Anti-pesticide campaigners’ cautious welcome to Council response

Cambridge Liberal Democrats and Pesticide-Free Cambridge welcome moves towards making City pesticide-free, despite removal of key deadlines from council motion by Labour group.

Liberal Democrat Cambridge City Councillors Katie Porrer and Cheney Payne welcomed the unanimous approval for their motion asking to stop herbicide use on the city’s streets, verges and paths, as agreed at the city council meeting on Thursday 22nd July. However, they highlighted major concerns that the amendment put forward and agreed by the ruling Labour group removed any clear commitments to a deadline to achieve this, and did not support the trial stoppage in two wards in the city, despite support for this from local Liberal Democrat and Green councillors in Newnham and Abbey wards.

Cllr Katie Porrer, Liberal Democrat councillor for Market ward and Spokesperson for Open Spaces, commented: “We voted unanimously to declare a biodiversity emergency in 2019, but since then there has been no change in the use of herbicides on streets, verges and paths across the city by the Labour council. Residents are distressed to find evidence of this on their own doorsteps, and as it takes several days for the plants to die, many of us have been letting our children and pets play freely in these areas, unaware that these horrible chemicals are present.

"Our motion asked for two wards to become herbicide free immediately and for alternative means, agreed in conjunction with local campaigning group Pesticide-Free Cambridge, to be used to clear the plant life. The evidence from these trials would then allow the city to move to all wards being herbicide free for day to day use by the end of 2022. It also required the council to publish (online initially) the details of plans for spraying each area so that residents could find out about this in advance and plan to avoid these areas. It also asked for officers to work with local groups who wanted to organise their own weed removal to avoid the use of herbicides.”

"However, the amended motion removed the firm time-based commitments to an immediate trial and to end usage by 2022, and instead agreed to explore and assess these options. It also routed reports on herbicide use to Area Committees rather than to the city-wide Environment and Community Scrutiny Committee."

Councillor Cheney Payne, the Liberal Democrat ward councillor for Castle and Spokesperson for Environment and Communities added: “This motion has been watered down by the ruling group and whilst it’s a vast improvement on doing nothing, this is something that we could have started immediately if the council wanted to.

"We are really disappointed that the commitment to clear dates was taken out despite it being over two years since the council declared a biodiversity emergency, and that it will now avoid any kind of scrutiny and critical assessment by only going to Area Committees rather than also to the Environment and Community Scrutiny committee. This was an evidence based and manageable way forward, put together with Pesticide-Free Cambridge campaigners, which would leave our city healthier and safer for all our residents.

"We urge the Executive Councillor to take forward the actions from this motion urgently – that is what an emergency means!”

Julia Shaw and Ben Greig of Pesticide-Free Cambridge commented: “We are delighted that the motion has been passed, although Labour’s amendments have removed much of the clarity and force of the original proposal which is disappointing. For example, with regards the timeline for trialling alternatives and phasing out herbicides across the city, references to ‘commitment’ have been replaced by more vague terms such as ‘explore’ and ‘assess’ which raises the risk of further causes of delay, something that we have been highlighting over the last 14 months as a major contradiction to the Council’s 2019 declaration of a Biodiversity Emergency. Further, in the amended motion, the original proposal 'to commit to publishing the planned dates of herbicide treatments by road/ward for the remainder of 2021 and thereafter on the council’s website', is now preceded by the following qualification, 'to explore the most effective methods of communicating with residents (and any additional resource implications) about any necessary herbicide applications, which may include the following commitments.”

“However, even with these amendments, we are happy that in the passing of this motion we now have, in principal, a statement of intent from the Council to explore herbicide-free alternatives for weed control in two wards before the next spraying season of this year (Sept 2021), with the view to stopping all herbicide-use across the city by the end of 2022. This is the first time we've seen any date at all, having been asking for a timeline for over a year, and so this in itself is a major improvement on the previous stalemate. We will continue to work with all concerned to try to hold the Council to this position, and to ensure it implements its intention to prewarn residents about spraying schedules, and to put up appropriate signage. This is something we’ve been suggesting for years as a minimum step towards reducing residents’ direct exposure to toxic glyphosate during the 5-10 days that it takes for plant die-off to occur. Further, we hope that by raising public concern amongst residents who may have been previously unaware this was even going on, such measures may also help to bring forward the end-of-2022 target for eliminating herbicide-use across the city.”

“We are hugely thankful to Councillors Katie Porrer and Cheney Payne for having worked with us to propose the motion, and we look forward to exploring herbicide-free alternatives with the Council to see what works best for the as-yet-to-be-selected trial wards, in advance of the next spraying season in autumn of this year. As shown by case-studies from other towns that have successfully gone herbicide-free, it is unlikely that a single method will fit the needs of every ward. We agree, therefore, that trialling different alternatives is a sensible approach especially as we have been unable as yet to persuade the Council to commit to an immediate ban. This would have been the ideal route, as followed recently for example, in Bath, where an immediate switch to mechanical weeding has been implemented until such time as alternative measures can be trialled. However, we hope that a two-ward trial this year will allow for a rapid rollout of the most appropriate herbicide-free approaches over the whole city as early as possible next year.”

“Even with the removal of crucial terms such as ‘commitment’ from the original motion, the Council’s declared intention to end its use of herbicides by the end of 2022 is a hugely important step towards achieving our end goal which is to make the city completely pesticide free, including the use of herbicides and insecticides by other stakeholders such as the universities, businesses, schools and residents. As shown by the nearly-550-signatures on our petition, that also calls for the council to run public awareness building campaigns about the biodiversity and health dangers of pesticides, there is widespread support for removing these toxic substances not only from council-owned streets, pavements and open spaces, but from our homes and gardens too.”

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