It is early days in fashion designer and campaigner Katharine Hamnett’s mission to persuade her home borough of Hackney in London to ban herbicide use from its public spaces, so far backed by a petition of around 3,000 people.
Nevertheless, some amenity professionals fear the publicity from such campaigns could lead to yet more pressure on cash-strapped council parks teams that would struggle to keep control of vegetation if chemicals were completely eliminated from their grounds-care regimes.
Hamnett, awarded a CBE four years ago for services to fashion, started the campaign after spotting Hackney’s in-house horticulture team spraying Monsanto-branded Roundup Pro Biactive at London Fields, close to where she lives.
They were using the chemical to help prepare the ground for a wild flower meadow. Such practice is widely recommended from wild flower seed producers to the RHS, which says when preparing wild flower meadows: "It is advisable to spray off existing vegetation using systemic glyphosate-containing weedkillers. This is especially important where vigorous perennial weeds are present in large numbers."
Meanwhile, pictorial meadow pioneer, academic and ecologist Nigel Dunnett of the University of Sheffield says a one-off use of a herbicide such as glyphosate generates huge benefits in terms of biodiversity, sustainability and visual quality when creating a wild flower meadow.
"In ecological terms we are pragmatic and see these things as a trade-off," he adds.
The petition was enough to secure Hamnett a meeting with Hackney’s head of leisure and green spaces Ian Holland. "I’ve never known take-up quite like it on a campaign," says Hamnett. "Why can’t Hackney, if not the rest of London, be like Paris, which for 10 years has been a pesticide-free zone?" she asks.
Plenty of reasons, says a council spokesman in response, not least the £500,000-a-year cost of hand weeding. Councils and consumers across the UK use glyphosate. "Glyphosate is not really proven to be dangerous, especially the way we use it as well as authorities across the world and millions of gardeners," he adds. "We will continue to follow guidance but we take complaints seriously and are not averse to using other methods."
Amenity Forum chairman John Moverley says members tell him that the campaign publicity has provoked enquiries from some councils but they have been happy with the response so far.
"There is a rigorous process of testing for all pesticides used in the UK and operator training is legally required. We always advise authorities to look for contractors who operate to amenity assured standards and support best practice. Our hope is to get everyone fully behind the forum and its objectives."
The forum also "fully supports" the drive towards taking an integrated approach to weed, pest and disease control, something encouraged by the Sustainable Use Directive, he adds.
Behind the scenes, parks departments and scientists are always looking at other options. Birmingham City Council head of parks Darren Share says it is important to find the most effective and safe way of maintaining the environment and to keep methods under review.
"We’re trying wherever possible to reduce chemical use, moving to spot treatments rather than blanket treatments," he explains.
The department made mechanical weeding and mulching for flower beds requirements when tendering for its current grounds maintenance contracts in 2009. Share says that aspect may have cost more but overall the department, Britain’s biggest, benefitted from economies of scale and its contracts cost 25 per cent less than the national average.
"It does cost more to maintain without chemicals because of the amount of staff that need to be out there on top of weeds." But he adds that mulching prevents weeds coming back through.
Smaller departments have less wriggle room. Alternatives such as cultural control on a contract area were trialled by Telford & Wrekin Council, says parks head Chris Jones. "Unfortunately they just did not stack up on viability, especially now with decreasing budgets," he points out.
"There is no other viable alternative to glyphosate and a ban would lead to high-cost weed control and much structural damage to road surfaces. Local authority use of glyphosate applied as per label offers a safe, cost-effective form of weed control in amenity situations."
Some regions have zero tolerance for pesticides. Former National Contractors Forum chairman Bob Ivison cites Canada and other parts of North America. "The parks are not as pristine as ours but people understand and accept that," he says. "This campaign will probably prompt rash claims and lawmakers can bar anything. As long as you know the consequences, that’s fine."
Some of those consequences worry consultant John Adlam. Straggling weeds on paths could be a trip hazard, while controlling Japanese knotweed will be even harder if one of its few treatments, glyphosate, is banned. This has wider implications on mortgage lenders and insurers who will be even more reluctant to lend or cover if treatment options dwindle.
"We have pesticide regulators and in my experience if they have even the slightest doubt they will never grant approval of a product," says Adlam. "The systemic nature of glyphosate makes it eminently suitable for use but even then the Chemicals Regulation Directorate would not compromise on risk to environment, wildlife and people."
Alternative weed control - Foam product and scientific research
Weedingtech chief operating officer Leo de Montaignac claims that his company is behind the UK’s "only viable herbicide-free weed-control product".
"Foamstream is already being used successfully in a variety of highly sensitive and populated environments," he says. "It works by killing weeds using a precise application of hot water and foam and is effective in all weather conditions against a variety of weeds."
The Thanet Weed Project is undertaking a three-year study comparing chemical, non-chemical and integrated weed control. Preliminary results indicate that pesticide and integrated methods, including foam and brushing, can be shown to be equally effective while non-pesticide is less effective. In cost terms, the pesticide approach is cheapest and non-pesticide is most costly.