New Housing: Swift Bricks

Caroline Lucas Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. There was a particularly strange claim by the Government that there might be instances in which the provision of swift bricks are “inappropriate”. The RSPB has given that pretty short shrift, so does the hon. Member agree with the RSPB—and with me—that there are no reasons why swift bricks should not be appropriate in high-density schemes?

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers
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I would very much agree; in fact, I will come on to that. When we look at the costs—actually, we will come back to the costs too; we will come back to it all. I think the RSPB makes a very valid point. It is a no-brainer in many ways, and there is little to be lost by putting swift bricks into homes.

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Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, to speak in this debate and to follow the powerful speech that has just been made.

I start in by extending my enormous thanks to Hannah Bourne-Taylor for starting this petition. It has been a real pleasure working with her, and her dedication to saving our precious swifts has been an inspiration.

As I am sure that many of the people gathered here today will know, last week was Swift Awareness Week, which was a chance for all of us to celebrate this amazing bird and the steps being taken to restore its numbers. But I have to say that I celebrate swifts every day throughout the summer, because they are absolutely my favourite bird; they truly are one of nature’s miracles. As we have heard, their migrations span continents, and I have read that a single bird has been known to fly over 1 million miles in its lifetime. Their 12-week stopover in Europe, when they pause to breed in our rooftops, is the very definition of summer.

Swifts spend most of their lives flying; sometimes after leaving the nest, they do not land again for an astonishing three years. Indeed, they can do everything on the wing: feeding on insects and airborne spiders; skimming mouthfuls of water to drink when flying over smooth rivers or lakes; and bathing by flying slowly through falling rain. They can even sleep in flight.

Humans have long been captivated by swifts. Back in the 18th century, the English cleric and naturalist, Gilbert White, was inspired to write poetry about the swifts coursing around a church:

“To mark the swift in rapid giddy ring

Dash round the steeple, unsubdu’d of wing”.

Yet, alongside other cavity-nesting urban birds, such as house martins, common starlings and house sparrows, swifts are on the red list of highest conservation concern. As we have heard, their numbers are declining at a terrifying rate, with a staggering 62% fall between 1995 and 2021. But let us be clear: it is not swift populations alone that are collapsing. Swifts symbolise the decline of almost all long-distance, insect-eating migrants to the UK. Since 1995, the common cuckoo is down 35%; the nightingale is down 48%; the willow warbler is down 10%; the house martin is down 37%; the whinchat is down 57%; and there are many others in that depressing list. The thought that we could lose these beautiful birds from our skies forever is truly devastating, so we must do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

Many of the steps that we can take are easily taken. As we have heard, swifts are urban birds, making their nests in the walls of our homes and living side by side with us. When they have established a breeding site, they miraculously return there—to the same place—year after year. It is therefore thought that the loss of suitable nesting sites could be a likely contributor to the decline of swifts, with many old buildings being renovated or demolished and new builds not providing suitable nooks and crannies.

Swift bricks are a cheap and proven conservation measure, with evidence demonstrating that their installation is beneficial not just to swifts, as we have heard, but to other birds, such as blue tits and great tits, as well as what are perhaps less glamorous species on the red list, such as house sparrows and starlings. Despite that, swift bricks continue to be left out of developments, with recommendations in the design codes guidance and a British Standards Institution standard having failed to have the necessary impact.

So I wholeheartedly endorse this petition, and I urge the Government to mandate the installation of swift bricks in all new developments.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The hon. Lady makes a really important point about new developments, as indeed did my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). However, could swift bricks not also be a planning requirement for extensions? In a cost of living crisis, many people might not be able to afford to move, and they might need to enlarge their homes, so if a new brick is going in, there is no difficulty in making it a swift one.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady. With a bit of imagination, we could really make a difference, and hers is a very good suggestion.

I urge Ministers to act with urgency and, for example, to bring forward an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to make this law. That step has been endorsed by many Members of all parties, the director of the Conservative Environment Network and former Government Ministers. It is not often that one points to such cross-party support for any kind of proposal, and this proposal has that cross-party support and could be easily put in place.

Let me say a few words about Brighton, because as hon. Members would expect, it is leading the way on this issue, as on so many others. Since June 2020, any building over 5 metres is mandated to include swift bricks, and the county ecologist has recommended specific requirements for major developments. That follows the redevelopment of the former site of Brighton General Hospital, which was home to the second largest colony of swifts in the south of England. The swifts had been using old and decaying ventilator bricks and other gaps in the walls as nesting holes. Of course, any repairs to the holes would have rendered them unsuitable for the swifts, so swift boxes were retrofitted into the building. They matched the existing brickwork and conformed to British brick standards, which meant that the boxes and bricks could seamlessly fit into the design of the building. The project is now being seen as a flagship example of swift provision. I pay tribute to conservationists in Brighton and Hove, including Heather Ball, who have worked so hard to make our city more swift-friendly. Local swift groups have been inspecting new developments to find out whether they adhere to the rules.

I want to take a moment to challenge some of the arguments in the Government’s response to the petition. I very much hope that they will change their response. They say that although they welcome action by developers to provide swift bricks, they consider this

“a matter for local authorities depending upon the specific circumstances of each site”,

and that they therefore “will not be legislating” to mandate specific types of infrastructure. That is a massive wasted opportunity. It would take such a small thing to mandate the measure nationally, and we know that not enough local authorities have done it and that it would take a long time for each one to come to a local plan and start to mandate it. This measure would have huge support and could be driven appropriately from the centre. Instead, the Government have pointed to planning conditions that local authorities can impose and the introduction of new local nature recovery strategies. Although some local authorities mention swift bricks in their guidance for local plans, only a handful have made it a condition for new housing, and although local recovery strategies may identify swift bricks as important, there is currently no legal link into the planning system.

A legal duty to include swift bricks in all new developments is essential to deliver the new level of action that is required to save our swifts. As the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) mentioned, there are also ways that we could extend that duty to extensions and other moments when people do work on their homes. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) has already quoted the RSPB, which quite clearly demolished the idea that swift bricks can sometimes be inappropriate, so I hope that the Government will not keep saying that. Instead, let us see a change on this as soon as possible.

Time is not on our side. As I have said time and again in this House, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with a staggering 15% of species now at risk of extinction. Swift bricks and swift boxes are important, but they are far from enough. Nature is under assault from every angle—from our intensive agricultural system, which douses our fields in poison, to ancient woodlands being destroyed to make way for roads and railways, and water companies incessantly pumping sewage into our waterways. If we are to have any chance of changing that terrifying picture, we must start by quite literally making a home for nature—by living once again with a species that has long been our closest neighbour.

If the swift goes, it will be its own tragedy, but it will also be symbolic of so much else. The author, naturalist and campaigner Mark Cocker has just written a wonderful book about swifts, which I warmly commend, called “One Midsummer’s Day”. He writes:

“The declines are profoundly troubling but they are important in an additional sense. They are part of the birds’ deeper capacity to serve as symbols for all life. For this in truth is a deeply troubled planet…Until now we have seemed unwilling to educate ourselves, or to feel in our deepest core, that life is a single unitary whole: that all parts are fused inextricably within a self-sustaining, mutually giving, mutually dependent, live fabric”.

If we were truly to live as if that were true, we would know that taking care of nature is a way of taking care of ourselves and all the other species with which we are so privileged to share this one precious planet.

Mandating the use of swift bricks in new buildings is one of the smallest and simplest steps we could take, but it would symbolise so much more. It would be that first step, but it would also be a symbol of our recognition of deeper interconnectedness. It is a step I hope that the Government take, and I hope that all Government Members who have spoken so strongly about the importance of swift bricks will carry that passion into future debates about things like industrialised agriculture, which is sadly destroying precious nature and is such a force for ill.

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Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, as ever, Sir Edward, and to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I thank Hannah Bourne-Taylor for creating the petition and the members of the public who signed it in such large numbers. It is unsurprising but nevertheless still heartening to see so many people mobilise against the decline of nature across these isles and in particular in defence of the swift.

I recognise, as several hon. Members have, the contribution made over many years by local swift conservation groups across the country. The various initiatives they have collectively developed and implemented have made a difference, and they deserve to be commended for their work. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and thank all hon. Members who have participated. It has been a debate defined by a series of passionate, thoughtful and informative contributions.

The debate has fallen to me to respond to as a member of the shadow Levelling Up, Housing and Communities team because it ostensibly relates to a technical planning matter. However, as the debate has made abundantly clear, the specific issue we are considering touches on a far broader range of concerns. As hon. Members have alluded to, when we weigh in our minds the case for specific measures such as swift bricks, context is everything. It is for that reason that Labour starts by recognising that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with analysis from the Natural History Museum suggesting that with an average of only 53% of our biodiversity left, the UK is in the bottom 10% of the world and the last in the G7 when it comes to the state of ecosystem biodiversity. It is unarguable that more must be done to protect and enhance our natural environment.

Labour fully appreciates how sharply breeding swift numbers across the country have declined over recent decades—as hon. Members have mentioned, they are now on the red list of birds of conservation concern in the UK. The precise reasons for the rapid decline of the species are complex. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), have alluded to some of them, but the loss of available nesting sites, largely through home renovation, insulation and demolition without sufficient alternatives being created, is undoubtedly a significant contributory factor. In our view, it is essential that as part of efforts to increase biodiversity net gain, we drive up rates of swift brick installation in new build properties—not only in houses but, quite rightly, in other public buildings across the whole of England.

The question is therefore not whether the Government need to do more to halt and reverse the decline of the swift population in the UK, or whether swift bricks would make a significant difference to swift numbers and other red-listed species. This tension has featured throughout the debate. The question is rather whether it is necessary, in order to boost swift numbers in the UK, to mandate the incorporation of swift bricks into all new build properties, as opposed to taking steps to better encourage and incentivise their roll-out.

Our instinct when it comes to achieving biodiversity net gain, including the specific 10% BNG target in all new developments that will apply from November this year, is to allow for maximum local discretion. It is local communities and their representatives that are best placed to determine what specific measures are appropriate on any given development site. As such, we certainly have a degree of sympathy with the Government’s position that local authorities and developers should not be compelled to include swift bricks in every single housing unit that they respectively authorise or construct.

However—there definitely is a “however”—we are deeply concerned about current swift brick installation rates. To the best of my knowledge, no agreed estimate of the total number of swift bricks needed to restore the swift numbers lost over recent decades exists, although I know that some people have made estimates. But there is little doubt that the numbers currently being incorporated into new buildings each year are lower than they need to be if we are to address the decline of swift numbers in the UK. That is not to overlook the tangible progress that has been, and is being, made in various parts of the country. We appreciate that many local planning authorities and communities have already included specific provisions relating to swift bricks in their local development and neighbourhood plans and associated supplementary guidance. We recognise that many new residential developments across England are incorporating large numbers of swift bricks.

However, it is undeniably the case that those incentives remain the exception rather than the norm—not least because, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), swift bricks and other species-based features are not explicitly included within the metric for calculating biodiversity net gain. The result is that swift brick coverage across the country, estimated at fewer than 20,000, remains far too limited at present.

Labour therefore takes the view that current national planning policy and guidance on the matter, which essentially amounts to listing swift bricks as one of the many small features that can measurably increase biodiversity and recommending them as part of best practice local design guides and codes, is insufficiently prescriptive. Although we do not believe that local discretion should be overridden lightly, we intend to reflect carefully on the arguments made in favour of making swift bricks mandatory in every new home built in England, and we certainly do not rule out such a measure in the future.

However, as things stand, we are absolutely convinced that there is a robust case for the Government to consider revising existing national planning policy and guidance in this area, at least to create a presumption in favour of incorporating swift brick provisions within local development and neighbourhood plans and associated guidance. Under such an arrangement, and with swift bricks properly scored on the BNG metric system, the onus would at least be on local authorities and developers to justify not installing swift bricks in each instance across specific sites.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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The hon. Gentleman seems to be making life so much more difficult for himself and for all of us. I honestly could not believe my ears when I heard him basically saying that he would not—yet, at least—support the position that swift bricks should be mandatory. It would save so much time rather than putting in place all these extra hoops. We know that this is urgent. We know that having a swift brick can do no harm even if a swift does not use it. We know that starlings might, or sparrows. I really do not understand where his reluctance is coming from.

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook
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I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but let me be clear—I hope I was clear enough: we certainly do not rule out mandation as a step in the future. As I said, my reluctance stems from the fact that our instinct when it comes to achieving biodiversity net gain is to allow for local discretion, and we do not think that should be overridden lightly.

Secondly—and I have heard some compelling arguments in the debate on this point—I want to be absolutely convinced on a practical level that there are no sites in buildings that will not be suitable for swift bricks, in the way that a mandatory system would not account for. That is why we think it is better to at least start in the way I have described. I take issue with the hon. Lady on the timeline. We could make both changes relatively easily; the NPPF is currently being consulted on, and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is stuck in the other place. We think it might be better to start, as a first step, by incorporating into national policy and guidance that presumption in favour of swift bricks, with a mandatory approach in reserve.

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Dehenna Davison Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Dehenna Davison)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I will do my best to address all the points raised; if I miss any, I will follow up in writing following the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing the debate, and I thank all hon. Members here for their valuable contributions.

We have received in-depth aviation know-how from a former aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts); incredibly informed views on the planning process from a former planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse); and some wonderful anecdotes and poetry about swifts. Some of my favourite memories of nature are sitting out in the early morning, watching them swoop and dive and dance. It is one of the most beautiful things that is so pure about swifts as a species. One of the great things about this debate is that we are all united in wanting to improve the population of swifts across the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South referred to them as urban boy racers. I appreciated that; they certainly feel the need for speed when we watch them.

Before I address the points raised, I will make it clear that the Government greatly welcome actions by developers that contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment. We recognise the importance of protecting priority species, which is why our national planning policy framework establishes that opportunities to improve biodiversity in and around developments should be integrated as part of their design. That consideration is especially essential when it could secure measurable net gains for biodiversity. That is why it is so encouraging to see design features such as swift bricks in new builds to provide nesting facilities for birds included in housing plans.

In some circumstances, we support planning conditions or obligations being used to require that planning permission provides for works that will measurably increase biodiversity, just as we have seen with Brighton and Hove local planning authority. It has taken decisive action by mandating the inclusion of swift bricks on certain types of developments. I am sure that is due in no small part to the tenacious campaigning of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am sure many hon. Members are aware of similar actions in their constituencies, some of which have been highlighted, where specific species necessitate such measures.

In the case of swifts, action is needed—I think we are united on that. It is of great concern that a staggering 62% of these magnificent birds have disappeared from our skies over the past 26 years. So worrying is their decline that they have been added to the UK red list of birds of conservation concern, as a number of Members have highlighted. Although external factors such as adverse weather and a lack of insect food for chicks are contributing to their decline, the scarcity of suitable nesting spaces only exacerbates the issue. That is why I wholeheartedly agree that conservation efforts must continue to focus on ensuring safe nesting sites are in sufficient supply.

Furthermore, since swifts can be found throughout England, any urban or rural area with buildings can potentially provide homes for these birds, but it is worth noting that to maximise the chances of successful colonisation by swifts, it is crucial to install the bricks within certain parameters, considering aspects such as openness and height off the ground, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney outlined. Planning practice guidance sets out the benefits of resting facilities for birds, but I take on board the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney and I will take them back to the Department.

This is a rare moment of cross-party unity. It is rare that myself and the shadow Minister agree at the Dispatch Box, but the Government also believe that we need to be cautious when it comes to mandating national planning conditions. There could be some circumstances where development proposals will not impact on bird habitats. We should not impose conditions and ensure that planning permissions are subject to additional and unreasonable requirements to accommodate species that are not present in an area while creating financial burdens to comply with and to discharge the condition.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I cannot believe what I am hearing. This brick costs about 25 quid—that is a tiny amount for new developments. There is no worst case scenario if one is put up but does not get used; there would be no problem, and other birds would probably use it. Can I impress upon the Minister that warm words do not get us anywhere? I am hearing too many warm words and not enough action. This is a simple thing that she could do, and I cannot believe that she is refusing to do it.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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I hope that some points further on in my speech will address the hon. Lady’s point.