City council wins injunctions in latest stage of dispute over tree felling

Sheffield City Council has secured High Court injunctions against those trespassing within safety barriers around its controversial tree replacement works.

One of its own councillors, Alison Teal of the Green Party, was among those to be made subject to the injunctions. The protestors want the council to find alternative ways of maintaining highways that do involve the felling of healthy trees.

The council’s application for injunctions was granted by Mr Justice Males in Sheffield City Council v Fairhall & Ors [2017] EWHC 2121 (QB).

Before the judge the council submitted that:

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  1. The action of the defendants was not the exercise of a peaceful right to protest but unlawful direct action whose intended and actual effect was unlawfully to prevent the council from carrying out its statutory powers and duties with regard to highway maintenance; it was for the council as the democratically elected body to determine how those powers and duties should be exercised, subject only to the principles of public law.
  2. A public law challenge to the lawfulness of the council's decision that trees need to be felled as part of its highway maintenance programme having failed, that decision must be regarded as lawful; accordingly, the issue in this case was not whether the felling of trees was lawful, but only whether the defendants were entitled to prevent the council from giving effect to its lawful decisions.
  3. The defendants' direct action constituted a trespass; there was no licence to use the highway for a purpose which was unreasonable or which prevented the council from carrying out its lawful powers and duties.
  4. The direct action also constituted a number of other torts such as nuisance and unlawful interference with business.
  5. It was also a criminal offence under section 303 of the Highways Act 1980 and section 241 of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
  6. The injunction claimed did not interfere with the defendants' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association provided for by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  7. Alternatively, if those Articles were engaged, any restriction on the exercise of these rights was prescribed by law and was necessary and proportionate in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Counsel for the defendants submitted that:

  1. The PFI contract [with contractor Amey] was unlawful because (a) it constituted profiteering on the part of Amey and cost saving on the part of the council, all at the expense of important environmental obligations, and (b) Amey failed to disclose a 2008 conviction for corporate manslaughter to the council before concluding the contract.
  2. The felling of trees was not being undertaken as part of a programme of highway maintenance, but constituted a separate tree maintenance programme which fell outside the scope of section 41 of the Highways Act 1980.
  3. The direct action did not involve the commission of any tort or criminal offence. Rather it consisted of the lawful exercise of a right of peaceful protest.
  4. Even if the direct action would be unlawful as a matter of English domestic law, it constituted a lawful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR.

Ruling in favour of Sheffield, the judge said the council was entitled to an injunction to restrain the commission of a trespass and also to take action under section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972 in support of the criminal law in circumstances where the defendants' conduct would continue unless restrained by injunction.

Cllr Bryan Lodge, Cabinet member for Environment and Street Scene at Sheffield City Council, said: “We have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Sheffield to do everything we can to avoid catastrophic financial consequences if the Streets Ahead work is not completed by the end of the year.

“Court action has been a last resort option for us. We had no choice but to pursue these injunctions to stop a small number of people from causing major delays, not only to tree works, but also to work on roads, footpaths and street lights across the city. We know from regular feedback that the majority of people in Sheffield support the Streets Ahead programme and want us to get the job done.”

Cllr Lodge added: “The Court decision is an extremely important step forward for the residents and council taxpayers of Sheffield. We’re pleased that the Court has backed the council’s right to carry out its lawful work on the city’s roads and pavements and has ruled that anyone deliberately preventing this is acting unlawfully.

“We will continue to support the right to peaceful protest, but this is different from trespassing, preventing vital highway works from continuing. We never wanted to be in this position and those stepping inside the safety zones were given numerous opportunities to prevent us seeking injunctions.”

Cllr Lodge highlighted how, following the court’s ruling, anyone trespassing inside a safety zone after 22 August would be in contempt of court and face the risk of a fine and/or imprisonment.

“We hope that it doesn’t come to that and people will now choose to respect the court’s decision. In addition, we will be looking to seek associated costs and damages which will be covered at a later hearing,” he said.

Cllr Lodge added that, following the court ruling, the nature of its discussions with the protestors would need to be reviewed.

In March 2016 the High Court lifted an injunction that had prohibited the council and its contractor Amey from felling trees as part of the Streets Ahead project.

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