A number of parishioners have independently written in to complain about the cutting of verges which took place in May 2020. One correspondent wrote “I was distressed to see the verges … being mown by a large tractor today which was chewing up the beautiful bluebells and wild orchids. I spoke to the driver who was very good humoured about it (he has had several people speak to him). It does seem waste of time and resources to be doing this when I would imagine cash is tight at the council? More importantly, this year’s wildflowers were some of the best I can remember and probably cheered people up in these dark days.” Another parish resident came out in her dressing gown and formed a one-woman human shield to stop a verge from being mown.
What are the facts, and what can or should be done? The verge mowing is carried out by East Sussex Highways (or their sub-contractors) using East Sussex County Council budget. Until recently, most of the verges were being cut five or six times per year. Last year, ESCC decided that they could no longer afford to pay for this, and reduced it to two, saying that if parishes wanted more than two cuts a year, then they had the option to pay for more out of parish funds. Some parishes objected to this, stating that they wanted their five or six cuts, and due to the lack of notice hadn’t had the opportunity to budget for paying for the additional three or four cuts out of their own resources. Rother District Council then stepped in, out of the kindness of their hearts, and came up with the money to restore the total to five or six. They didn’t ask parishes individually if they wanted this; they just made a bulk order to restore the total number of cuts. We at Brightling Parish Council were unaware of this and were not consulted. That situation has now changed: Rother District Council (who are under new political control) are not funding the extra cuts, so from this year onwards we are just getting two cuts per year. The problem is the timing of the cuts: May is not a good month for plants that have come into flower but haven’t had a chance to set seed.
Some of our verges in Brightling are “designated wildlife verges”. These verges still get cut – usually once a year – but they can only be cut between the beginning of September and the end of February. This is broadly in line with the recommendations of the Plantlife organization, who have published a comprehensive guide to best practice in grassland verge management. The designated wildlife verges in Brightling are: Long Reach (north side); the whole of Willingford Lane (both sides); Brightling Road between Perrywick and Swallowfield Farm (north side); and a small section of Kent Lane.
We were advised at one stage that Brightling Parish Council had the legal power to take control of the verge cutting in the parish, appointing our own contractors. It turns out that this is not the case. Verges are classified as “urban” or “rural”; we are only allowed to “take back control” of verges that are deemed to be urban; and, not surprisingly, nearly all of our verges are classified as rural.
The remaining option is to try and get more of our verges to be designated as “wildlife verges”. The process here is that the Parish Council (or anyone, for that matter) can ask for the designation by filling in a form on the East Sussex Highways web site, and ESCC then decide whether to accept the request. Having looked at the form, I think a request is most likely to be successful if good reasons are given: eg stating what particular wildlife the verge supports and why it is important. One might well think that one shouldn’t have to justify the protection of wildlife – that it should all be protected unless there is a good reason not to, but that’s not the way the system works. Another problem is that East Sussex Highways’ policy is to demarcate the limits of each designated wildlife verge by hideous metal signs (the ones with a yellow “flower” on top), and no-one wants more of those. They seem unnecessary in any case, since the contractors have satnav that shows them each verge within their contract and sounds a warning bell if they start mowing in the wrong place.
We also have to be careful about road safety considerations. We wouldn’t want – and wouldn’t be allowed – to compromise road safety, and there probably are some verges that do require summer cuts for road safety reasons. This is something that we should think about (I would suggest) before we make any applications. The designation can be very fine-grained: just some sections of a road, or most of a road but omitting certain junctions and bends, for example. Brightling Parish Council will be considering all this in a future meeting. Meanwhile, if any parishioner wants to write in with details of a particular verge that they think merits protection, that would be very helpful.