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Weed-killing with chemicals to return to Cambridgeshire highways

Weed-killing using chemicals will resume again on Cambridgeshire’s roads and paths after the county council admitted it had “not got it right” following a policy change.

The authority stopped using herbicides last year and opted instead to physically remove weeds where they “presented a hazard or nuisance” to people.

Weeds grow along Coalwharf Road in Wisbech
Weeds grow along Coalwharf Road in Wisbech

The council forecast that it would save £120,000 a year, cut its carbon footprint and reduce the use of “potentially harmful” chemicals.

But with some roads and paths being overrun with weeds, a review found the majority of respondents to a survey were unhappy with the change and concluded the policy was not delivering the benefits anticipated.

A council report found the net saving was about £101,000 - less than expected - with more money now needing to be spent in the coming year to clear weeds that have built up.

The report added that the need for council officers to travel out more frequently to physically remove problem weeds meant there had also not been the reduction in carbon emissions expected.

The council will now reintroduce chemical weed killing in built-up village and town areas with 40mph speed limits or below, for a minimum of twice a year.

However, the authority said communities that do not want weeds to be sprayed can come forward with an alternative plan to remove weeds themselves.

At a meeting on Tuesday (23 January) council officers apologised for the way the policy change was handled and admitted the council did not engage effectively with other local authorities and people in the county.

Cllr Alex Beckett (Lib Dem, Queen Edith’s), chair of the highways and transport committee, said: “I don’t think we got this one right. It was good to be having a more targeted approach and to be doing what a lot of our communities want to do.

“I know some of our communities want less chemical weed removal, but that obviously did not quite work everywhere.

“I am really glad that we have now got to a point where those communities that really do want chemical removal can have it, and those communities that are more interested in taking it on themselves and doing it in a more kind of sustainable way are also able to do so.

Jean Glasberg, now a Green councillor in Cambridge, expressed concern about herbicide damage to grass verges in Newnham. Picture: Richard Marsham
Jean Glasberg, now a Green councillor in Cambridge, expressed concern about herbicide damage to grass verges in Newnham. Picture: Richard Marsham

“I think that is really welcome that we are listening to those communities and doing what they want to do.”

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem, Newnham), admitted the change of policy had been “rushed”. However, she said there were people who were “adamant” they did not want chemical spraying in their area.

Cllr Nethsingha said there were “very valid concerns” about the impact of herbicides on biodiversity and supported the proposed compromise approach to weed management across the county.

Cllr Anne Hay (Con, Chatteris) thanked Cllr Beckett for admitting the council had got it wrong with the policy.

Weeds in Dartford Road in March.
Weeds in Dartford Road in March.

She supported the move back to spraying weeds - and raised concerns about areas that opt out of chemical weed killing.

She said: “I feel we need to make sure where particular towns or parishes say they do not want it should have to show some evidence base that residents in that particular town or parish are wholly behind them on this.

“Also, we have already found that without doing it for one year there is built up damage on pathways and roads.

“My concern is if certain areas opt out, who is responsible for the costs going forward for damage that would not otherwise be caused.”

Officers explained that if an area did not want chemical weed killing, this did not mean there would be no weed removal.

They said it was expected that the council would reach agreements with groups who would be prepared to clear weeds manually themselves.

Cllr Simon King (Roman Bank and Peckover) said: “I really support this idea of flexibility, allowing individual communities to choose how they want to deal with this problem, I think that is absolutely right.”

The committee unanimously agreed to support the change in weed-killing policy.

Herbicide damage previously caused to grass verges by spraying in Newnham. Picture: Richard Marsham
Herbicide damage previously caused to grass verges by spraying in Newnham. Picture: Richard Marsham

The decision will be welcomed by some, but will dismay others who have long campaigned for a reduction in the use of controversial chemicals like glyphosate that have been linked to health risks and a reduction in biodiversity.

Campaign groups Pesticide-Free Cambridge and On the Verge Cambridge previously organised a petition urging Labour city councillors to live up to a manifesto promise they made ahead of the May 2021 elections, in which they pledged to work towards a “champion the elimination of herbicides on public land, including grass verges, and work towards being a herbicide-free city”.

Trials of herbicide-free wards subsequently began in Newnham and Arbury.

Cambridge City Council has been contacted for details of how the county council’s decision may impact its trials and its ambition of making the city herbicide-free.

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