What happened when the Nevill went glyphosate-free

On the Nevill Estate in Lewes, residents have opted out from the controversial pesticide glyphosate being sprayed on pavements and gutters by the county council. Instead, they’re taking on the task of weeding the estate themselves, as Nevill resident Ann Link reports.

The dangers of glyphosate

Glyphosate is a weedkiller often known as RoundUp, which is used to clear pavements of weeds, as well as being used on farm crops. There has long been concern about health and environmental impacts.

Glyphosate works by entering the plant and killing it from leaves to roots. It has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, birth defects and behavioural problems in children. In 2015 the cancer agency of the World Health organisation concluded that it was “probably carcenogenic” to humans. In 2018, a jury in the USA ruled that RoundUp was liable for a man’s terminal cancer. There are a further 11,000 similar cases pending in the USA alone. The greatest risk is likely to be to workers. The GMB union which represents people such as parks staff and gardeners is campaigning for an immediate ban on glyphosate and calls it a severe health risk to the general public.

As well as health impacts, glyphosate and its surfactants (substances that help it disperse and be absorbed by plants) have been shown to have negative effects on wildlife, including insects (especially bumblebees), earthworms, fish and amphibians. There is also evidence that they can harm pets. (All information from https://www.pan-uk.org/make-my-town-pesticide-free/ )

Glyphosate use in Lewes

There are initiatives all over the country for towns to become pesticide-free. In Lewes, the District Council does not use pesticides on the areas it is responsible for, but roads and pavements are dealt with by ESCC Highways. They generally spray once a year in July, and don’t remove the dead plants, so that they look unsightly on pavements. This does not prevent the weeds growing but is a minimal action cheaper than other options such as weeding.

In 2021 ESCC rejected a motion calling for a ban on the use of glyphosate and other toxic herbicides on its land, citing the lack of economically-viable alternatives.

The Glyphosate-Free Streets campaign

Two ESCC councillors, Wendy Maples and Johnny Denis, therefore invited streets across Lewes and Ringmer to explore alternatives by volunteering to be ‘glyphosate free’. Streets signing up for the trial would not be sprayed with glyphosate on the verge, pavement or gutter. But they would need to be maintained (weeded) by the residents of that street, using non-herbicide (manual weeding) techniques.

ESCC gave the following conditions:

  • 75% of the residents of the street must agree to the glyphosate ‘opt-out’. (This was later reduced to 60%)
  • ONE resident must take the lead for training from ESCC in Weeding Health and Safety.
  • The street must have pavements, and must not be a major thoroughfare.
  • The area must be kept weed-free to a good standard (as determined by ESCC/Highways)

In 2022, seven streets became glyphosate-free, and one of these was South Way, on the Nevill estate, where Nick Tigg, a Town councillor, was living at the time. The bureaucracy was a bit tedious, but residents got involved, and it brought people together.

Taking action on the Nevill

Photo: Nick Tigg

So the ambition was born to rid the whole estate of pesticide spraying in 2024. Nick started to bring people together from the summer of 2023. After a discussion on our community WhatsApp in August, he set up a new group called The Weeding Planners! There were representatives from most roads on Nevill.

In December, the council were due to meet to decide whether to continue and extend the glyphosate opt-out scheme, and so residents were urged to write to Councillor Claire Dowling, the lead councillor, showing their support – lots of us did, and it was decided officially that the scheme should continue.

Early in the new year, there was a lot of activity on WhatsApp trying to recruit enough people for each road. In February we met in someone’s house with tea and biscuits and discussed how to proceed. Then and in later discussions we decided the aim was to clear pavements to enable easy passage for pushchairs and wheelchairs and to generally look tidy but not completely barren. Hedges were not our job, but we could report really overgrown ones, or offer to help.

The next stage was to survey residents – we did this by going door-to-door with a form and a cribsheet of facts about glyphosate. We tried to reach everyone, and called back if they were out. Amazingly, 95% of the people we reached (which was most people) agreed with the scheme. The sign-up process itself produced more volunteers, many of whom joined the WhatsApp group.

Some roads needed more reps and helpers, and there were bureaucratic ESCC forms to fill in. A great load of this fell on Nick, who was endlessly patient and cheerful. Road reps had to view a PowerPoint about risk assessment and get their helpers to sign a form.

The first weeding

In April of this year, despite the weather being cold, the first weeders went out. We took hoes and trowels, a bucket to put them in, a yard brush for clearing up, and another container for the weeds. We took these for home composting or the green waste collection. We wore hi-vis jackets supplied by the council, and gloves. The hi-vis seems a bit over the top, but it does get us noticed – and thanked! One group was thanked by wheelchair users for clearing the grass on a corner. Generally there is a line of weeds between kerbstone and pavement, and another against the wall of the adjacent garden. Many residents do their own anyway. We didn’t tackle verges – these are mown by the council – and were not supposed to do the gutters because of danger from traffic. We tried not to block the drains and worsen another problem on the Nevill! For anyone not too tired, there was home-made flapjack on the Green.

Keeping it up

Photo: Reanna

In group discussion, usually online, we agreed to do “light touch” weeding, leaving some plants that were in flower. We would weed every few weeks in spring and summer. In South Way in 2023, the weeders found that the job seemed to get easier as the months went by. Also, people see you weeding and at least clear the stretch in front of their house.

Nick suggested that we have the morning of the late May bank holiday for a big weed all over Nevill, followed by tea and cake on the Green at midday. This was publicised widely with leaflets and online. Most road teams got a lot of work done, with some working on other days to finish off. We shared photos of the result.

People have been contacting Nick from other areas such as Malling asking about how to go glyphosate-free – maybe it will be the whole of Lewes next year?

On the Nevill estate we now have a network of people who know each other better and the knowledge that we are pioneers in getting rid of a nasty pesticide.