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Edinburgh castle

Edinburgh: the new weed capital of Europe

Municipalities will struggle to control weeds without glyphosate, as alternative methods are more cost- and time-intensive

With its iconic castle, Princes Street Gardens and Holyrood Palace, the city centre is one of the most beautiful in the UK. But recent visitors to the city might have noticed it looking a little shabby in patches.

Weeds are growing in parts of Edinburgh like never before. So much so, residents are compelled to tackle the growth on the pavements and kerbsides.

Last year, Edinburgh was one of three councils in the UK – alongside Brighton and Hove and Hammersmith and Fulham – to reduce the use of glyphosate-based herbicide. This was in reaction to scientifically debunked scares about the safety of weedkillers to humans and animals.


Residents take action

Murray Ogilvie, co-manager of the Elder York Guest House, is among those to tackle nearby weeds. He has urged his neighbours to do the same.

“Edinburgh relies heavily on tourism, and trades on its history and beauty,” he said. “You can’t look up at the beautiful architecture if you’re stumbling over weeds.

“For me, it’s not so much a debate between herbicides or other forms of treatment, it’s simply about keeping the city beautiful, but I’m far from convinced that glyphosate poses any health risks.”

Property developer Paul Millan, 50, who specialises in restoring buildings in Edinburgh’s New Town, agrees. “When I take on a project in the New Town, I’m bound by the responsibility that comes with the privilege of being allowed to work in a World Heritage site,” he said.

“I can’t take any liberties even with the interior of those properties, so I don’t think we should allow the exterior to deteriorate. How the New Town looks to visitors is vitally important to the standing that Edinburgh has around the UK and beyond.”

Cab driver Ronald Mill has lived in Leith all his life. Once the poor relation within the capital, the last two decades have seen the area revitalised with many of the city’s best hotels and restaurants choosing a Leith base.

But while the area has definitely gone upmarket, Mill says the pavements now look neglected. “I’ve noticed the growth and so have the neighbours. We knew there were budget cuts in real terms and just assumed it must be to do with that. We didn’t realise the council had reduced the use of weedkiller.”

“Edinburgh relies heavily on tourism and trades on its history and its beauty. You can’t look up at the beautiful architecture if you’re stumbling over weeds.”

Murray Ogilvie, co-manager
Elder York Guest House

Edinburgh Council’s response

Edinburgh is cutting £443,000 from its parks budget between 2016 and 2020 and £1.15 million from waste services, which includes street cleaning.

The council’s response was to restructure services, blaming the upsurge in weeds on the weather rather than reducing herbicide use.

David Jamieson, parks and green space manager, says: “Last year, we began an investigation of alternatives. This includes thermal treatment, alternative chemicals and the use of mechanical tools.”

The council declined an interview request of any of its staff on the ground, now charged with the upkeep of all green spaces, including pavements.



Wider concerns about a glyphosate ban

Park manager Jamieson acknowledges that alternative ways of managing weed infestation can have negative environmental effects. In particular, any treatment that involves the use of machinery would cost more and leave a greater carbon footprint.

Jamieson, already coping with financial cuts, would have to find funds for labour and machinery which could mean council tax increases.

Alternatives to glyphosate have proved unpopular with the public when trialled by Bristol council.

Edinburgh’s residents have always been proud of their green spaces; but they prefer their pavements not to be sprouting. The city is facing up to a real challenge.