New Housing: Swift Bricks

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie
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I defer to the hon. Lady’s absolutely fantastic knowledge of swifts, and I thank the former aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), for his amazing account of swifts’ aviation.

Swift bricks have been around for many years—possibly 20 years. They are very simple and cheap to install. There is deep affection for these birds, not least in Stroud. I thank the 500 petitioners from Stroud and the thousands of others. Does the hon. Lady agree that we have waited long enough, so we need to mandate? The bricks are so simple, and it is obvious that we need to install them, but that is not happening at a great enough scale, so mandating will make the difference for that species.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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As has already been said, only a small number of local authorities—Exeter, Hackney, Islington and Brighton and Hove—have taken the step of requiring bricks. I am working on Bristol, and I hope we will do that in the next iteration of its local plan. That is tiny compared with the potential of what we can do. It would be so easy to have swift bricks in all new developments—not just new housing, although the petition is about housing, but other buildings too. We need to do something to turn this from a nice little local initiative into something that is far more widespread.

It is important to say that developers are not opposed to this proposal. Barratt Homes has actively worked with the RSPB to develop a swift brick and has pledged to install swift bricks in all new houses built in Bristol as well as in several other cities. I actually went up on the roof of one of its new houses in Blackberry Hill—one of those classic “MP in a hard hat”-type pictures—to do that. Another sister of mine is working with a housing developer in Milton Keynes that is also putting swift bricks into all of its new houses. This work can be done and there is no opposition to it, so there is no reason for the Government to be cautious about it.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I just wanted to be clear about what hopefully we are collectively asking for. We are asking the Government to mandate the use of swift bricks—and the plural is important. As anybody will know, swifts are gregarious birds that like to nest in colonies, so putting in the odd brick here and there is unlikely to be fruitful. What we actually need is groups of four to six bricks, possibly more. As the hon. Lady said, in Bristol houses have got seriously more than that number. However, just putting in a brick—singular—is not much use to anybody, least of all the swifts themselves.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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That is certainly the case, which is why we want to see this done at scale. As I think has already been said, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management has highlighted surveys that show that buyers would not be put off by a swift brick.

It has been asked whether this would be a nuisance. I live by the harbour in Bristol and every time I open my balcony doors, pigeons and seagulls come in. Indeed, a particularly resolute pair of birds are determined to build a nest on my balcony, so I cannot turn my back without them coming in. However, having swifts in a house is not the same as having pigeons or seagulls in a house. Indeed, they are excellent lodgers and most people would not even have any idea that they were there.

It is reasonable to ask why swifts merit a specific planning requirement, as opposed to any other creature that is under threat. I say in response that, first, this is a known problem with an identifiable cause and a practical, straightforward and cost-effective solution. I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would be delighted if we could say the same for all environmental challenges and all red-listed species.

Secondly, other species are already protected by planning policy in a way that swifts are not. The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 require a developer’s ecology report to cover protected species, such as bats, which are officially designated under those regulations. Mitigating steps are required if these species are present on site.

The problem is that the Birds of Conservation Concern red list, which was developed with funding from Natural England, is not covered by any similar legal requirement, and nor are swifts included in the list of habitats and species of principal importance in England, so there is no obligation on local authorities to consider swifts as part of their biodiversity duty.

The Government’s response to the petition emphasised local planning decisions and

“the specific circumstances of each site.”

Will the Minister tell us in what circumstances exemptions might be required? The benefits of including these bricks seem to outweigh the costs and, as has been said, even if the bricks are not ultimately used by swifts, they may benefit other species.

There is already a British standard on integral nest boxes to guide developers on selection and installation. There are also a variety of brick designs to suit different types of construction; an RSPB factsheet lists at least 20. The RSPB has said that

“there are no reasons why swift bricks should not be appropriate for high-density schemes”,

And, contrary to the Government’s response, the RSPB advises that

“connectivity to wildlife is largely irrelevant for swifts".

As I think has been said, swifts are birds that are either in the air or in their little swift bricks, rather than being out and about in nature.

Finally, I turn to the issue of biodiversity net gain, which the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned briefly. If, as the Government suggest, swift bricks are not appropriate for all developments, amending the biodiversity net gain rules would allow developers to consider whether swift bricks are an efficient way for them to meet their biodiversity targets.

Three years ago, I wrote to the then Minister for Housing —the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher)—calling for the building regulations to be revised to make swift bricks compulsory in all new homes. I received a disappointing reply then, and the Government’s response to the petition suggests that their position has not changed. However, the regulatory framework has changed, with the introduction of the biodiversity net gain requirement.

The Government’s own planning practice guidance emphasises the value of swift bricks to biodiversity net gain, but that is undermined by the habitat-based biodiversity net gain metric, under which the loss of a swift nest and the addition of swift bricks are irrelevant; they just do not count in the way that, say, hedgerows, trees or other sites for swifts’ nests would count. Can the Minister tell us what incentive developers will have to install swift bricks when they will not count towards their 10% biodiversity net gain?

The biodiversity net gain approach is not perfect because the loss of a swift habitat will not necessarily be captured in the baseline assessment—I suspect the Minister might say that in response. If a survey is not conducted at the right time during nesting season—as we have heard, it is only a 12-week season—the nest is likely to be missed. But including swifts in the metric as a starting point would mean there is an incentive to look for nests and check the RSPB swift survey or the Swift Mapper app. I am sure all the local groups would be delighted to assist the Department in telling people exactly where swifts are likely to turn up. Even if no nest is detected, it means developers have one easy way to secure some biodiversity net gain credits.

Milton Keynes Swifts this weekend was checking the nest boxes for a developer who had agreed to incorporate nest sites. It told me the development did not install swift bricks because the architect was not aware of those at a sufficiently early stage in the process. If swift bricks were included in the biodiversity net gain metric, it seems they would be more likely to be considered during the design process.

The biodiversity net gain metric already includes design features such as green roofs, so it is not a big ask to include swift bricks as an option. In fact, it is a lot easier to put swift bricks in than it is to make sure that a green roof is installed and thrives for years to come. Relying on biodiversity net gain has the added benefit of considering all developments, not just housing, with larger public buildings and commercial premises potentially able to accommodate more bricks.

Swift bricks also give more options for biodiversity net gain in urban environments—something that was sadly neglected in the Government’s environmental improvement plan 2023. We have to ensure that we green our urban environments. We cannot have everyone’s gardens concreted over and green spaces built on, and that offset somewhere way outside the cities. We must improve urban environments, and swift bricks are an ideal thing to do.

Does the Minister agree that the biodiversity net gain metric has adversely changed the regulatory landscape for swifts? I hope she will tell us that she thinks a revised BNG metric could be a useful tool. I know that that is a matter for DEFRA rather than the Minister’s Department. DEFRA has already committed to reviewing species inclusion in future major updates to the biodiversity metric. I urge the Minister to discuss that with DEFRA colleagues.

On a final note, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, we are talking about this in the context of a massive biodiversity loss and ecological emergency. Swift bricks are one easy step towards addressing that, so I hope the Minister looks favourably on what we have said today.

--- Later in debate ---
Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has incredible wisdom in this field, having served in the Department and focused on planning during his time in government. He will know that we have recently consulted on the new national planning policy framework. I will come to that later on in my speech, which I hope will address some of his concerns.

It is fair to say that more research is needed on how best we monitor and improve swift populations, as outlined by the shadow Minister. I have received assurances from DEFRA and its agencies that they will monitor swift populations and assess any positive effect.

I pass on my thanks to organisations such as Swift Conservation and to local groups such as Hampshire Swifts and Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins—I have to do that, as the sister of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is in the Public Gallery. It would not be right not to pay tribute to those groups for their work.

The Government do not at present intend to make swift bricks compulsory in new housing, but I assure Members here today and the House that measures are being introduced across Government to protect and enhance our natural and local environment, and I will outline those now.

Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that other familiar birds, such as sparrows and starlings, which were added to the UK red list 21 years ago, have remained on that list since. To tackle that, we are placing greater emphasis on implementing a range of policies that intersect with planning to achieve better outcomes for habitats and species in England, and we have already made great progress. Just last month, the Government announced funding of £14 million to support 48 authorities in England responsible for developing local nature recovery strategies. Those identify and outline ways to enhance or recover the existing or potential species in the respective areas. Their importance cannot be overstated.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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Does the Minister not accept that nature recovery strategies are aimed at birds that would nest in trees, hedgerows and so on, which is not relevant to the swift debate, because we are talking about houses with bricks in?

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. I am just outlining some of the wider work to help not just the swift community, but the wider bird population across the UK.

--- Later in debate ---
Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention but, just to confirm, it is not something that is being considered by Government at the moment. As I said, in the review of the national planning policy framework there are opportunities to feed in, and I would encourage all Members here and all interested campaigners to feed into that consultation.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The problem is that that review is absolutely massive—it covers a huge range of things. The reason we are having the debate today is to try to flag that this issue needs a very specific response. How can the Minister assure us that, when it comes to the consultation, this does not get lost among everything else?

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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Given the tenacity of the Members present and the incredible campaigning of groups such as those sitting in the Public Gallery today, I am confident that the issue will remain on the radar of both my Department and the wider Government.