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Statement on Council’s “do nothing” weed trial in Cotham

The PSBA calls on Bristol City Council to urgently rethink the design of its weed control trial in Cotham. The trial has been presented as a study of how well alternatives to the controversial glyphosate perform in Bristol.

However, rather than testing genuine alternatives to harmful chemicals, the Council mainly intends to stop performing weed control altogether in most of the ward. This ‘do nothing’ approach comes nowhere close to best practice in non-toxic weed control achieved by other cities, and is simply unacceptable to our members and most likely to Cotham residents too.

Under a year-long experiment (starting 1 March 2016), the majority of land managed by the Council and its contractors will not be subject to any weed control. Weeds on the remainder will be sprayed with vinegar or removed by hand. There are no plans to try out modern, commercially proven technologies for safe weed control as adopted in other cities.

The Cotham trial was announced in response to health concerns over the spraying of glyphosates in the city’s parks, play areas and streets. PSBA members oppose the routine use of all hazardous pesticides in public spaces, and want Bristol to join other sustainably-minded cities in phasing them out.

Unfortunately, the Cotham experiment is a step in the wrong direction, taking us no closer to a workable solution that can be rolled out city-wide. Eliminating glyphosate does not mean substituting problematic alternatives like vinegar, let alone stopping weed control altogether. It means the trial of credible technologies such as steam, foam and mechanical removal. None of these are included in the Cotham proposal.

We are particularly concerned by plans to let weeds grow on the street surface, arguably the area in greatest need of weed control. Public opinion may well tolerate more weeds in parks and playgrounds, especially when the health risks of herbicide use are explained. But leaving weeds to grow through hard surfaces is not a responsible course of action and will probably lead to complaints and repair costs, as the Council itself anticipates.

We note that responsibility for the trial falls heavily upon the Council’s parks team. We would like to see greater involvement from other stakeholders, in particular Bristol Waste Company, which manages pavements and roads – areas that account for higher volumes of glyphosate use than parks.

We are also concerned by the implication that contractors hired by Bristol Waste Company and Bristol City Council to spray glyphosate will simply down tools in Cotham, while continuing to profit from these contracts (worth an estimated £160,000 per year city-wide). The Council should ask its contractors to join the trial by using alternatives.

We call on the Council to come up with a more robust process that helps rather than hinders the goal of Bristol becoming a pesticide-free city.

In outline, here is what such a process looks like:

  • Scope out alternatives – map the land base to identify priority areas for weed control, then match these to appropriate treatment options
  • Set a budget – glyphosate is cheap and effective. Alternatives will cost more, and political will is needed to prioritise this aspect of protecting public health
  • Phased withdrawal of herbicide use – continue with existing methods of weed control as alternatives are rolled out
  • Skills audit – if staff or contractors lack expertise in non-glyphosate weed control, seek external input in the form of training and/or an expert advisory committee
  • Stakeholder engagement – vital to start dialogue with all stakeholders early on, including all relevant Council departments and contractors
  • Communications – promote the trial objectives to local residents and manage expectations, again this needs to happen early on
  • Monitoring and evaluation – a robust framework with open data