New Housing: Swift Bricks

Matthew Pennycook Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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I want to comment on the hon. Gentleman’s reservation about a mandatory target. I understand where he is coming from. In my own speech, I accepted that there will be some places where, because of the nature of nests that swifts like to use, mandation might not be appropriate. Could we not deal with that by way of guidance that would ensure that the impetus was there for this cheap, quick, easy step, while also ensuring that it was not wasted in certain circumstances?

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook
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That is a reasonable point, which I will certainly take away and look at. Given the understandable questions put to me about mandation, I honestly do not think that we are too far apart when it comes to what I am talking about. We are talking about essentially amending national planning policy and guidance to make it a presumption that swift bricks are installed in every development and building unless a local authority or developer can justify an exemption being made. As I said previously to hon. Members, we will go away and consider; this is the first time that the House has debated this issue. We will go away and carefully consider whether we will require a move to a mandatory system in the near future if no rapid progress is made. As a first step, we are certainly convinced that the Government should do that.

In the time left to me, I will put a couple of questions to the Minister, which I hope she can address. First, as a number of hon. Members have said, it would be useful to know whether her Department has engaged, in the light of this debate—or at least intends to engage following it—with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the specific issue of whether swift brick installation should be scored in the BNG metric. We really cannot understand why it is not, and there is a strong case for doing it.

Secondly, has the Minister’s Department or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced an estimate of the number of swift bricks required to restore breeding swift numbers across the country? I do not know whether other hon. Members found that to be an issue in preparing for the debate—I certainly did—but there are no reliable estimates. Local conservation groups have made them, and people out there in the country have had a go at what they might be. Such estimates would be useful when contemplating whether we need a mandatory system or a presumption in favour—to know precisely the metric we aim to get to across England. Can the Minister respond to that question?

Thirdly, do the Government agree with the Opposition that swift brick installation rates are lower than they need to be to address the decline of swift numbers in the UK? Lastly, if the Government agree that current installation rates are too low but they believe that a mandatory approach remains inappropriate, do they at least accept that existing national planning policy and guidance is, as I have argued, insufficiently prescriptive to increase coverage at the speed required? Will they consider revising it accordingly?