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Herbicide-free trials to begin in two Cambridge wards - and residents invited to help in 12 other streets

Alternatives to herbicides are to be trialled in two wards of Cambridge after the city council took a major step towards eliminating the use of the damaging chemicals.

Newnham and Arbury have been selected for trials during March of alternative methods of weed control in public areas.

They were chosen due to the diversity of properties and road types in the wards, but the aim is for the entire city to be free of council-sprayed herbicides by the end of 2022.

Wulfstan Way, Cambridge, where herbicides were sprayed in 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell
Wulfstan Way, Cambridge, where herbicides were sprayed in 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell

Meanwhile, up to 12 “herbicide-free streets” will be selected elsewhere in the city where local residents can volunteer to clear their street spaces to avoid herbicide use.

Pesticide-Free Cambridge – which has been campaigning for the measures, as highlighted by the Cambridge Independent – welcomed the decision, although it called for the city council to go further still.

The trials were given the green light at last Thursday’s environment and communities scrutiny committee.

Afterwards, Cllr Alex Collis (Lab, King’s Hedges), executive councillor for open spaces, sustainable food and community wellbeing, said: “When we declared a biodiversity emergency we committed to make our parks and open spaces more hospitable to plants and animals. This restriction of herbicides is a significant first step toward fulfilling this vision.

“We are particularly grateful to Pesticide-Free Cambridge for their continuous commitment and support with our work.”

Alternatives to herbicides, which can be hazardous to health and damaging for biodiversity, are already in use in some cities. The Labour-run council, which has been working on the plans with the highways authority, Cambridgeshire County Council, is continuing to evaluate the effectiveness and viability of a range of options, which include the use of brush cleaning, hot foam, hot water or manual cleaning.

Cllr Alex Collis. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Alex Collis. Picture: Keith Heppell

It is also exploring whether signs and a website could be used for the rest of the year to inform residents in areas outside the trial zones when herbicides are being applied.

Cllr Haf Davies (Lab Abbey), lead councillor for biodiversity, said: ‘I’m so pleased to see this herbicide-free trial going ahead. It is a crucial step towards establishing practices that benefit our communities and nature and a key part of tackling the biodiversity emergency. I’m particularly grateful to community campaigners and to the council officers who have worked so hard on these plans, and look forward to seeing the results.”

Meanwhile, the council is also budgeting for rewilding projects, the increase in wildflower meadows and the extension of the city’s tree canopy.

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Dr Julia Shaw and Ben Greig, of Pesticide-Free Cambridge, told the Cambridge Independent they were grateful for all those who had worked and supported the plans.

They said: “We’re very happy that the two-ward trial in Arbury and Newnham will finally be going ahead in the spring, especially as this was originally scheduled to take place in Autumn 2021, and we’re hopeful that this will set us on the path to a city-wide end of council herbicide spraying on the land it owns or manages by the end of the year.

“Against the background of the intertwined climate and biodiversity emergencies, such action can’t come soon enough given the growing evidence regarding the harmful impacts of herbicides on human health and the environment.”

However, they pointed out that the council’s herbicide reduction plan (HRP) made no reference to the human health impact of pesticide exposure, especially for children and vulnerable groups.

And they said the aim to notify residents when spraying is happening should have been written into the plan.

Cambridge Green party councillors, Cllr Dr Hannah Charlotte Copley and Cllr Naomi Bennett
Cambridge Green party councillors, Cllr Dr Hannah Charlotte Copley and Cllr Naomi Bennett

An amendment from Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market) and Cllr Hannah Copley (Green, Abbey) on this point was voted down, over concerns of delay.

“Members of Pesticide-Free Cambridge have been pushing the council on this point for many years as residents deserve to know when and where poisons are being sprayed so that they can take necessary action to protect their health during the time taken for plants to show visible signs of die-off,” said Dr Shaw. “We have also asked several times about why the council does not insist that its city council operatives wear full PPE when spraying herbicides, as is legally required, and whilst there is no mention of this in the HRP. We were reassured by Cllr Collis’s response to our public question, that corrective measures to this effect will now be implemented.”

But the group was disappointed that spraying and strimming around trees may continue this year outside the trial zones, unless the trees are new.

“Trees of any age are damaged by both practices and moreover, both are completely unnecessary. Grass can be left to grow around trees, yet still mown nearby,” said Mr Grieg.

“We hope that we won’t have another year of witnessing the kinds of damage to tree roots that we saw as a result of such practices last year.”

Wulfstan Way, Cambridge, where herbicides were sprayed in 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell
Wulfstan Way, Cambridge, where herbicides were sprayed in 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell

Meanwhile, the group continues to focus on “the even bigger problem of pesticide-use by residents, businesses, schools, the universities and other stakeholders, both on privately owned land as well as on public streets and pavements”.

And it called on the county council to abandon use of glyphosate-based herbicides in schools.

Dr Shaw said: “We have amassed evidence over a number of years of routine and extensive glyphosate-based herbicide application in school grounds, as well as carbamate and pyrethroid-based insecticides such as ant powder and wasp poison in and around school buildings. We are continuing to put pressure on the Cambridgeshire County Council to take necessary action.”

Cllr Katie Porrer
Cllr Katie Porrer

Cllr Porrer was grateful for council officers’ work on the trials, but added: “We were disappointed that our proposal for clear on site signage in the wards still using herbicides, an online map allowing residents to search for this by ward and road, and a firm commitment to end herbicide use after 2022 subject to a successful trial were rejected by the ruling Labour group.”

Cllr Cheney Payne (Lib Dem, Castle) noted: “Residents have a right to know. Children and pets will be using these streets unaware of their use unless something changes. However, we are fully supportive of the trials across the city.”

Cllr Copley welcomed the trials and called for stickers on lampposts in other areas to identify when spraying has occurred.

“I also want us to look more broadly at other kinds of pesticides such as insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides that are used in the city and how we can reduce or eliminate them, in the context of the biodiversity emergency,” she said.

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