New Housing: Swift Bricks

Helen Morgan Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, and to follow such a passionate speech from the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts).

I, too, am a rural MP, and the benefits and protection of swifts is an issue that is incredibly important to my constituents. Indeed, one of my constituents, Sarah Gibson, is the author of a fantastic book about swifts called “Swifts and Us”. Although I have not read it yet, I have obtained a copy and I am very much looking forward to reading it. A total of 305 people from North Shropshire signed the petition, and I have received frequent casework about the topic of swift conservation and the importance of ensuring that swift bricks are included in planning regulations.

It is understandable that so many people feel passionately about this matter, because as we have heard this afternoon, swifts are incredible birds. They do everything on the wing, so they do everything while they are still in the air—sleeping, mating, bathing, all while in flight. They also eat in flight, efficiently chasing down insects while in the air. In case that is not impressive enough, they are our fastest bird in level flight and have been recorded flying at almost 70 mph. Of course, on top of that, they are beautiful. The sight and sound of them coming in and out of the eaves of buildings are, for many people, the first signs of summer. I am sure that colleagues here will agree with me that the best canvass sessions are the ones with swifts screaming over the top of our heads.

Unfortunately, the swift population is declining. The number of swifts in the UK has decreased by nearly 60% since 1995. This is yet another reminder of the rapid rate of decline of a beautiful and important species. Like many other birds, such as the house martin, swifts joined the red list for the first time in 2021. Something must be done.

I confess that before I was an MP I had not heard of a swift brick, but I have since become aware of the campaign, and they seem to me to be a fantastic solution. They offer artificial homes for swifts, which the British Trust for Ornithology has said works incredibly well for the reintroduction of swift nesting sites in areas where they have been lost. Swift bricks have been incorporated into new planning developments in both urban and rural areas over the last few years. Alongside being cheap to produce, one of the main benefits of the bricks is that they can be implemented easily into many kinds of developments.

For example, they have been installed into the rooftops above Oxford Circus and the walls of Lambeth Hospital, and in Brighton, as we have heard. In addition, one of my constituents has created a Facebook group dedicated to the protection of swifts and designed to spread information about the ease of installing artificial nesting spaces in properties, which I understand has ensured that over 100 new artificial swift nesting places have been installed to properties around North Shropshire over the last 12 months. Artificial nesting places such as swift bricks seem like a fantastic solution to a serious problem.

I am even ensured by Swift Conservation that parents eat the chicks’ droppings, meaning that there are no piles of droppings under the nests. That is surely another benefit for homeowners, who might be concerned about having artificial nesting places for swifts in their property. The benefits of swift bricks are not only that they protect these most impressive animals, but that they provide nests for other types of endangered species, including other red-listed birds such as the house sparrow, starlings and wrens, which we have already heard about. While assisting the longevity of the swift, swift bricks would also create a home for other endangered species and improve biodiversity.

There is another hurdle to swifts’ attempt for survival that lies outside habitat creation and is related to their diet. A swift’s diet consists mainly of insects, specifically flying insects, of which they can eat as many as 100,000 in one day. They include aphids, flying ants and mosquitoes. The Wildlife Trusts have raised concerns about ensuring that there are enough insects to feed an increase in swifts. The decline in insect species is a sure sign of nature being under threat in the UK. The pollution of prime feeding habitats for swifts, such as wetlands and grasslands, presents another potential barrier to swifts flourishing in the UK.

The issue is twofold. We must provide sufficient space for swifts to live, but we must also consider their need to feed by tackling the depletion of insect varieties head on. Overall, I support Members’ calls to back the mandatory use of swift bricks in all new homes and extensions. As we have heard, it could be done so easily and quickly. It could be a measure we add to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, or there are opportunities in the national planning policy framework and the future homes standard, all of which we are waiting to see; they could all incorporate this important measure.

We should also stress that to support biodiversity for all bird populations, we must look at insect decline and a sufficient food supply for these impressive birds. I would therefore say to the Minister: look at planning regulations, look at the levelling-up Bill, look at the national planning policy framework and future homes standard and take this simple step to make the first move in support of these amazing birds and biodiversity the UK.