I’ve commissioned which is going to set out what we are going to do and how we are going to do it, will be brought forward to the Strategy and Resources Committee following the election, which is likely to be in June, for debate and endorsement by the council.


One of the first acts I made as the incoming Leader of the Council is 2021 was commissioning this report to ensure that the council never again makes the mistakes it made over this dispute, and to make it right for so many people who were wronged.


As Sir Mark has said, identifying a lesson is not the same as learning it, so that paper will also describe in detail the process that we will go through to enable those lessons to be truly learnt so that we do not make similar mistakes ever again.


Let me be clear, we will accept every recommendation made in the report. 

There is one recommendation where I have asked officers to take immediate action because the council is causing ongoing harm. 


There are a number of campaigners who we still have outstanding financial claims against, as a result of legal action around the time of the dispute. This was not a matter I was aware of until reading the report.


Although the council have not been actively pursuing these claims for some time, we will drop those claims entirely from today, recognising the financial, mental health and wider burdens that they have and continue to impose on the individuals affected.  I can further announce that we will also take steps to reimburse all campaigners against whom we pursued financial claims and who have already paid those claims.


As I said at the beginning, the street trees dispute was a dark time for this city and none of us want to ever return to those dark days. I do not want to return back to those politics again.


I do believe that we are all on the same page, we want what is best for this city and repeating our mistakes is not an option. I reckon we really can move forward as a city, we can build on the good work of the past five years and move towards a brighter and kinder future.


Once again I would like to say that I am unreservedly sorry”.




At this point in the proceedings it was agreed that public questions should be presented:




Public Questions:




Submitted by: Vicky Seddon


I understand that there has been some discussion about whether to move to an “all out once every four years” election system for our councillors, but with no such change proposed. Such a change would bring us into line with Nottingham, Derby, Rotherham and Doncaster, and the majority of unitary local authorities. Surely the low voter turnout for Sheffield’s local elections is an indication that voters are not very happy with our current system. Isn’t it about time that we the voters were consulted on this?


Response: Whilst we keep such matters under review, there is no current proposal to move from the existing pattern of electing by thirds to electing all councillors every four years.  Were such a change to be proposed then we would, in line with the law on changing electoral schemes and our wider commitment to listening to the views of local people, conduct full consultation before such a change went ahead.




Submitted by James Martin:


Through the work done with SCC Electoral services in preparation for the Accessibility Provisions of the Elections Act, we have encountered near unanimous feedback that even with the improvements in polling stations the biggest barrier for many is accessible information from candidates and/or their parties. How will parties in the city look to do their part in making elections and accessibility available for all in this and future elections?


Clearly, this is a matter which cannot be addressed by SCC Officers. As the next election is a local only, I would be grateful if you would allow this question to publicly raise this important feedback.




Response: Welcome James, thanks for your support and contributions which have been incredibly helpful and for all the work you do with Disability Sheffield.


I will ensure that your question is sent to all of the relevant people not just for Labour, but for all of Sheffield’s political parties, so that we can work with you to address this situation.




Submitted by Julie Pearn:


Councillor Terry Fox said he welcomed the invitation to twin from the Mayor of Nablus and also that he had written to the Mayor of Nablus. Can you explain the delay in responding and the half-truths in Councillor Fox’s letter?  Can you also provide reassurance that the review of twinning and international arrangements will not mean further delay.


In view of the long delay and the discourtesy of the delay in responding, what plans are being put in place to address the Nablus twinning proposal as a matter of urgency?


Response: The Leader indicated that he signed the letter to the Mayor of Nablus a while ago so would check on why this was delayed.  I do have an appetite to speak to the Mayor but there is a review of twinning and international arrangements being undertaken.  This report is progressing and is in our forward plan of work.



Submitted by Russell Johnson:


Q1. One of the Corporate Responsibilities of this Committee states:

‘Considering reports which an Ombudsman requires to be published by the Council where it is proposed that the Council take the recommended action’;

Whilst the Lowcock Repot is not by the Ombudsman, it does, I believe have greater or equal standing and importance.

How will this Committee fulfil its responsibilities in properly responding to the excoriating Lowcock Report given that serious and sustained strategic failures have been identified?

Will the work of this Committee in this respect be concluded in a timely manner such that SCC cannot again be perceived to be ‘long-grassing’ the matter in the hope that the angry public will become silent?


Response: As I have set out in the statement at the beginning of this meeting, I think it is important that the Council responds to the conclusions and recommendations of the Lowcock inquiry in full and in a timely manner.  To this end I have asked the Chief Executive to work with everyone involved, including campaigners, to develop a collaborative approach and framework for reconciliation to be discussed at a meeting of this committee following the election.  I am not shying away from anything in the report, and I am committed to responding comprehensively and in public to everything that Sir Mark has identified.


Q2. Another of your purposes is:

‘Responsibility for any issue identified as being of significant strategic importance or financial risk to the Council (which is considered to be by its nature cross-cutting)’ Given the obvious strategic importance of the swingeing Lowcock critique will this Committee agree that addressing the Lowcock recommendations with honesty and transparency should be a priority and that further reputational damage to the Council by obfuscation and delay must be avoided?


Response: As I have said in answer to the first question, the Council will work with all those affected over the coming weeks, collaboratively and openly, and will bring forward a report to this committee at the earliest opportunity in the new municipal year which will set out the council’s proposed response to the findings and recommendations of the Lowcock report.  As Sir Mark has said, identifying a lesson is not the same as learning it, and therefore that paper will also describe in detail the process that we will go through to enable those lessons to be truly learnt so that we do not make similar mistakes in the future. 




Submitted by Ruth Hubbard, asked by Russell Johnson:


Q2.  The following are questions on item 9 on the agenda ‘Response to Peer Review’?  Learning the lessons of the damning Inquiry Report is the most immediate context in which I ask it, but by no means the only context. 


Congratulations to officers on completing this Corporate Peer Challenge when demands across the council are so high.  


However, I would like to request the Committee considers ‘pushing the pause button’ on agreeing the Council’s response and action plan?


This is to allow more time for wider consideration and understanding of the Feedback and response, definitely for wider consultation, and to try and mitigate risks.


In the case of 'Team Sheffield' in particular, I want to sound some alarms about the risks involved and the need to think through very carefully - and not just 'at the top' or with the ‘great and good’.

Briefly, the CPC Feedback Report has major implications for council reorientation, and so  the response signals significant strategic, cultural and operational shifts. 


I looked across at other councils and I could not find any example where both a CPC Feedback Report AND a full, fixed action plan response was presented at the same time, together, for approval - let alone with such substantive content.  The reports have only just been made available for public scrutiny.  And the response report itself acknowledges there has been no consultation (on the Feedback or response).


Perhaps officers and Members have already had much internal reflection and discussion about the Feedback Report.  But this appears not to be the case.  For example, some officers in some of the Peer Challenge discussions told me that they had only just seen the report and it bore "no resemblance" to those discussions, they didn't recognise themselves in it.  There has been no public  consideration either.


I appreciate the Chief Executive wants to try and move forward at pace but wider consideration and some meaningful consultation is needed before 'sign off' - I think this could only enhance the proposals, deepen understanding and help to mitigate risks.  


For 'Team Sheffield', the approach is standard and very recognisable. But Sheffield is not ‘standard’.  Some places have had real difficulty with this rather one-size-fits-all approach.  In Bristol they have a similar ‘One City’ approach.  It has been highly controversial, is hated by many, and has proved a flashpoint for dissent, resistance, and anger, as well as a range of serious allegations.  I remind the Committee that Sheffield is rather good at dissent and that trust in the council could probably not be lower.


My Bristol contacts including a well-informed journalist say "lots of people are excluded, including opposition councillors, it's behind closed doors, it’s just the capitalists who are allowed."  And “communities are just ‘subject’ to it. All policy decisions must now go through ‘one city’ thinking which is essentially a public-private partnership. The public sector pays for it, the private sector enjoys it.”  


I am not getting into the politics in this but I suggest there should be much clearer thinking and development work about how this aligns with the city (and after Lowcock in particular).  


The Lowcock Report is only just out, it identifies big problems working with stakeholders and experts and citizens/communities. Whatever the spin, I don’t believe for a moment that that embedded culture has significantly shifted, some things remain broken.  So when you shift gear and propose a wholesale collaborative and partnership ‘Team Sheffield’ strategy, it is likely to be very hard won indeed, however important and well-intentioned.. 


The risk is that Sheffield City Council repeats its big mistakes given its history of defensive insularity, power-hoarding, authoritarianism and lack of transparency, openness and honesty.  The legacy is that the council is not trusted so it is not easy just to get on and do things.  This all needs further thinking through, consultation and great care.  The history has to be taken into account and worked with.


Response: We have become more accountable, open and transparent. Since I became Leader I have commissioned the Lowcock report and agreed the Peer review, which demonstrates this.  The commissioning of course is not the same as the learning and we must ensure that everything is done correctly, and reports are acted upon.


The Corporate Peer Challenge report is the first time that Sheffield has had a whole organisation peer review.  The timing of the publication of the report alongside the Lowcock review was unknown and unintended that the CPC was commissioned but it reinforces the need for concerted change and action across a number of areas, whilst also documenting the many areas of strength that the council has. 


Whilst it is important that the committee discusses and considers both the report and the action plan today, this should only be the start of the process of responding to the findings of the peer challenge.  The action plan has been written so as to provide a high level summary of the direction of travel needed.  There will need to be lots of discussion and consultation with partners and stakeholders about the detail and that is something I am happy to commit to and will ask officers to ensure is done at all levels.  And much of what has been recommended by the peer challenge team will need to be taken forward as parts of other programmes of work (such as the 6-month review of governance or the work on city goals). So, a pause at this stage is likely only to hinder our ability to take forward some of these other important areas of work.


The recommendations in the peer review response include a commitment to bringing back a review of progress to this committee within 12 months.




Submitted by Ruth Hubbard


Q1. There is no prospect or possibility of any significant citizen and community confidence in this council if it refuses to uphold basic standards of probity.  So can I ask, in the wake of the appalling indictment of the Street Tree Inquiry Report,  for the Leader to please reconsider, and for immediate resignations, for the good of Sheffield?


Response: See responses to 5.10 and 5.11.



A further 3 questions were noted and it was agreed that written responses would be provided to such questions 3,4 and 5.




Submitted by Richard Ward:


How does the committee propose to address the shortcomings in strategic leadership, both political and in professional services leadership by senior officers, that have been laid bare in Sir Mark Lowcock’s report? How will oversight of strategic change be monitored and managed? What performance measures will be put in place to provide reassurance to the public that progress is being made and effectively monitored. How will this Committee use those measures to monitor the clear strategic need for impactful organisation-wide cultural change in Sheffield City Council?


Response: The Lowcock report is clear that there was a sustained failure of strategic leadership within the council at that time, and there were a series of mistakes and significant errors of judgement, dating right back to the time the Streets Ahead contract was signed, through the course of the dispute, lasting until the point we turned to mediation in 2018.


The organisation has begun the process of change and we have put in place some key building blocks already. We cannot take away what has been achieved since the mediation in 2018. These include a new set of organisational values, regular performance reporting to committees linked to our Delivery Plan and opening ourselves up to external challenge and review including through the Corporate Peer Challenge process, which this committee will discuss today. As the peer challenge report makes clear, although we have made some good first steps, we have much further to go – that will require a continuing focus on changing our culture, working with the citizens and communities of the city collaboratively, and transforming the way we do business as an organisation. We have put in place a programme of change, known as Future Sheffield, to provide focus and capacity for this work. As part of the response to the Lowcock report which will be discussed at the first meeting of Strategy and Resources after the election, we will set out how work towards the individual recommendations of the report will be monitored and reviewed. And we will describe how those actions contribute to the wider work of the Future Sheffield programme. Part of the approach to regular review and monitoring our programme of organisational and cultural change will be for this committee to receive regular reports and to scrutinise and hold to account the progress being made.




Submitted by Isobel O’Leary:


In the light of Lowcock's finding of "a serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership" how can we have confidence in the important decisions to be taken by this  committee?


The Lowcock report says the previous Council Leader and cabinet member overseeing Streets Ahead were primarily responsible for this failure.

The Council have stated that these “serious errors of judgement” were made by the "previous administration" and  that the organisation is “very different now”.

How can the Council move on, and trust be restored when two of those responsible for causing the harm to the trees, to the citizens of Sheffield and to the reputation of the city are still in very high positions of responsibility at Sheffield City Council? Their positions are untenable.




Response: As I said earlier we accept that Sir Mark’s report identified serious failings of leadership during the time of the street trees dispute.  I also explained that, as an organisation, we are changing.  The peer review report sets out the distance that we have come and the distance still to travel.  But, what is also clear is the work that is ongoing to rebuild the trust and confidence of the people of Sheffield – this includes the move to the committee system, with more councillors taking decisions openly and transparently, the introduction of Local Area Committees to enable people to have more say about the things happening in their communities, and the changes that are already underway as part of the Future Sheffield programme. 


The work of the Street Tree Partnership itself is an example of how we’re working differently – utilising the experience and expertise of people with different backgrounds and different perspectives but working together consensually for the good of the city’s street trees and the wider benefits they bring for the city. 


We know it will take time to rebuild trust and confidence – we know that once lost, trust takes hard work and determination.  I am determined to put that hard work in  in alongside the public, partners and stakeholders.



Submitted by Annette Taberner:


The Council has two important reports on its desk. The peer review document  and Sir Mark Lowcocks investigation report. Mark Lowcock catalogues shocking systemic Council failings and disturbing behaviour of senior councillors. Why are those councillors still in post and when will the Lowcock Report be put before an open full council meeting. 



Response: As I set out in my earlier statement, the council’s response to the Lowcock report will be brought forward for discussion and debate to the first meeting of this committee following the local elections.  This will follow a process of open, collaborative discussion with those involved in the street tree dispute, led by the Chief Executive, with a real focus on what we need to do to support reconciliation.



Members of the Committee then proceeded to debate the issue, including a statement from Councillor Lodge, offering his apologies for what happened during the two-year period when he was Cabinet Member with responsibility for the street tree replacement programme. 




(NOTE: 1. In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 26 this urgent Item of business was considered on the recommendation of the Chair, on the basis that the Council wished to allow an early public debate on the recently published Street Tree Inquiry report. It was not possible in the time available to give appropriate notice, and it was considered that the Council would not be able to hold an initial  public debate on the Inquiry report if not considered at this meeting; and 2. At this point in the proceedings there was a short adjournment).