Council leader supports bid to jail anti-tree felling protesters, court told

An attempt by Sheffield City Council to jail anti-tree felling protesters for breaching an injunction has the support of the authority's democratically elected leader, a judge has been assured.

Mr Justice Males stopped a hearing at the High Court in Sheffield so lawyers could give him a clear yes/no answer to his questions about whether the legal action against four protesters has the support of council leader Julie Dore.

At the beginning of a hearing expected to last up to three days, the judge told the barrister representing the council, Yaaser Vanderman, that he had read in the newspapers that there was currently a moratorium on the controversial street tree-felling programme which brought daily clashes to some of Sheffield leafiest suburbs.

Tree felling in Sheffield
Tree felling in Sheffield

The judge told the court: "This is a serious application. The council is seeking to commit Sheffield citizens to prison for contempt."

He said: "I would like to be reassured that this application is brought on the instructions of democratically elected councillors."

The judge said: "Is this application brought with the instruction of the leader of the council? It seems to me to be an odd thing if I'm being asked to send people to prison unless you can give me a clear yes to that question."

After a break, Mr Vanderman returned to court to tell the judge he had spoken to a senior council official who said he had spoken to Mrs Dore and had told him: "She positively agreed that proceedings should be brought."

Huntingdon Elm in Sheffield
Huntingdon Elm in Sheffield

The council has brought the proceedings against protesters Paul Brooke, Simon Crump, Benoit Benz Compin and Fran Grace, who were all in the courtroom on Tuesday, which was packed with their supporters.

They are accused of breaching an injunction obtained by Sheffield City Council last year which prevents protesters entering safety zones set up around trees being felled and also forbids people encouraging or facilitating anyone else to break the injunction, including through social media.

Last year another protester, Calvin Payne, was given a suspended sentence and ordered to pay £16,000 in costs after he was found to be in breach of the order.

The controversial tree-felling programme is currently paused following a fresh series of confrontations earlier this year which saw dozens of police deployed and protesters arrested.

The dispute surrounds a 25-year, £2.2 billion private finance initiative agreement the council signed with contractor Amey.

The contract includes a huge programme to resurface thousands of miles of Sheffield's pothole-ridden road system and, as part of this, Amey is tasked with maintaining roadside trees.

The council says only a small proportion of the city's 36,000 street trees are being removed, because they are diseased or dangerous, but protesters say many of the trees are being felled simply because their roots are getting in the way of resurfacing methods.

Earlier this year the council released previously redacted details of the contract at the heart of the dispute, which campaigners said showed that 17,500 trees would be earmarked for destruction.

Council leaders said that figure was only a contingency, and not a target, with the likely end total being a maximum of 10,000.