All 1 Lord Gardiner of Kimble contributions to the Bat Habitats Regulation Bill [HL] 2017-19

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Fri 27th Apr 2018
Bat Habitats Regulation Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords

Bat Habitats Regulation Bill [HL]

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 27th April 2018

(6 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Bat Habitats Regulation Bill [HL] 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)
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My Lords, I join your Lordships in thanking my noble friend Lord Cormack for the opportunity to respond and contribute to the Second Reading of the Bill and hear many passionate contributions. I have no personal declarations to make, but I did build a new outbuilding some years ago; within a year, there was an extraordinary arrival of bats. Like many of your Lordships, I was very pleased by their arrival.

As said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, most of the 18 species of bats found in the UK evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves but have adapted over the centuries to roost in buildings—an adaptation accelerated by modern development, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. These building roosts are now essential to the survival of many bat species, including the Natterer’s bat, a species for which the UK’s population is of international importance. Churches play a vital role in the survival of bats. I was also interested to hear, in the extraordinary contribution from my noble friend Lord Goschen, about what is happening in the natural landscape of a part of Africa and how bats play an extraordinary part in ecosystems across the globe.

However, the Government and I recognise that bats in some churches give rise to both distress for congregations and damage to our cultural heritage. I obviously agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said about his experiences. Indeed, I endorse the work of the Church Monuments Society, to which my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lady Hooper referred in particular. We are taking this problem seriously. We take responsibility for our obligations to heritage, community and worship. That is why we are working with Historic England, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to alleviate the problem.

My noble friend Lady Hooper asked about progress with research and pilot schemes. Following a research project and a pilot with three churches, Natural England has engaged with 20 individual churches and worked at diocesan level to develop plans and proposals to manage the issues. This approach will be rolled out to a further 80 churches. They are learning from the pilot, training hundreds of volunteers and professional ecologists, and sharing the approaches with a wider network of 700 churches. I say in this connection that many volunteers will be from the Bat Conservation Trust. Bat helpline volunteers, who advise the public and churches, are employed and trained by Natural England and follow Natural England policy guidelines. We have found no evidence that they are overzealous or over-precautionary, and customer satisfaction with the service is high—that was borne out by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. In fact, I have here a figure of 97% for those who said that the service was excellent, and none was dissatisfied.

The solutions include ultrasound-emitting devices to deter bats from using specific areas of a church, excluding bats from the interior of churches, and the provision of alternative access points and artificial roosting opportunities. Radio-tagging is used both to identify the species and where it is entering, and to monitor success.

All species of bat are subject to protection under the EU habitats directive, which will continue under UK law through the withdrawal Bill. It is a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. Bat species are also protected from disturbance in their place of rest or the deliberate obstruction of such locations.

The Bill put forward today by my noble friend proposes that bats be excluded from a building used for public worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have a significant adverse impact on the users of such a place. Such a blanket prohibition does not take account of the importance of some churches to some of our most vulnerable bat populations, or of the considerable steps that the Government in collaboration with others are already taking to alleviate and mitigate the impacts in such places where bats are causing nuisance or distress.

A recent three-year project led by Defra and undertaken by Bristol University researched and developed techniques to assist churches in developing mitigation strategies for bat-related problems. This led to a pilot project led by Historic England to implement some of the identified solutions. As a number of your Lordships have said, last year, Natural England, with the Church of England, Historic England, the Churches Conservation Trust and the Bat Conservation Trust, successfully bid for £415,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop further some of these solutions and put them in place in badly affected churches across the country.

I can report that 100 of the worst-affected churches have been surveyed. In the three most severely affected, All Saints at Braunston-in-Rutland, All Saints Swanton Morley—to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich referred, and which is in his own diocese—and Holy Trinity, Tattershall, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cormack, trial solutions have been agreed and detailed, costed plans will be now be put in place. These churches host sizeable colonies of bats, including, at Tattershall, breeding populations of seven species of bats. The approaches include restricting access to certain parts of the building and the provision of alternative, artificial roosts nearby. In the case of All Saints, Braunston, this artificial roost will have a webcam to allow activity to be viewed, and the project is working with the community to offer opportunities to witness the spectacle of hundreds of bats emerging at dusk. At Holy Trinity, Tattershall, the congregation has embraced the presence of the bats, including them as part of their visitor attraction. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, is right that the challenge is how to find a solution whereby bats and ourselves coexist in harmony. Indeed, an application for a further £3.8 million for stage 2 of the project will be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund in June of this year to enable such solutions to be put in place for more affected churches. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in wishing the bid well.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering referred to the church in Ellerburn, about which I have a quite substantial note. There again, Defra and Historic England collaborated with Natural England—Natural England taking the lead—to find an acceptable solution at St Hilda’s. Of course, I endorse all that my noble friend did to ensure the progress that was made. Again, a solution was found and after the exclusion operation was complete, successive years of monitoring showed that the bats were able to continue roosting under the tiles and in the walls but were no longer able to gain access to the interior of the church. Since the work took place the congregation has been able to use the church for worship once again.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley
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I am very grateful for the Minister’s response. His description of phase 1 of this joint study and the budget for phase 2, and what is contained in it, seemed to me incredibly good value compared to some of the projects we come across. Is he confident that the solution that could be applied to the many churches that have been described this afternoon, and others where there is a problem, can be done at a cost that is affordable for local congregations and other small funds? Or is there going to be a big shortage of funding for anything useful to happen?

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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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My Lords, as we all know, funding is always extremely tight, but the point about the next bid is that we want to see what solutions and understanding we can get. As I will explain further, the collaborative approach works best, particularly bespoke approaches, which can be varied and address the complex problems. As of today, it is difficult to judge what the costs of each solution would be, but I think that the best opportunity we have is now, to find those solutions. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, we need to find solutions that have the flexibility to have the prospect of continued and unhindered use of churches, at the same time fulfilling our obligations to protect and preserve important bat populations. My noble friend highlighted the problems: if what I have before me is right, at Ellerburn they have found a solution whereby the tiles and the walls are used by bats but the congregation is unhindered. I think that is an example of a solution working.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned that my noble friend’s Bill, in proposing the blanket removal of protection for bats in places of worship would, we believe—and we have taken advice—directly contravene our obligations under the habitats directive and our international commitments under the Berne convention. My noble friend Lord Goschen mentioned surveys. The first thing to say is that bat surveys are required under regulations—the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 —where a proposed development is likely to affect bats. They are carried out by qualified ecologists licensed by Natural England. I say to my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we are working with Natural England on strategic reforms to species licensing to streamline implementation. Natural England has recently introduced an innovative and strategic approach for another protected species, the great crested newt. On costs, I will ask Natural England and the Bat Conservation Trust if it is possible to compile figures for the total costs of bat surveys commissioned.

My noble friend’s Bill also proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any construction to assess the presence of bats and, if bats are present, it should proceed only if bat boxes and other artificial roosts are provided. The requirement to be aware of the existence of bats and to consider the impacts of any construction on them, however, already exists. Local planning authorities have a duty to consider biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive when considering any building development. Where mitigation of damage caused to bat roosts and their resting places is required, the provision of bat boxes and other artificial roosts are only two of a range of possible measures. Furthermore, bats require not just roost sites but suitable habitat in which to feed; the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned some of their diet. I believe that the Bill proposed by my noble friend does not take full account of this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, raised the issue of the placing of wind turbines. Again, bat surveys are already undertaken at potential wind turbine sites. Defra commissioned an extensive report on the impact of wind turbines on bats, which was published in September 2016. The report showed that of the 46 onshore wind farms across Great Britain that were surveyed, one-third of sites had no bat casualties, one-third had one or two bat casualties, and one-third had higher numbers, estimated as up to five casualties per turbine over four months. These casualty rates are similar to those observed in other parts of Europe. Guidance to help developers and local authorities better assess the risk to bat populations ahead of wind turbine construction is now in the final stages of development.

Also, Natural England has now developed a new type of licence, the bats in churches class licence, specifically to address the complex physical and social issues caused by large bat populations in medieval churches. This new licence uses the findings of our research to balance better the conservation needs of bats with the needs of people, and the requirements of church buildings concerned, to reach outcomes suitable for all. We believe that these licence changes and the other mitigation strategies I have outlined allow us to address fully the problems caused by protected species such as bats, and thus properly balance the legitimate interests of people in a way that avoids harming wildlife without the need to change the law.

A number of points were made and I think there was one about the review from my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. As your Lordships know, we have transposed the protections under the EU habitats directive into our own domestic regulations. These protections will remain when we leave the EU. Over time, we will of course be able to review protections to ensure that they remain appropriate but there are no current plans to review the list of species protected under these regulations.

Whatever our views, we in this country have a long history of environmental protection and this Government are committed to safeguard and improve on this record. We remain committed to upholding all our obligations under international environmental treaties. As I have said, the withdrawal Bill will ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law, while Defra’s 25-year environment plan is key to setting out how we will improve our environment as we leave the EU.

I well understand the issues that my noble friend Lord Cormack and others have raised today. The Government recognise the concerns expressed but, for the reasons I have outlined, we do not support this Bill. Many of your Lordships used the word “balance”; that is the approach the Government seek to take with all interested parties. I am very pleased, as I know the right reverend Prelate will be for the Church of England, that the Churches Conservation Trust is in partnership with Natural England, Historic England and the Bat Conservation Trust. This seems to me the sort of collaboration that will get us a bespoke approach for all those churches that have been outlined.

I would be interested in the numbers and how we can clarify this and approach these solutions individually, although we are working at diocesan level. We have wonderful churches which are some of the glories of this land, but we need to ensure that we know where these problems are most evident and how best we approach them. Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I understand that we are talking about some churches. I think the right reverend Prelate said “some churches”. We need to prioritise. We are seeking to understand better from those severely affected and achieve solutions and work on the hundreds of others where this is a problem. That is the better way of doing this.

I know my noble friend will be disappointed, but the Front Benches of all the political parties represented here have concerns about the Bill and I am not in a position to support it. However, I assure him and all noble Lords that whatever position has been taken, we are seeking a resolution so that we fulfil our domestic and international obligations and enable communities to conserve these glorious churches for worship, community use and heritage, built and natural.