Roadside verges represent an important wildlife habitat, especially in the UK which is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. They are particularly critical now, during an escalating biodiversity crisis. We have reported before that Norfolk County Council (NCC) ignores its own policy (cutting only where there is a visibility issue, and to a depth of one metre), with verge cutting carried out wholesale, and to excessive depth. A change in implementation to match that of the councils using best practice, has the potential to decrease expenditure and improve the environment for pollinators, other invertebrates and all the species that feed on them. But NCC has been reluctant to change.
The scale of verge destruction
Following the submission of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, we now at least have a clearer idea of the scale of the destruction and the amount that it costs. While the council doesn’t know how many miles of road verge it has within its domain, it did disclose the extent of its verge cutting scheme.
NCC cuts 23,005km of rural verges and 3,941,810m2 of urban verges every year. It claims proudly on public websites that it supports biodiversity by protecting 15km of roadside nature reserves. That’s 0.065% of the rural verges. It’s rather like giving up an A4 paper-sized area of an average 130m2 UK garden and claiming you’re rewilding.
The very worst time of year to cut verges is in May, when invertebrates most need access to flowers and the food they provide. Yet in Norfolk, two-thirds of the rural verges are cut in May along with one quarter of urban ones.
Activists have been asking the council for at least two years to change the timing of the verge cutting, but to no avail. In its response to the FOI request, NCC stated that “a review of the cutting regime is currently being undertaken with a view to the results being published in 2024” and that the timing of the cut will be considered in the same programme. We are awaiting information on the terms of reference of this report, and who can feed into it.
Promoting bad practice through poorly negotiated contracts
The reason why its own policy is routinely ignored may be straightforward. NCC contracts out verge cutting. When questioned on how the cutting needs are delineated, the council responded:
“The rural cut is ordered across the county, based on the needs of the network and growing conditions. The Area Maintenance teams will discuss a mutually agreeable timeframe for ordering the rural cut. The urban cut is ordered on an area basis based on localised growing conditions in different parts of the county.”
So, although the council could mandate that only absolutely essential cutting occurs in May, it chooses not to use this option. The agreement leaves a lot of discretion to the contractors and creates perverse incentives for over-cutting because “there are no penalties for straying from the policy. There are penalties for completion of the works outside the ordered timescales.”
Given the penalties for non-completion, it’s hardly surprising that cutting becomes the default position. This means the council is spending £1,053,066 of public funds per year (figures for the 2022/23 programme) in a way which encourages bad practice.
Time to embrace technology
We live in a world where farmers can sow seeds with 2.5cm accuracy. Yet NCC is happy to leave important and expensive decisions to someone sitting in a tractor cab, taking a guess about whether there is a visibility and safety issue or not, as if it’s 1953 rather than 2023. And this guess will have a huge effect on the environment.
In a world of GPS and AI, NCC could make the choice to spend public funds more wisely. It could hire contractors with the equipment and trained staff able to use the latest modelling to demarcate key areas where safety is genuinely an issue, and to restrict cutting to these sections. Combining this with collection of cuttings, instead of leaving them in place, will promote the growth of diverse ranges of wild flowers over rank grasses. This in turn, will increase habitat value and save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Like every other local authority, NCC has suffered major shortfalls in funding while facing increased demand for essential services. Surely the time has come to embrace the double win of lower costs and higher environmental impact, and put an end to this wide-scale destruction.