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I talk to the trees, but they don't listen to me...

‘There is no good way to photograph a tree lying in the street…’

In the wake of Sheffield Council’s grovelling five-page apology to residents over its flawed tree felling policy, Adam reflects on why listening is so important.

In the history of conflicts, the battle over Sheffield’s street trees may seem little more than a scuffle, but it pitted the public against local government and led to scenes compared to ‘something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia’, by former local MP Nick Clegg. This arboreal battle has seemingly come to a resolution with the publication of a damning 227 page report, a five-page apology from Sheffield Council and a contrite turn on Radio 4 by its current leader. This story has a lot to tell us about workplace cultures.

What began as a PFI deal to improve the street scape of the ‘Green City’, became a misjudged commitment to a 25-year programme to replace 17,500 large, mature trees with small, young ones. Half the street trees across the city. Between 2013 and well into 2015, there was a groundswell of concern and opposition amongst Sheffield’s residents. The programme was led by highways engineers, not tree specialists, and failed to take into consideration the asset value or the environmental, health or cultural benefit of street trees. Concerns fell on deaf ears and Sheffield Council carried on “deluded into believing all was well”.

From 2015, public disquiet grew into an increasingly coordinated campaign of petitions, FOI requests and questions in Council meetings and eventually secured a judicial review. With the High Court ruling that the Council was not acting unlawfully by refusing to halt the tree replacement programme, positions became more entrenched. The Council ignored the recommendations of the Independent Tree Panel it has established and concerns over worker safety expressed by the Unions; arboreal expertise from bodies such as the Forestry Commission wasn’t sought. Most notably, it ignored the views and objections voiced by the residents who would be affected.

The current leader of Sheffield Council, Tom Hunt, said on the Today programme:

‘When people were rightly pointing out that we were getting things wrong and raising concerns, instead of listening and engaging with them, the Council double-downed and sought to escalate rather than de-escalate and change course.’

Pictures of woolly-hatted, anoraked seniors being strong-armed into police vans featured in national media. Council workers were subjected to verbal and online abuse by campaigners. Each tree felling featured security for the contractors and a heavy police presence. In total, there were 41 arrests. The Council came under insurmountable pressure from politicians at both local and national level to reach a resolution.

In the Sheffield Street Trees Inquiry report, Chair, Sir Mark Lowcock, refers to a ‘culture unreceptive to external views, discouraging of internal dissent and prone to group-think’ at the Council. Rebecca Hammond, of the Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG), expressed concern that although the Council has committed to implementing all the recommendations in the report, she was not convinced that an organisation which had displayed such a ‘lack of reception to internal challenge’ would be capable of making such a huge culture change.

At the heart of ATT’s safety leadership programmes is the principle of creating a workplace culture where everyone, regardless of role or responsibility, can raise a hand, a concern and speak up if they believe anything is unsafe. However, the potential dangers of a workplace where people feel uncomfortable or unable to offer challenge is not confined to physical hazards. As Rebecca Hammond commented, ‘This was about street trees, but it could have been about anything’.

By early 2018, the Council’s Director of Policy, Performance and Communications raised the issue of mediation for the first time, not least because he recognised the extent of the reputational damage: ‘…Put simply, there is no good picture of older residents being arrested. There is no good way to photograph a tree lying in the street…’

The Council misled the courts and Sheffield residents and lost the trust of its constituents and stakeholders. Council leaders’ refusal to listen led to an entrenched position and, in the words of council staff and associates, a ‘bunker mentality’.

The consequences of this long ‘battle’, both for the Council and the people of Sheffield, are writ large in the media, but there are important lessons for us all. Sir Mark Lowcock highlights Sheffield Council’s ‘serious and sustained failure of strategic leadership.’ I think the key word is ‘sustained’.

A ‘good workplace culture’ is not just about keeping employees physically safe and well, but ensuring they feel psychologically and emotionally ‘safe’ too. Being present, being curious and – most critically – listening to our colleagues and the people we work with and alongside is fundamental to enabling a supportive environment where people can comfortably raise concerns.

If it had been listening, the Council could have paused, thought again, sought advice or attempted to negotiate with the tree protesters saving millions of pounds, psychological harms, goodwill and, of course, a good many healthy trees.

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