Cllr Jon Burke (with loudhailer) addresses Young Rebels during a protest last year against the use of glyphosate. Photograph: Hackney Citizen

News that the Town Hall is to stop spraying the controversial weedkiller glyphosate on council estates from next year has sparked celebration amongst Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaigners.

A group of around 100 children and parents staged a die-in at the Town Hall to protest the use of the chemical in the borough in May last year under the banner of ‘No Insects, No Future’, referencing the impact that spraying can have on biodiversity.

Glyphosate, commonly known as RoundUp, has a harmful effect on ecosystems and pollinators through removing the plants on which they depend, as well as being linked to having a negative impact on human health, though government guidance does not prohibit its use.

The council’s pilot programme will see the use of glyphosate on shrub beds, rosebeds and hedges on estates stopped for the whole of 2021, with additional wildflower meadows to be planted to let green spaces flourish without herbicides, and leaves and tree mulch to be used to suppress weeds.

Lara Bowen of XR Hackney Families, who helped to organise the protest, said: “My children are so happy that their actions led to change. When someone in power credits peaceful protest with a shift in policy, it is a reminder to us all that grassroots action is making a difference.”

Sarah Bentley, a member of the Hackney Pesticide Free campaign and local mother, added:  “I hope this news empowers children and families and gives hope for local action work. Toxic pesticides have no place in our environment and we must do everything we can to limit our childrens’ exposure to them.”

Town Hall public realm boss Cllr Jon Burke has praised XR for their action, predicting that the protest, in which young Extinction Rebels dressed up as bees, butterflies and hazmat-suited weed-sprayers, will have “inspired a generation of young people who will go on to become the leaders of tomorrow – all of whom will need to be climate leaders”.

XR has now called for the controversial chemical, the use of which has been reduced by the Town Hall by 50 per cent since 2017, to be banned throughout the borough entirely.

Four fifths of glyphosate use in the borough has now been eliminated in around two years, according to Burke.

Glyphosate has sparked health concerns globally, with court cases last year resulting in biotech corporation Monsanto having to pay billions in damages after rulings found that Roundup caused cancer in people who were exposed to it.

The chemical is also linked to the decline in populations of bees in recent decades, with public realm chief Cllr Jon Burke aiming for the Town Hall to stop spraying the chemical entirely apart from to deal with Japanese knotweed and hogweed, as part of a wider plan to tackle the biodiversity crisis and rewild the borough’s streets.

According to Burke, the next step of the year-long suspension of spraying on estates will be for council officers to observe and monitor the impact of the decision, along with those made to eliminate spraying in the original Daubeney Fields pilot area, the no spray zone in Kings Park ward.

The administration is hoping to go into the next election with “an evidence-led commitment to the expansion of no spray zones to many more if not all wards”.

In an interview with the Citizen, Burke sketched out a vision whereby weeds will be allowed to grow on the borough’s streets to attempt to encourage a ‘trophic cascade’ of wildlife, or in other words by allowing certain plants to grow where they would otherwise have been suppressed, allowing insects and the birds that live on them to flourish.

Burke called on the public to have “zero tolerance for plastic and litter and a high degree of tolerance for flora and fauna”, pledging that the borough intends to continue cleansing the streets while allowing plants to grow as well, aiming to send a message that the administration will “radically interpret how the public realm has looked for 100 years”.

He added: “We have some interesting and suggestive evidence around the benefits to biodiversity of effectively rewilding our streets. There is no real major public blowback about this. Not a single email has come into my inbox from the residents of the Daubeney Fields area complaining about weeds in the public realm.

“We are radically transforming the public realm, and we have demonstrated that at best there is a public appetite to see us do this, and at worst an ambivalence on the part of most people about plants and weeds growing in the public realm.

“If any weeds or plants start to grow in the middle of the pavement and potentially prove an obstruction, we’ll just remove them by hand, and if a resident wants to remove weeds from the front of their wall because they think they’re unsightly, then they are most welcome to do so.

“An entire operation dedicated to spraying these plants off the streets has a massive sterilising effect on biodiversity. We now have 200 green spaces on estates which will be exempted, and we have expanded the no-spray zone to the whole of Kings Park ward.

“This will set the standard about how we manage the public realm in the decades to come. We need to be weaponising every opportunity that we have to stave off the biodiversity crisis that we are in the midst of, and our many kilometres of roads provide opportunities to do that.

“We should expect to see more activity from birds that predate on insects such as swifts. I expect in the fullness of time when there is an area where there is no spraying going on, I’d expect it to have a cascading effect on the foodchain. We will see a kind of environmental and social trophic cascade arising from the creation of a more humanised public realm through things like the non-removal of weeds.”

Read award-winning community gardener Kate Poland’s columns for the Citizen for more on the benefits of weeds and the impact of pesticides

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