Edinburgh, Brighton & Hove and the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham have all put reducing or giving up glyphosate on their list of New Year's resolutions, but is this a growing trend? And does it represent a headache or opportunity for green space professionals?
Edinburgh City Council decided to pursue an herbicide-reduction policy at the end of 2016 following a year-long trial of alternatives to chemicals run by the council's parks department. A report to its transport and environment committee recommended an integrated weed control programme, due to start this spring.
This will see greater use of mulch and strimming in public parks and green spaces, mechanised control on pavements and other hard landscape features, electricity for hard-to-reach or particularly resistant weeds such as giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed, and the application of acetic or citric acids where required.
"Mechanical approaches can be more effective and we're working on implementation now, buying new equipment and training staff," says Edinburgh head of parks, green space and cemeteries David Jamieson. "We'll continue to trail alternatives and go back to the committee with the results." He adds that there is definitely a trend towards councils wanting to become more environmentally conscious and says a plus side to this approach is more biodiversity in our cities.
However, giving up on glyphosate can have big cost implications. A five-year scientific study commissioned by Defra, run by East Malling Research and hosted by Kent County Council on the streets of Thanet, found that non-chemical approaches were more expensive and not necessarily better for the environment, once you factor in the impact on C02 emissions from the machines used.
Ground Control managing director Marcus Watson says he is hearing "a lot of talk" about bans. "My view is that banning glyphosate use would be a mistake. The evidence that I've seen is that it is on the same level as caffeine in terms of damage. What would be the future impact on the environment? Instead of having a Transit van going to a site four times a year to spray, you have to send a team eight or 12 times. That's increasing your carbon footprint. We are looking at alternatives but they aren't economically attractive."
Edinburgh is cutting £443,000 from its parks budget between 2016 and 2020 and £1.15m from waste services, which includes street cleaning. The council's response to this squeeze on the amenity budget was to restructure services. Grounds maintenance and street cleaning merged last year. Jamieson says of the workforce: "Our task this year is to reskill them, retrain them, merge them with our specialist grounds maintenance teams and work on a city-wide approach to reduce spending."
In Brighton, where councillors voted in March 2016 to end glyphosate use at the end of the current weed spraying contract in April, the local authority switched from strimming to glyphosate to save cash. It opted to spray around obstacles "because we have fewer staff to carry out this work and we need to reduce the time spent on strimming. Updates to hand/arm vibration legislation have also been taken into account."
Despite sometimes virulent campaigns to persuade local authorities to make the switch, the changes have not always gone down well with the public. Bristol City Council received complaints about its use of vinegar during its current year-long trial into alternatives. Horticultural vinegar, which contains more acetic acid than regular malt, is natural, cheap and effective but residents were not impressed with the smell.
An online petition posted on 13 May 2015 by anti-pesticide pressure group Pesticide Action Network UK calling on Brighton & Hove City Council to move towards making the city the UK's first pesticide-free metropolis had only attracted 106 signatures by 26 January 2017.
Emma Woolf, chair of the Birmingham Open Spaces Forum, which represents friends groups across the city, says the response to the issue varies but she is not aware of a groundswell of opinion pushing for a chemical ban. Such a campaign is "probably something that we would stay away from", she adds. "We're not keen on knee-jerk responses to anything. What we'd all be most impressed by is the fact that there would be anyone left with any time or budget to do any spraying. I don't think I've seen it for some time."
The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham trialled non-chemical approaches, including hot foam and hot steam, for six months before deciding to become the first council in London to stop using herbicide sprays in parks and open spaces. "While there is some debate over the health risks of glyphosate-based chemicals, there is no debate that at Hammersmith & Fulham the health and well-being of our residents is our priority and we recognise the importance of a green agenda in better supporting that," said council cabinet member for the environment, transport and residents' services Wesley Harcourt at the time.
Parks for London chief executive Tony Leach is unaware of any more London boroughs following suit. "We're keeping a watching brief on the topic and awaiting results of further research," he adds. "We've also collaborated with the Amenity Forum to keep Parks for London supporters updated."
Amenity Forum chairman John Moverley says it is important to respect concerns about chemical use but base decisions on science and evidence. "At the end of the day, councils must make choices and reflect their specific needs and respond to local opinion. However, it is important that they recognise the implications and the forum is working with local government organisations to improve communications and understanding."
Watson says: "There may be a short-term impact for contractors if their contracts do not specify the method of control. However, at the end of the day it is the communities that are going to be paying for it. We had one water client that moved away from glyphosate on certain sites and the impact has been high. The work is slower, less effective and more costly, and that is something the client is paying for and quite rightly should. I'm quite concerned that we're sleepwalking into glyphosate being banned because our voice as an industry wasn't represented when these things were debated. Herbicides in general do have a place and a benefit. I'm absolutely clear that our use of chemicals should be safe for humans and the environment, but let's not scaremonger."