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Weed Control Change

Weed Control ChangeThis is an unusual two-part article.

It begins with a report we wrote (but didn't publish) at the time we attended a Fylde Council's Operational Management Committee on 31 May 2016.

That meeting considered and agreed a change in the way weed control is effected on highways in Fylde.

The second part is an update which, sadly, shows our predictions from that meeting materialising today. The article then goes on to look at what's likely to happen for the future.

SYNOPSIS

We begin with a prelude about how important street sweeping and weed control on highways are to Fylde's residents, and about our own experience of the best way to control weeds. This is followed by a summarised text of a change in weed control methodology that Fylde was about to consider.

We then look at What Happened at the Committee - initially via the Officer's Report and Costings, then What Happened in the Debate and Questions at Committee, before looking What has Happened Since then, including Fylde's Press Release in June 2017, and the special Weeding Update Page on Fylde's Website.

Public complaints were still growing (like the weeds), and in July, Fylde Issued Another Press Release.

We then provide Our Own Analysis of What's Happening, before going on to speculate about What's Probably Going to Happen in the Future.

 PRELUDE

A change in the way that Fylde undertakes weed control on highways was proposed to Fylde's Operational Management Committee of 31 May 2016.

It proposed abandonment of weedspraying on the highway, and its replacement with mechanical methods of weed control.

This was sold to the Committee on environmental grounds and some councillors (who in our view ought to know better) spoke very supportively of the plan.

As we often heard a former Fylde Treasurer - probably the most capable Finance officer Fylde has ever had - say:

"There are three things that concern Fylde's residents:

  • clean and tidy streets.  [which are not as good as they used to be];
  • getting the bins emptied properly and effectively.  [which is now probably better than it ever was - and it was always a good service]; and,
  • pretty flowers everywhere." [which had slipped in recent years, but is now slowly making a good return]."

His view was that if you get those right, it mostly doesn't matter what else you do.

We agreed with him, as does the unfailingly powerful (and wholly exceptional) demography of Fylde - and in particular the demographics of the coastal resorts where most Fylde people live.

It follows that, although in terms of cost, the matter is quite minimal in relation to Fylde's overall budget. But in terms of its importance to the satisfaction of residents (and visitors), removing weeds from the gutters, roads and pavements is actually one of the most important jobs that Fylde performs.

Without any shadow of a doubt, the most efficient and cost-effective method of weed control is chemical spraying, ideally using low volume sprays where that is possible. Typically these use battery powered electrical wands delivering low volumes of weedkiller on a very targeted basis. The system allows highly manoeuvrable and easily mobile quadbike type vehicles that are able to get into tight spaces, to cover very large areas within a day. They are therefore very cost effective.

Using spraying, it is possible to use treatments that kill unwanted plants systemically, thus eradicating underground storage organs like taproots (dandelion, couch grass etc) which would otherwise cause re-growth to arise. It is also possible to use persistent, residual, ground-based treatments that prevent seed germination and the subsequent seedling weeds arising in the first place.

But the environmental lobby has been applying steady and constant pressure against spraying over years This has caused a significant shift in public opinion against the use of chemical weed control.

Whilst we recognise this is an increasingly-held public view, it is not a view we support.

We can see something of a case for limiting the use *pesticides* (i.e. sprays that kill animate life such as insect pests) where possible. But we see no case to restrict or avoid the use of herbicides (weedkillers) that kill inanimate plant life.

Avoiding the use of weedkillers is the horticultural equivalent of the medical profession recommending the use of amputation - rather than antibiotics - to cure infections.

But - and we hope readers will pardon the reverse extension of this conflation - FBC has just swallowed the anti-spraying pill.

Fylde actually undertake the highways work on behalf of LCC, but the County Council is cutting its budgets, and it has said it wasn't going to pay Fylde as much in future. So a gradual but persistent reduction has been applied to what FBC received over recent times.

Fylde has effectively 'topped this up' with money from the Borough Council (as opposed to the County Council) precept. (i.e. from taxation derived from Fylde, as opposed to Lancashire, taxpayers). But it now stands at a reduction of about 35% on what Fylde use to get. So in effect, to get a better standard of highway cleaning and weed control than the County Council alone would be prepared to provide, Fylde is subsidising the cost of the better service by about 35% at present.

Fylde recently asked the County Council to change their mind about the cuts, but the worm was not for turning

So, in an effort to reduce Fylde's cost closer to what they get paid, and advised by their officers, the Operational Management Committee was asked to abandon chemical weed control treatment.

Instead they will use the money they were going to spend this year on weed spraying this year to fund the interest and repayments on a loan to buy some mechanical weed-removal machines - (like streetsweeper machines but with 'wire brushes' to scratch out the weeds).

The officer's report says;

 "The Nilfisk City Ranger is a compact ride-on sweeping machine with a wide range of versatile attachments including a weed ripping brush. The weed brush efficiently removes weeds from streets and paved areas and prevents new seedlings from germinating. It is extremely manoeuvrable and hydraulically adjustable in all directions, allows the driver to vary the brush ground pressure and target specific areas. Working repeatedly with the weed brush will prevent the establishment of seedlings without using pesticides."

We can confidently predict this move is going to be a disaster.

It won't work. (Not least because it is not possible to wirebrush away the underground food storage organs of perennial plants like dandelions, docks and thistles and many stoloniferous grasses).

It is also going to be *a lot* slower to undertake than a spray (which can be delivered at the pace of a moving quadbike) or even normal streetsweeping. This will mean Fylde will either need a more machines and operators than are presently envisaged, or there will be tracts of wilderness appearing in the gutters before the operators can get around to them.

What the 'wire brushing' will do however, especially on macadam and non-stone surfaces, is to wear away the tarmac at a much faster rate than any other form of abrasion that the weather or traffic can bring to bear on it.

This will result in two things.

Firstly, it will make the weedkilling more difficult in future years - as existing cracks and gaps between tarmac its edging kerbs or walls are scratched-out and opened up and fill with detritus - creating a pre-soil growing medium for the following years. And secondly, the tarmac will need to be resurfaced much more often that it would otherwise require.

In the longer term, that's going to cost a lot more (but of course LCC are the highway authority so they will be funding that).

Either that, or they may end the agreement that FBC agree currently have for weed control in this area.

The purchase method (using what would have been spent on spraying to pay the interest and loan capital costs of acquiring the machines) is also a bit suspect because if, as we expect, it doesn't work out, the bridges have been burned and the spraying money will still be needed but it won't be there.

If we're wrong in our predictions, we'll be happy to hold our hands up and say so in counterbalance, but given the weeds we can see in the gutter outside counterbalance towers as we write (June 2016), we suspect the change to mechanical removal is not going to be an unmitigated success.

 WHAT HAPPENED AT THE COMMITTEE?

 The Officer Report

The report's summary said

'This report details a proposal to consider the introduction of an in-house borough wide weed treatment process using mechanical removal as an alternative to chemical spraying. This is in response to LCC’s reduction in public realm payments and challenges in maintaining the current standards of service delivery.'

So it's pretty clear. The future plan would NOT include any spraying. It would ONLY use mechanical removal.

And it recommended:

'The Operational Management Committee is requested to consider and recommend to the Finance & Democracy Committee the approval of a fully funded capital budget increase for Vehicle Purchases of £57,000 in 2016/17, fully funded from various Revenue Budget Virements from 2016/17 and future years as detailed within the report and to authorise the expenditure for the purchase of two Nilfisk City Ranger ride on sweepers with weed ripper attachments to carry out the removal of weeds across Fylde.'

There are a few little gems we picked up in the detail of the report

'In order to sustain service standards and meet the expectation of Fylde customers unfunded revenue budget increases were included in budget proposals for weed control to cover the shortfall in recent years. Even with budget increases, rising labour cost, and chemicals and equipment prices have resulted in the need to consider changes in service delivery i.e. a reduction in weed spraying from 3 sprays to 2 sprays per annum.'

For the uninitiated, this means our costs are going up and the money we get from LCC is going down, so we don't have enough money.

An 'unfunded budget increase' involves spending money that you don't have. (You increase the budget you can spend without having the money to pay for it and you hope that you'll be able to find it somewhere later in the year). But even with that financial slight of hand, Fylde said it would still have to reduce the spraying it had been doing from 3 a year to 2 sprays a year.

'As part of the approved capital fleet replacement programme, the handheld pavement sweepers (Green Machines) are scheduled for replacement. Fylde officers have investigated and experimented with different types of equipment and machinery over recent months to find a solution that will meet the cleansing requirements while providing options for weed control.'

This means Fylde had expected to spend about £44,000 replacing three street-sweeping machines in 2016/17, but instead of doing this, the officers wanted to buy just two of the pedestrian operated replacement Greens vehicles at about £28,000, and to also buy two of the Nilfisk City Ranger ride-on machines at £36,000 each.

So they had a budget for £44,000, but they had changed their mind, and wanted a budget of over £100,000 altogether.

This meant there was a 'shortfall' in their capital budget for the year of £57,000, and they wanted to use money from somewhere else in their budgets (technically called a virement).

The Finance Officer's comments to the Committee explained it thus:

'The Operational Management Committee is requested to consider and recommend to the Finance & Democracy Committee the approval of a fully funded capital budget increase for Vehicle Purchases of £57,000 in 2016/17 fully funded from various Revenue Budget Virements from 2016/17 and future years detailed within the report, and to authorise the expenditure.

The proposal in the report essentially involves using existing revenue budgets allocated for weed spraying costs to pay the revenue cost of borrowing to purchase additional vehicles for nonchemical weed removal.'

The last bit says it all really.

In 2016/17, Fylde received £31,875 a year from LCC to keep the streets clean and substantially weed free.

That was made up of a spraying contract of £30,000 to deliver 3 sprays a year, plus £11,773 in loan and interest repayments for the three replacement pedestrian sweepers, and £300 a year in machine maintenance costs.

That left Fylde picking up the difference (i.e. between its costs to deliver the service and what LCC paid them) of £10,198 a year.

What they now planned was just one spraying of £10,000 from April 2016 to March 2017. But they would also have a much increased loan and interest repayment cost of £16,026 a year (because they had to borrow over £100,000 rather the planned £44,000 for the equipment) and that was to be £16,026 in the first (part) year, and about £34,000 a year thereafter.

In addition, the new service had greater running costs of £4,500 in the first (part) year and £7,500 a year thereafter.

Furthermore, LCC's reduction in what they paid Fylde to do the work as their agents was going down from £31,875 to £29,040.

So, if we ignore the transition year that ended on 31 March 2017, what you had here was an annual cost like this:

  ========= COST ========
ITEM OLD SYSTEM   NEW SYSTEM
Loan and interest repayments          £11,773   £33,940
Vehicle running costs £300   £7,500
Spraying Contract costs £30,000   £0

Sub total

£42,073   £41,440
Less income from LCC of : £31,875   £29,040

Fylde subsidy to LCC

£10,198   £12,400

 But there's another small sting in the tail of this story.

The new ride-on machines were only expected to last 3 years (rather than the 4 years the pedestrian sweepers were expected to last) so they would have to be replaced more often as well.

However - provided the new weeding system worked - an annual increase of just over a couple of thousand pounds a year didn't appear too bad.

As the finance officer properly and correctly stated, operational officers were planning to use what they had been spending on spraying to pay the increased loan and interest charges.

But, CRUCIALLY, this meant there was to be NO SPRAYING any more.

That meant the budget for it had been committed for the next four years (because the capital cost of the machinery was to be repaid over 3 or 4 years).

So if any spraying was needed from April 2017 to March 2021, it was going to cost Fylde's taxpayers extra money.

Readers can follow this link to download a copy of the officers full report on this matter.

 What Happened in the Debate?

The Officer introduced the report as above with not much else by way of additional information.

Cllr Sandra Pitman said

"I am delighted that there is a way of removing weeds without chemicals. The use of chemicals always did worry me. And if it's possible to do it without chemicals, great!

But two machines for the whole of Fylde? Are all parts of Fylde going to benefit from this? Or is it basically selected areas, because two machines might be very overworked given the amount of weeds that we've got"

The officer replied

"It will be a rolling 52 weeks a year programme, so unlike the current system that we have now where we carry the weedspraying out periodically, it will literally be - we will come up with - a programme of weedspraying along with the existing sweeping schedule, make sure that everywhere is covered, and it will be an ongoing process of going out, pulling out the weeds, using the sweepers to clear them up, and we will continue to do it, so it won't be a spot attack here or there, it will be ongoing."

We didn't exactly follow this answer because apart from one spraying in 2016 before they could get organised with the new machines, there was going to be no money for spraying in the future.

Cllr Pitman came back:

"That's good but there are a lot of areas that never see the removal of weeds at all. They just grow indiscriminately all year round. Is this going to be an extension of what we do now, or a pattern that you've used before?"

The Officer said

"It's not an extension, it's a replacement, so we will no longer do the full borough chemical treatments. We will always be able to do top-up treatments ourselves. We won't employ contractors to carry out the weedspraying any longer, so we'll be bringing it back in-house, using this equipment to pull out the weeds. And my understanding, and the information I've received from Rochdale is because it will be a sustained, continual process, ultimately you're preventing the seedlings from germinating. So over a period of time, we should see the reduction in the amount of weeds that need to be treated."

The 'top-up' treatments might explain her previous comment about what could be effectively spot-spraying of selected areas, but so far as we could see there was no budget provision for such spraying on the scale we thought would be needed when the WeedRipper machines became overwhelmed in the summer.

And a plan that expected to kill them off in the winter - when annual weeds had died back, and perennial weeds had retreated to below-ground storage organs - didn't exactly fill us with confidence either.

Cllr Pitman and the officer exchange continued:

"So could I see one of these machines up in Little Eccleston?"

"Yes, Yes"

"They will go out of St Annes and Lytham and out into the rural areas?"

"Yes, this is obviously the first stage in terms of our getting approval from the Committee - or recommendations from Committee to take to the Finance and Democracy Committee for approval ahead of hopefully purchasing the vehicles.

I've already had conversations with my operational management team in terms of what will be required from them in coming up with a programme of sustained weed management to make sure that we do stay on top of things. We are aware that there's a lot of work to be done, and schedules to be put into place at the depot to make sure that the borough is covered. I have four A to Z's of all of the streets and it will be a case of they will be listed and detailed and will be a rolling programme.

And unlike the current system with chemicals, we shouldn't be too badly hampered by the weather. At the moment, obviously, with rain they can't do the weedspraying and in windspeeds even on a lovely day like today, they've not been able to spray today because, as I said, it's too windy. later on in the week we're supposed to get a bit of rain, so it's very much hit and miss. And although we try to do the weedspraying over a two week period, in reality, it takes six or seven weeks, because they're waiting for the right weather conditions. Whereas with a mechanical weed ripping process, we wouldn't be subject to those weather conditions."

"Thank you. Sounds wonderful."

We have much less confidence than was on display here.

Dissecting the officer's answer, you could see this was an idea, not a plan. There had been no plan worked out as to how it would work in practice, that was all still to be discussed. They had not done calculations of how many streets and what the performance would be to be sure they were getting enough machines.

Experienced councillors should have spotted this as well, and been as nervous as we were about whether it would work or not. We'd probably have asked for more detail about scope and performance, but no one did.

We were also nervous because we know the machines will not eradicate perennial weeds, and because we know that several of the Town and Parish Council areas have their own separate agreement with Lancashire County Council for maintenance of highways within their Parish Areas.

So all in all we were much more sceptical about the idea.

Cllr Edward Nash was called to speak. He asked about versatility of the machinery and attachments. The officer said there was a sand clearing brush attachment that looked 'amazing' but additional attachments came at extra cost so Fylde would only be getting the weed ripping attachments initially.

Cllr Nash asked if the officer would publish the schedule of work so everyone would know when their street was going to be done. The officer was sure they could 'look at doing that once they had come up with a schedule that they knew would work' adding that they did currently publish the weedspraying treatments.

Cllr Richard Fradley wanted to know if the three existing pedestrian machines were going to be totally de-commissioned.

The reply was a bit evasive we thought.

"We're going to replace two of them, and two of them will be the Nilfisk City Ranger. One of the City Rangers is intended to..... currently we have a Greens machine and a labourer working 5 days a week in St Annes and a Greens Machine and a labourer working 5 days a week in Lytham. With the Nilfisk City Ranger we could - this is a drive on machine - we would be able to radically cut down the amount of time and the labour that's required to clean both areas. One man will be able to do both and will be in a position to travel further, and should be able to carry out some of the weed ripping operations in the two urban centres as well. And the other two greens machines will be used in the rural areas as they are now"

We're not sure that 'answer' even addressed his question, let alone answered it, but there you go.

The answer also put us in mind of the chap who was given loads of extra jobs and then given a brush to stick somewhere unmentionable so he could sweep up at the same time. But it wasn't really applicable in this case!

Cllr Peter Anthony wanted to know about weed seeds blowing in from gardens, and then, in a single spot of brightness amongst the depressing acceptance of what was being spoon fed to councillors, he asked

"Another point is if these are large established weeds, we're obviously not taking the roots out so, I mean, where a chemical would kill the root...."

The officer interrupted:

"The chemicals, they're very effective now, the chemicals that we can use. Glyphosate is the only amenity approved chemical, and certainly, we seem to be getting the weeds back in abundance year on year. All the chemical actually does now is kill the weed and turn it brown and shrivel. We're still left with unattractive vegetation, whereas with this facility, it will clear it all"

Oh Dear! If the spray is timed right, the weeds will not get big enough to be noticeable when they turn brown and shrivel. That only becomes notable when the interval between sprayings is too great. And as far as clearing it all is concerned, we're pretty much sure the proposed change will require even more frequent eradication that a proper spraying regime would require. So it was a good question from the councillor, that was sidestepped by an officer that appeared possessed of an intention to get what they wanted.

Cllr Anthony also wanted to know how a mechanical ripper could be used as an edging tool - (as herbicides are sometimes used in place of edging shears or half-moons) to limit sideways creep of grass areas. The officer said they contact the parks department and liaise with them about it.

Cllr Alan Clayton asked about the figures in the report. He noted the capital costs for the machinery, but didn't understand the large figures in the revenue spending headed 'Borrowing Costs.'

Cllr Clayton is relatively new to Fylde's accounting systems and can be excused for not knowing the intricate details.

Fylde needs two conditions to be met for a capital purchase that is to be funded by borrowing (as this purchase was).

The first is that the capital sum required must not put the Council over an overall borrowing limit - so it is necessary for the capital cost to be shown and known, and the Committee has to be made aware of whatever is being borrowed overall. In effect, to has to have PERMISSION to borrow the money.

The second is that because the purchase cost of the machines was being paid for by taking out a loan, the cost of both the asset being bought, and the value it would give, needs to be spread over the life of the asset. So the repayments of the loan principal and it's interest are charged to the revenue budget (think housekeeping money) of the service that is using it.

So Committee were being asked to seek permission for the borrowing, and being shown how much it would cost them to repay that borrowing.

We think Cllr Clayton might have been thinking they appeared to be being charged twice.

In actual fact, his was a really good question, and we're grateful for members like Cllr Clayton who do not let their lack of experience of what they are being asked to approve render them silent. He (quite rightly) wanted to have it explained to him what the figures set out in the report actually meant.

Sadly the answer was less than illuminating. The officer said

"My colleagues, my wonderful colleagues in finance have provided these figures for me, and my understanding is, because it's going to be offset against the £30,000 from weedspraying......"

This was followed by a long pause, punctuated by "erm's" and several false starts of "I think" and much shuffling of papers - all of which demonstrated that the operational officer had no real grasp of how the financing arrangements worked, and what the figures in their report actually represented.

If there was not to be a finance officer at the committee, the presenting officer really should not present a report they cannot answer questions upon.

An embarrassing silence prevailed.

Eventually it was broken by Cllr Mrs Buckley who was sitting in the Public Gallery and was asked by the Chairman if she could help. She said

".... my understanding is that the difference between the current position and the proposed position must mean that we are borrowing more money in order to purchase the vehicles. And the effect on the revenue position, which is that line which says it is the borrowing cost for vehicle purchases, (and it's got that line of £11,773 then if we turn over, it's got borrowing costs and it jumps up), that must be that the repayment costs, which is on the revenue, in order to pay back the capital for which we're borrowing to replace the vehicles....."

Well done, we thought.

We don't always agree with her, but we're happy to say that Cllr Mrs Buckley is nothing if not in charge of her brief.

She asked if the officer could confirm that, because it was the first time Cllr Buckley has seen the report.

We didn't hear an answer.

Cllr Mrs Buckley concluded

"We're going to borrow money for them to be purchased, and we're going to pay that back, which is the increased amount on revenue. And obviously it's being suggested that that offsets one from the other because we're not paying for the weedspraying. If that's the case the Committee needs to be cognisant that we are therefore increasing our borrowing, which is something that the Council has been seeking to reduce. And therefore it needs to be within your thinking as to whether that - if I am reading this right - is something that your committee Chairman, needs to consider, because I don't know on these figures what the effect is on the overall borrowing position. I don't know that. It might be insignificant, or insignificant in terms of what you're seeing as a benefit from it, but I don't know from just looking at these figures."

Cllr Eaves said  (rather adding to the uncertainty on this matter)

"Neither do I"

Cllr Clayton said it had been most helpful to hear from Cllr Buckley (whose intuition and judgement - we're happy to report - has guessed the position correctly).

He thought that would be sorted out at the Finance and Democracy meeting if the Committee decided operationally that they wanted to make the change to mechanical weed eradication.

The Chairman agreed and that's what they decided to do.

Cllr Clayton also said he supported Cllr Pitman's desire not to use chemicals.

The Chief Executive (no less) intervened to say that no report ever went to a Committee without it having gone to the Finance Team, and the costing had been produced by the accounts team, and they would be aware of the borrowing situation, so he was sure there would be a straightforward financial explanation for it. He added

"You can trust me, it wouldn't have got past Mr Swindles or Mr O'Donahue if there was any additional cost to the revenue budget...."

The Chairman concluded, saying:

"With regard to Item 6, are we mindful to accept the recommendation? Are we all in favour? I too think this is a way forward, because not only with regard to a new way to actually remove weeds with these mechanical sweepers and I'm, glad that we won't be using, or there's an opportunity not to be using, chemicals and that's a step forward, and quite clearly we can have something in place to keep this Borough in pristine condition. But I feel sure that Lancashire County Council will come back and attack us again."

And with that the item ended.

The changed financial arrangements were also approved at the subsequent Finance and Democracy Committee

And at the time, that was the end of that.

 WHAT HAPPENED SINCE?

We concluded our draft article with "We do, however, expect to return to this topic in the future."

So we're now updating that original draft.

We saw for ourselves the untidy state of gutters and footways that began to develop in Fylde from April 2017 onward, and we expected trouble.

 PRESS STATEMENT / NEWS RELEASE JUNE 2017

There must have been a lot of public complaints because on 15 June, Fylde was obliged to publish a notice on its website saying

"We are aware of some concerns from residents regarding weeds in the Borough.

We announced earlier this year that weed removal is now completed with a machine which looks like a tiny sweeper. Previously weeds were sprayed twice a year, which killed the weed turning it brown, but didn’t remove it. The new machine removes the weeds by pulling them out from the root. It is also hoped this will reduce future weed growth moving forward. The machine, known as a Nilfisk, pulls the weeds out and these are then subsequently swept up.

This process does take longer than the previous spraying of the weeds, but the benefits are longer term. What we have found upon using the machine is that some pavement surfaces such as flags and asphalt, require a little more attention or alternative treatment. In these areas we will be completing weeding manually or carrying out spot spray treatment with our teams.

This year the weather has been the perfect conditions and we have had exceptional weed growth. In order to tackle this and support the new method of working we have scheduled a supplementary spray of the weeds for the week commencing 17th July. Please note that this is weather permitting.

For updates on weed treatment in your area you can visit our weeding update page here which is updated regularly"

 FYLDE'S WEEDING UPDATE PAGE

The weeding update page says

"Fylde Borough Council carries out weed spraying on behalf of Lancashire County Council along the public highway in residential areas, including kerb channels, foot ways and flagged areas.

Weed removal is now completed with a machine which looks like a tiny sweeper. Previously weeds were sprayed twice a year, which killed the weed turning it brown, but didn’t remove it. The new machine removes the weeds by pulling them out from the root. It is also hoped this will reduce future weed growth moving forward. The machine, known as a Nilfisk, pulls the weeds out and these are then subsequently swept up. This process does take longer than the previous spraying of the weeds, but the benefits are longer term.

As this machine is new we are aware that some people have been concerned that the sweeper is broken as it is leaving a trail, however we would like to reassure everyone that these are actually the weeds that have been removed showing how effective the machine is. The freshly pulled weeds are then cleared away by a sweeper the same day."

Then it goes on to list an updateable schedule to say which ward is being worked on at which days. This appears to be updateable but is retrospective, so you cannot tell when the weed-removing machines are due in your ward (let alone in your street - as Cllr Nash had asked for in the meeting)

The concluding paragraph says

"Unfortunately, this year the weather has been perfect conditions and we have had exceptional weed growth. In order to tackle this and support the new method of working we have scheduled a supplementary spray of the weeds for the week commencing 17th July. Please note that this is weather permitting"

We struggled to reconcile some of what was being said in June with what had been said at the Committee - especially the bits about it taking longer, about it pulling the roots out, and there being a long term benefit.

 PRESS STATEMENT / NEWS RELEASE JULY 2017

By now, things were getting worse in terms of complaints, and Fylde was obliged to justify its failure by sending out another press release headed: 'How We Are Further Tackling The Weeds' It said:

"We are taking further steps in order to tackle the current increase in weeds experienced across the borough.

On the weekend of 1st and 2nd July, 7 employees worked on key routes in the borough spraying and manually pulling weeds, which will happen again on Saturday 8th July.

In addition to this, a further 3 teams of people will start manual weed pulling for at least a 2 week period from Wednesday July 5th, focusing on the ‘In Bloom’ routes, to ensure the borough is ready for the judges arrival. This is ahead of the additional weed spray which is scheduled for the week commencing 17th July, when we will be tackling other priority areas across the borough.

We are working hard to reduce the weeds in the area, and thank you for your continued patience and support on the matter."

This is, of course, was an admission of failure of the new weed control system. It has not been able to do the job, and residents want their highways cleaned of weeds. More especially, this failure was going to impact on the work done by the 'In Bloom' volunteers who now do much of what we would at one time have expected the Council itself to do.

In effect, with this press release, Fylde had put it's new weed control system into 'Special Measures' and brought in 'mercenary gardeners' to get the weed killing done.

 OUR ANALYSIS OF WHAT'S HAPPENING

What we have here is an unfolding disaster that was entirely avoidable.

It was always going to be the case that mechanical weed removal with a rotating wire brush would do four things:

  • It would use up a lot of wire brushes.
  • It would damage the surface of footways (and especially tarmac) to the extent that it would enlarge the cracks at the join of walls and footway, leading to bigger areas of detritus in which weeds would grow.
  • It would not be able to deal with weeds in the carriageway and kerb gutters when cars are parked there (where a spray lance can be easily be angled and used from a quadbike running slowly on the footway)
  • It could not hope to deal with perennial weeds with underground food storage organs (like dandelion, couch grass) and so on.

So it was never good idea.

To us, the Operational Management Committee seemed blinded by an irrational desire not to use chemicals and, as we said in our introduction, we see this as being akin to refusing to take (chemical) antibiotics and instead, having your infected limb amputated.

It is a complete nonsense, and the sooner Fylde accepts it was wrong and has wasted the money it has spent on these machines and goes back to contract spraying for weed control, the better.

We're sure Fylde residents themselves are angry at the way the weeds are growing around the borough.

We're also sure it's costing Fylde in goodwill, reputation, and officer time just to field the complaints that will be flooding in all summer.

We're equally sure that Fylde's incompetence in this matter is likely to cost residents dear for the rest of this year, as they now deploy seven staff - probably on overtime on Saturdays and Sundays - to manually pull up weeds, and have 3 teams of people doing manual weed pulling for at least two weeks from Wednesday July 5th, on order to focus on the ‘In Bloom’ routes through the town.

We can see that the good natured 'In Bloom' folk are being as generous as they can be (faced with the incompetence of Fylde's decision-taking on this matter), but it is quite likely to cost those hardworking volunteers in terms of results in the 'In Bloom' competitions.

We also think it's likely Fylde will eventually need to do at least one (and probably two) complete weedsprays of the Borough at an additional cost (likely to be in the order of £20,000) this year, to deal with existing weeds that the mechanical devices can't get to quickly enough. And even after the 'rippers' have been used in other areas, (and the perennial weeds start to regrow), a spray will be needed as well to kill off the underground parts of the re-growing perennial weeds.

So apart from the damage to its reputational integrity, we would not be surprised to find this weeding debacle costs Fylde residents an extra £20,000 in spraying costs, and another £10,000 or more in extra labour costs for manual weedpulling (including the associated overhead costs) for remainder of this year.

 WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE

We see two possibilities:

a) Fylde will do what it should have done, and abandon the new mechanical weed control idea, and revert to weed control by spraying.

b) Fylde will soldier on regardless, and put up with the public complaints that will grow each year (just like the weeds)

Before the recent change, the in-house street sweeping and contract weedspraying service cost Fylde taxpayers just over £10,000 a year

The change to mechanical sweeping was expected to increase this to just over £12,000 a year

But the change has not worked, and Fylde has had to temporarily put its highway weeding work into its own version of 'Special Measures' for the rest of this year.

We think that will cost us an extra £30,000 this year (if they do it properly). That's on top of the £12,000 it was expected to cost us - making a roughly estimated £42,000 for this year.

For the future - and using our own (admittedly roughly) estimated costs - we think a reversion to spraying would deliver (mostly) weed-free streets across the borough, and it would involve a contracted out spraying cost of around £35,000 a year.

BUT, for each of the next 3 or 4 years, we will also have to factor-in an extra £40,000 (because of what are now unavoidable loan repayments and vehicle maintenance charges for what will become plain road-sweepers).

That gives a total contract weedspray and sweeper equipment cost of around £75,000 a year - less the (roughly) £25,000 which LCC will probably continue to pay.

This leaves Fylde taxpayers with a real-terms net annual contribution of £50,000 a year for the next 3 or 4 years, after which it should reduce (because the unavoidable loan principal and interest will have been paid off)

After that, prices will likely have increased, but Fylde should be able to revert to what it did in the past, a contract weedspray costing probably £35,000 a year by 2024, and highway sweeping with pedestrian sweepers costing in the region of £15,000 by the same time, so around £50,000 a year in total - but less LCC's contribution of £25,000 a year, which means a net annual cost to Fylde of about £25,000 a year

The other option would be for Fylde to harden its heart and simply accept it will have a festering sore of complaints each summer, and continue with just the mechanical weed control.

In terms of money, that would probably only cost what it costs now - around £12,000 a year.

But the damage to the image and perception of Fylde will be much greater.

We watch the outcome with bated breath.

 Dated:  10 July 2017

 

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