New Housing: Swift Bricks

Caroline Nokes Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers
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I very much agree.

So what is not to like? Swift bricks are clean and noise-free, the public like them and they could help to protect four endangered species. But what about the cost, and what do the developers say? Swift bricks are incredibly low-cost. They are already produced by multiple manufacturers, and home builders have the opportunity to shop around. Prices online start from as little as £25—although I do not know how much my right hon. Friend paid for his—which is pennies to large housing developers. Swift bricks represent one of the most cost-effective conservation measures and help developers to comply with their responsibilities in the Environment Act 2021, creating biodiversity gain.

After speaking to developers, and representatives from the Home Builders Federation, it is clear that they take their responsibilities for the environment seriously. They welcome the proposals and see them as giving clarity and direction and as a meaningful way of complying with the Environment Act. In fact, there are many examples of house builders being proactive and putting swift bricks in place without being compelled to do so.

In their response to the petition, the Government said they would not be legislating for a nationwide approach, because in

“some high density schemes the provision of ‘swift bricks’, for instance, might be inappropriate”.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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I just wanted to ask a specific question about that. If it might not be appropriate—if a brick might not be inhabited by a swift—what is the harm? Does it matter? Of course it does not; the brick just lies there empty and uninhabited. I fail to see that that is doing any damage at all.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers
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That is a very good point, and it is one that Guy Anderson, from the RSPB’s migrant recovery programme, has made in response to the Government. He has said that he cannot see any reason why swift bricks would be inappropriate in any development in the UK. He says:

“there may be some buildings where the design...makes it...less ever be used by swifts...however, even if...not used by house sparrows, red-listed starlings or red-listed house martins may use them”.

I would therefore urge the Government to look again at the policy and at what can be done to either enforce or encourage the delivery of more swift bricks in homes across the country.

To end on a brighter note, there are now many examples of swift bricks being used. One of the largest installations of swift bricks has taken place across the Duchy of Cornwall estate. The “Big Duchy Bird Box Survey” showed that, across all of the newly installed swift bricks from 2015 onwards, almost half had been used.

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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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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as always, Sir Edward. I congratulate Hannah on bringing this petition forward, and I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate. It was a real privilege to be asked by the RSPB, quite a long time ago now, to be the species champion for the swift, but I am clearly not the only one—this whole room is full of champions for the swift. I think I rather lucked out in being chosen ahead of them. We have heard so much about what an amazing bird it is, so I will not go over that ground again.

Soon after taking up the role of species champion, I went to visit Bristol Swifts and saw the dedication among these local groups. A couple had spent seven years trying to attract swifts to their homes. Having put in the bricks and played mating calls, they finally managed to get the swifts to come, and last year their swift boxes provided nests for 16 breeding pairs and 36 chicks. That is just in the one home.

There are many other amazing groups. Particularly over the past year or so, I have seen on Twitter how many there are in localities such as Rother, Hastings, Lewes and Sheffield.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I apologise for intervening a lot, but it would be remiss of me not to congratulate Hampshire Swifts on its work. I opened a conference for it back in 2018, and it has contributed to the planning process and fed into the local plan review. Groups such as that are doing so much to push this issue; it just requires the Minister to push it over the line.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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It certainly does. I was going to mention Hertford and Halesworth, and now I can say Hampshire too. Cambridge also has a group.

I pay particular tribute to Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins, which has a special place in my heart because it is run by my sister, who is in the Public Gallery. That shows the difference between us: I am always here talking about things, and she is actually out there doing things. That group has provided 170 new homes for swifts since 2020, and this year swifts have finally taken up home in her house.

Last year, because the heatwave made the bricks too hot, there was a real problem with fledglings trying to leave before they were ready to fly. All around the country, local groups rescued swifts; my sister cared for 17. I remember going down to Sidcup to pick up her daughter from university, and as the three of us sat outdoors at a Sri Lankan restaurant, there was a swift on the other chair being fed crickets—it had to be fed every hour to keep it alive. My sister did that while juggling three kids and working a full-time job.

An interesting fact is that a swift weighs the same as a Cadbury’s creme egg. Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins is making egg cosies to raise funds for swift groups. If anyone wants one, I am sure I can arrange that.

I also want to thank Milton Keynes Swifts, which works very closely with Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins. I thank Mike LeRoy for sending me a comprehensive briefing about the work that group is doing with developers and housing associations. It was particularly helpful on biodiversity net gain, which I will come to in a moment.

As we have heard, when a building is demolished or renovated, swifts lose their nests, and new buildings do not always offer the same nooks and crannies. That habitat loss is one of the reasons swifts are now red listed. They are a conservation concern, as their numbers fell by 62% between 1995 and 2021.

Other Members have explained effectively that swift bricks are very simple and easy to use. They blend into the building and do not affect insulation. That issue has been raised with me, particularly given the discussion at the moment about the need to retrofit homes, but the bricks will not have an impact on the energy efficiency programme. They are durable, low cost and do not require maintenance. Even if they do not attract swifts, they can be beneficial for other red-listed species such as house sparrows, starlings and house martins. Hibernating tortoiseshell butterflies and bees also use them.

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Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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Again, I appreciate that, and I will take it back to the Department following our debate.

In addition to the strategies I outlined, a range of cross-Government measures will support the needs of nature more widely in local planning, including mandatory biodiversity net gain, which sees most types of new development required to deliver improvements of 10% or more in biodiversity. Work is ongoing with DEFRA to finalise the regulations, but we are confident that that update to the planning process will have positive outcomes for biodiversity.

The hon. Member for Bristol East asked specifically about that issue. As she outlined, DEFRA has committed to keeping species features such as swift bricks and bat and bird boxes under review. It is also committed to updating its biodiversity metric every three to five years, which will provide further opportunities for change and innovations to be considered.

Another measure that is in place to support the needs of nature in local planning is the green infrastructure framework, published in January 2023. The framework helps local planning authorities and developers to meet the national planning policy framework requirements to consider green infrastructure in local plans and new developments. The framework’s “Green Infrastructure Planning and Design Guide” is a helpful resource, which already advocates using British Standard 42021, calling for integral nest boxes to be installed in new developments. Furthermore, the requirement to consider green infrastructure in local plans is embedded in the national model design code, which provides guidance for local planning authorities on setting clear design standards through design codes and already refers to the green infrastructure framework, reinforcing the importance of the measures it outlines.

As we consider the implementation of a national policy, we need to reflect on its practicalities and whether planning is the most appropriate mechanism to achieve the desired outcomes. There is no denying—it has not been denied in this Chamber—that the planning process can be confusing and outdated for users. That is why our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is crucial to deliver changes to planning policy to address that complexity, including modernising it, increasing flexibility and regulating pre-application engagement with communities.

The changes that we want to make to the planning system will see a more consistent, streamlined and digitally enabled approach to the way planning applications are made. They will be proportionate to the scale and nature of the development proposed, to ensure faster and better decision making.

I must make it clear that the Government recognise the fact that many local planning authorities, as well as the wider planning sector, are facing capacity and capability challenges, which is why we have developed a programme of support, working with partners across the planning sector, to ensure that local planning authorities have the skills and capacity they need, both now and in the future. To that end, we are concerned that the introduction of mandatory conditions may impose an additional burden on all local planning authorities to enforce breaches of conditions. As legislators, we need to be mindful of the potential unintended consequences of introducing a national policy.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The Minister will know that my constituency neighbour, our right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), shares a local authority with me. Test Valley Borough Council already requires a long list of specifications when a planning application is granted, including what type of brick and roofing material will be used and what the windows will look like. Mandating a standard brick per dwelling does not seem very complicated to me.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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I have heard my right hon. Friend loud and clear, but I hope she will recognise my wider point about not wanting to add unnecessary additional complexity to a service that already faces a great deal of it.

Consultations such as the one on the national planning policy framework in December 2022 are invaluable sources of information, as mentioned by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan). We are currently analysing the responses to the consultation, which included answers about how national policy could be strengthened through small-scale nature interventions—for example, swift bricks—and a Government response will be provided in due course.

We also used the consultation as an opportunity to outline our commitment to a wider national planning policy review, which will align with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill receiving Royal Assent, and will ensure that the planning system capitalises on all opportunities to support the environment, address climate change and, of course, level up the economy. In the review, we have already committed to exploring how we can incorporate nature into development through better planning for green infrastructure and nature-friendly buildings. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that we cannot pre-empt the findings of the review, so we would not want to introduce a national compulsory planning policy until it has been concluded, but we remain conscious of the plight of our swift population and the potential benefits that mandatory swift bricks could have.

Before I close, I reiterate that the Government are committed to protecting and enhancing our natural and local environment. Through our planning changes and cross-Government working, we are pursuing a fair and balanced approach to achieve better outcomes for biodiversity. Our policy interventions will empower local areas to adopt a targeted approach in reversing the decline of swifts, based on local opportunities. Local planning authorities have the power to adopt policies locally that protect species, and it is important that that is done in a holistic way.