A regional daily has revealed a council and police force met in secret to plan a “media strategy” for a controversial tree-felling programme – despite previous denials that this was the case.
The Post has now used the Freedom of Information Act to make transcripts of the meetings public, calling into question past claims by SYP Assistant Chief Constable Dave Hartley in February 2018 that the force was “fiercely independent” in the matter.
HTFP reported in February this year how the Leeds-based Post had debunked allegations made about protesters fighting the tree-felling, including claims that demonstrators cut workers’ safety ropes and studded nails and glass into trees in attempts to cause serious injury.
Chris told HTFP: “This story came about as a direct result of the last one about the discredited allegations against the protesters trying to seriously injure workers.
“After that was published, I was alerted by a tree campaigner to his FoI from a few months previously in which the police had revealed that three planning meetings had taken place for the operation with Sheffield Council and their highways contractor Amey and that these meetings had been recorded.
“I had already been aware that it had been claimed that the allegations about attempts to injure workers were said to have raised by contractors in a planning meeting so believed it was worth putting in an FoI to get hold of the tapes or transcripts to see if I could establish what was said.
“The response I did eventually get provided 36 pages of transcripts from three meetings but was heavily redacted with no mention of the allegations.
“However, what was published did show repeated discussion between the different parties of what they each should say in public about dozens of officers being sent out to support felling operations and there was discussion at one point of getting “three way sign up” on all statements.
“This stood in stark contrast to previous police statements about the operation, including from the chief constable, that had strongly insisted that the force was ‘entirely impartial’ in the dispute.
The police had started sending officers to support council operations in response to the growing protests early in 2018.
On 5 February 2018, in a meeting attended by representatives from SYP, the council, tree-felling company Amey and Servoca, the company which provided private security guards to support Amey’s work, discussions took place about what could be said in public about a police investigation into the protests which had led to the decision to set up the operation.
The transcripts show Superintendent Paul McCurry saying “the comms is key” and confirming there would be a “three-way sign up” between the parties before anything is made public.
Supt McCurry said: “We have got to communicate but there’s that independent bit that I think is relevant especially when we think about all of the FOI requests, etc, coming.”
In one published section of the report, he discusses arrangements for who would be allowed in the police control room, adding: “We would have representatives from Sheffield City Council, we would have [redacted] from Amey, we would have [redacted] from the security firm, we would then have our comms team.”
Sheffield peer Paul Scriven, who raised concerns about the police operation last year, says the newly-published information furthers the case for an independent inquiry into how the Sheffield trees saga was handled – a call echoed in the Post’s leader column on Monday.
Added Chris: “Lots of work went into this story and I am pleased by the reaction it has had from our readers so far.”
Sheffield City Council has declined to comment. HTFP has also approached SYP for comment.