Weed control policy

Introduction

We have minimised the use of glyphosate herbicide to control weeds in public spaces across Cheltenham in response to the climate and ecological emergencies that we are facing. The council have introduced a control measure to minimise our use of this chemical herbicide and manage unwanted vegetation, following a series of trials of alternative approaches since spring 2020. The control measure that the council have adopted is to move from two annual weed sprays using glyphosate, to only one annual spray, which is supplemented by labour-intensive manual and mechanical weed removal, reducing the use of glyphosate by 50%.

We are constantly reviewing our methods of managing unwanted vegetation and are continually looking into and considering cost effective alternatives to the use of the glyphosate herbicide to control vegetation/ weeds in the hope of moving away from the use of this chemical altogether in the future. 


Background - why we are reviewing our approach

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a report which stated that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic to humans". Since then, there has been a significant debate about whether herbicides including glyphosate, are safe to use.

There is growing concern about the risks to human health and to our biodiversity from unrestricted use of glyphosate as a herbicide. The World Health Organisation has expressed concern about its use.

The council is aware of a growing concern from residents about the use of herbicides in the town which is demonstrated by a number of enquiries via councillors, FOI requests and residents themselves.

Currently glyphosate is licenced by the European Chemical Agency until 2022, with the European Food Agency stating that it is unlikely to pose a public health risk.

National agencies across the world have declared glyphosate to be safe to use however some countries have now decided to ban glyphosate or severely curtail its use but the UK continues to say glyphosate based products are safe to use.

Despite this some local authorities have stopped using glyphosate weed killer use totally, or at least in specific areas such as schools, playgrounds, parks and pavements.

Guidance

The Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) recently provided a briefing to its members on glyphosate. Some notable points:

  • There is no right or wrong answer to the question "is it safe to use glyphosate products"
  • There are few alternatives to glyphosate and those which are seen as alternatives are often still in a pilot phase and much more expensive to use
  • There may be a need for the public to accept higher levels of weeds if the use of glyphosate is banned
  • Ending the use of pesticides on hard surfaces will likely mean that there will be more visible weeds for longer periods of time. However weeds do contribute to biodiversity by providing a habitat and source of food for bees and other insects.

Of particular note, APSE says "it may be prudent for all local authorities to carefully consider the scale of glyphosate use, the likely risks arising, the potential to limit the reliance on glyphosate-based products and the ability to find a suitable alternative product to prepare for the future".

Pre-2020 vegetation and weed management

Most glyphosate use in Cheltenham is undertaken in the highway environment; roads, pavements and alleyways. It is also used around obstacles in grass verges including street signs, light columns, and inspection chambers to name but a few. A specialist company was contracted to apply a twice year weed spray in early Spring and Summer, and to a much lesser extend in parks and open spaces where its use has been minimised to control invasive weeds (i.e. Japanese knotweed) for which the authority has a statutory duty and woody perennials such as tree and shrub stumps.

Glyphosate is also used by Cheltenham Borough Homes to control vegetation on hard standing areas, and garage forecourts on three occasions per year. 

Trialling of alternative approaches and proposed management

The council began trialling alternative approaches to weed spraying in spring 2020. Trials of alternative methods of vegetation control were undertaken in order to assess their effectiveness and suitability in Cheltenham. In 2020, as a result of Covid-19, the council did not commence with glyphosate herbicide applications to highways and significantly reduced the amount applied to Cheltenham Borough Homes land and continued with minimal amounts applied to its own parks and green spaces. Money normally spent on herbicide treatment was instead used to undertake manual removal, strimming and hoeing. This approach demonstrated that significant resource is required for manual weed removal and a combination of one weed spray and manual weed removal is necessary to keep weeds to an acceptable level for the public. Set out below is a summary of the alternative approaches or combination of approaches that were trialled and an update on where we are following COVID-19:

  • Intensive cleaning operations in the town centre, and other outerlying retail areas (Sixways, Coronation Square etc) involving hoeing, sweeping and power washing which are already considered to be an effective control of unwanted vegetation in the highway and therefore ceasing of herbicide applications in these areas would make little difference. Update: Reduced footfall, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lock down, made this more challenging as outlined above and this took more resource than anticipated.
  • Strimming around obstacles in highway grass verges was undertaken once in the summer and again in the Autumn.
    • Update: This was only undertaken where there was a prioritised need for safety reasons due to limited resources as a result of COVID-19.
  • Weed removal on roads, pavements and alleyways will be undertaken once per annum where resources allow; but only if it is safe to do so and does not cause damage to adjacent property. The council will continue with its programme of gutter sweeping to remove detritus and material that promotes the germination of seeds.
    • Update: Strimming is not possible in most of these locations due to the safety concerns around stones flying up during the strimming process however alternative equipment has been purchased by Ubico, in the form of mechanical weed rippers, to overcome these issues, and is currently being rolled out. Early indications demonstrate that the machine is reasonably effective, but the operation is undertaken at a much slower rate and other methods are being considered.
  • A reactive option was trialled whereby problem areas were targeted with a mixture of the following treatments: strimming, hoeing, and brushing. In severe cases it was necessary to spot treat with glyphosate herbicide. Examples of this was where visibility splays on highway junctions needed to be maintained, or where vegetation infestations in the hard surfaces could not practically be carried out by manual means and where the vegetation was likely to cause or speed up the deterioration of a road or foot way surface.
  • Glyphosate herbicides were still used to control invasive/notifiable weed species (i.e. Japanese knot weed) and woody perennials such as tree and shrub stumps.

It should be highlighted that other authorities who have adopted alternative approaches to weed control rather than using glyphosate herbicides, such as Brighton, have required additional budget to deliver more environmentally friendly manual approaches although we are endeavouring to deliver alternative approaches within existing resources at present.

Affects of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

Due to COVID-19 and the availability of resources or ability to source and trial demonstration equipment within the lock down period, Ubico were unable to progress the use of alternative approaches as much as originally hoped.

The very dry spring in 2020 helped naturally control weed growth in the early part of the year but the changing weather conditions from late June and early July resulted in weed growth which needed to be addressed within available resources, minimising the use of glyphosate. The reduced footfall in some areas of the town during lock down resulted in more weed growth than usual because footfall prevents germination and this was not the case in 2020, particularly in the town centre and other outlying retail outlets which made the challenge greater than usual. 

Ubico addressed the weed growth in the town centre by using manual methods of removal combined with the use of the jet wash equipment which was fairly successful and would have been more so if jet wash resources hadn't been reduced due to the impact of COVID-19.

Across the rest of the town the biggest issues were weeds growing at the back of pavements or in highway road gullies which ordinarily would have been controlled by two applications of glyphosate herbicide. Ubico trialled the use of weed removal equipment in targeted high profile areas during the year to assess the impact of this approach, within existing budgets. It was necessary in some areas to consider the use of glyphosate herbicide, but this was only be applied where absolutely necessary.

Conclusions from trialling alternative approaches

Early signs indicate there is no direct chemical replacement for glyphosate and alternative treatments such as hot foams, acid, electricity and flame throwers are far less efficient in terms of material cost and labour involved applying them. There is no single method that is likely to replace the use of glyphosate in controlling weeds. Our future approach to vegetation management will incorporate a mixture of manual clearance, more expensive alternative treatments (used on a smaller scale where manual ones are not possible) and in some circumstances not to treat the vegetation at all. 

The approach moving forward

We have made a commitment to reduce the amount of weed spraying by at least half to protect the insects and bees and support our environment, and that is just what we're doing. From the trials that were conducted we have concluded to complete a yearly one-off weed spray targeting areas across the town starting in the early Spring.

The process is to remove unwanted weed growth that may inhibit drainage channels or create trip hazards for the public. The process involves clearing weeds from hard landscape areas, foot ways and around the base of non-living obstacles, such as lighting columns, signage, and street furniture. The weed spraying also targets highways and council owned car parks.

The operator holds an appropriate NPTC certificate of competence and will have calibrated application equipment. The nozzle selection will take into account the volume of application and other product label recommendations to avoid drift and excessive application. Before starting application, the operator will check that the weather is suitable; members of the public are not going to be put at risk and due regard has been taken of nearby watercourses, drains, other environmental factors and neighbouring properties.

We still continue each year to try to find the most environmentally friendly method in the aim of moving away from the use of glyphosate herbicide spraying altogether.

Managing expectations 

Untreated vegetation is traditionally regarded as untidy and a sign of poor maintenance and until we all understand the value of biodiversity and the role weeds and wild flowers play in the environment, the council will need to help the public understand its value and our approach to weed control. TV presenters like Jimmy Doherty and his TV programme saving the bees helps us understand the need to review our traditional approach to grounds maintenance.

A programme of works will be published on the website, and updated regularly, identifying where weed removal will take place and how we will do it within available resources. 

Trials of alternatives to glyphosate herbicide sprays have taken place since 2020 including flame throwers, acid, hot foam, electricity and weed rippers however all but the weed rippers were less effective than hoped. We are asking the public to please bear with us as we move around the town removing the weeds. Small weeds can be removed more easily than the larger weeds, some of which may well need to wait until they can be sprayed in the early spring during the one annual weed spray. 

The public are encouraged to get involved in more wild flower planting on private land to provide bee corridors and even leaving some weeds for insects.

You can download a PDF version of the policy which is appendix a of the environmental services policy updated October 2020.