New Housing: Swift Bricks

Richard Foord Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Many hon. Members have talked about the constituents who urged them to attend this debate, and in my case the group Devon Swifts recommended my attendance. It has over 1,000 followers on Facebook and is pledging to turn up at shows and events in Devon under a gazebo to encourage other people who live in Devon to take a greater interest in swifts.

Two years ago, in 2021, swifts were added to the red list in the UK’s conservation status report, and the RSPB reports that the number of swifts has halved in 20 years and that fewer than 90,000 arrived last year. The same is true of other species that can use similar nesting sites: the house martin has declined by 50% since 1960. It should be said that species that are on the list, which are retreating or falling in number, are being threatened on a global level. It is not just in the UK that numbers are falling. This is very much an international issue, and it is made worse by climate change. Environmental degradation around the world is affecting bird populations.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) hoped that some hon. Members present might also take a greater interest in wider environmental issues around nature degradation and turn up to the relevant debates, and I agree with her. While we think about compulsion and how the Government might make some things mandatory of developers, we should also think about the insulation of homes. Some 2.3 million homes were insulated in 2012, whereas fewer than 100,000 homes are insulated per year now.

Swifts prefer to build their permanent homes by squeezing through tiny gaps in roofs, and as older buildings are changed, modified or taken down, some of those nest sites become unavailable to them. Swift bricks can be embedded in walls in the upper section just below the roof, and they offer a safe space for swifts to establish themselves. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), to whom I pay tribute for securing the debate, referred to concerns around noise and mess, before he allayed the worries that people might have. I would add to that: he is right, but developers can choose where to put these swift bricks, and they could not be so selective if we did not have swift bricks. I have heard concerns about mess and noise from these bricks being used by other bird species—for example the starling—but the swift brick can be placed away from people, in a home where the mess will not bother people underneath. That is great: we can choose to put these bricks in a particular location. They help dozens of other species—not just starlings and swifts, but blue tits, wrens, house sparrows, house martins and many others on the red list for endangered British birds.

I was looking earlier at the RSPB’s swift mapper. In my part of Devon, we have 114 pairs reported south of Honiton and 133 pairs west of Cullompton. It seems that the Government are opposed to making these new bricks a mandatory part of future planning developments, arguing that local authorities can choose to make this a condition on their own account. Typically, I would welcome that sort of devolution. Many areas that Westminster legislates on would be better put within the purview of local government, but in this instance I am not quite so sure: given that there has been so little take-up—only eight local authorities have chosen to use swift bricks—there needs to be a degree of compulsion. I pay tribute to Exeter City Council for being among those eight local authorities, but clearly, if we are to avoid losing further swifts in the future, we need to require developers to use swift bricks.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I am sure the hon. Gentleman would recognise that the Government mandate an awful lot on housing, not least to do with human occupation—whether we should have a front doorstep, the dimensions of windows and, in London, even the height of ceilings. It seems odd that the Government would not mandate on something as simple as this.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord
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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that point, and I agree with him. It is an area where a small action by the Government could deliver a real benefit for our natural environment. I urge the Minister to listen to the strength of feeling, not just from right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber, but from activists and campaigners here and in our constituencies. This small action could make a big difference, and I would be grateful to see this change made.