New Housing: Swift Bricks

Robert Courts Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts (Witney) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and it is an enormous pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who spoke so passionately and powerfully—and it is a passion that I entirely share. One of the great things about Westminster Hall is that we are able to debate things for which time often would not be found in the main Chamber, and to bring forward our own passion for a particular topic. As I will explain in a moment, I have had a passion for this matter for many years.

I pay tribute to my constituent, Hannah Bourne-Taylor, for her incredible passion and for getting this petition going. She came to see me a couple of months ago to ask me whether I would be prepared to support it, and it gave me enormous pleasure to say to her in my constituency surgery that I was only too delighted to support it because I care about the subject enormously. I pay tribute to her for bringing it to the national stage; that is an enormous achievement.

As we have heard, swifts are extraordinary birds, and I will spend a few moments explaining why they are extraordinary in order to show why we need to take action. Swifts are breathtakingly charismatic. They are the fastest birds in the world in level flight. Once they start and take wing, they essentially never land again except for the purposes of breeding, so when a swift takes flight for the first time, it will probably not land again for two to three years. They learn to do absolutely everything on the wing: they are incredibly fast; they can eat up to 10,000 insects a day; they can drink on the wing; extraordinarily, they can even sleep on the wing.

One great pleasure of living in a rural area like my part of the world in west Oxfordshire is going out of an evening and watching swifts as they dash around at rooftop level. That is usually young swifts looking for somewhere to nest. As the hours tick by, they circle higher and higher and higher into the sky. They do that to gain altitude, so that they can essentially, as I understand it, shut down part of their brain to sleep while the rest of their brain keeps them airborne—utterly extraordinary. They are so perfectly adapted for flight that they have difficulty landing, and that is part of the reason that they do not; their legs have shrunk to such a small size that if they ever do land on a flat surface, they are not able to take off again.

Everything they do is on the wing. This is important not just because swifts are incredible birds, although they are and I want to take action because they are incredible, but because it shows why we have to do something. Unlike other species, they cannot adapt to normal nest boxes. Swifts are one of those birds that in their way—a bit like cats and dogs—have learned a little bit over the years that humans are a good species to live alongside. They started off their ecological evolutionary life living in cliffs and trees, but realised that the houses that humans lived in left little gaps just under the roofs that are protected from the weather and are very much like a cliff, so they slot into them, have their eggs, raise their chicks and then leave. We have provided that critical space for them but, when buildings are renovated, that space is being taken away. Having learned to live alongside us because we are good partners to them, they are now losing out on that habitat; and we ought to do something about that.

As we have heard in a brilliant speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), some people may say, “Well, do I want them living in the roof?”, to which I would reply, “Yes, you do. You almost certainly won’t know they are there. They don’t leave mess outside. They don’t make any noise when they are in the nest. You simply won’t know they are there, apart from seeing their little dart as they fly down.”

That dart down is important because swifts generally nest at a height not unlike that of the rafters of Westminster Hall, because there is a danger of them grounding so they have to have a drop. They have to be able to push themselves out, drop and get enough airspeed to be able to keep flying, so beautifully and perfectly adapted are they, but that means that action must be taken for them in a specific way. Normal nest boxes will not work. We need to think of a way to integrate them into homes and houses. It is easy to do that with swift boxes, but swift bricks are even better.

A swift brick is built into the housing and therefore protects the birds inside from the heat and wind. It is utterly unobtrusive. Unless someone knows that it is there and is looking for it in a building, they will not even know, that it is there. These things are totally unobtrusive and are cheap and easy to put in. I know that that is the case, because I have done it twice myself. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), I have put swift boxes up and put in swift bricks. There are a number of ways in which people can do it. The first time that I did it, when I became interested in this subject many years ago, I partnered with the Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project, which is one of the action groups in my part of the world, and we put swift bricks into the tower of Bladon church; that is the village I live in. No one will know that they are there. The swifts of course know that they are there. They see them; they are high up, and once they start using them, it is simply an unobtrusive part of the church fabric. There is no impact on the inside of the church. It simply provides that nesting space.

I went on to put a nest box outside and then put in some swift bricks when I built an extension. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was absolutely right: we can do this for new builds, for existing homes and when we build an extension. It is quick, cheap and easy. There is nothing not to like about this.

The problem is that for an individual to do this, they have to have a certain level of enthusiasm and knowledge. I know that a lot of people here have that, but it is too much to expect everybody, all over the country, to have it. Much the same applies to local authorities, which have many important functions to carry out; it is expecting a lot of them to expect them to understand the precise nature of where a swift brick should be put and how. The good news is that we can help with that. Through guidance, legislation and working on the biodiversity net gain framework, we can do that here. I am not the sort of person who always rushes to say, “Government must do something. Government must legislate”—sometimes I think it is best that the Government do not do that—but there are things that the Government can do that are quick, easy and cheap, and have no ill effects at all. They can do this by providing guidance and a bit of legislation, and it makes an enormous difference.

The things that we can do include the legislation that has been spoken about already. If we want to see a more biodiverse world, we will have to take steps, and this is one of the steps that can very easily be taken. In any event, we can work on the biodiversity net gain matrix to ensure that buildings are taken as a habitat, because here is the problem with swifts: they use only the sky and buildings, neither of which count in the biodiversity net gain matrix, so it clearly will not help them. We can change that by understanding that for a swift, a building is its habitat, and that is something that we can do right here, right now.

I thank the House very much for listening to my enthusiasm on this subject, which I know is shared by so many. I really feel that this is something that we can do. It will make an enormous difference to the natural world and to swifts, but it will be good for us, too. Let us see it happen.

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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?

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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.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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The Government are doing a lot, but the point that we are seeking to make is that they are not doing anything to help swifts. I made my comments, at some length, to explain why swifts are different. They will not be impacted by the measures being taken—laudably—in other areas. The swift brick is needed, because it is niche to swifts.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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I appreciate that, and I again thank my hon. Friend for his valuable contribution—specifically the point on ensuring that swift bricks are installed at the right height, which is vital to them being fit for purpose.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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The Minister has touched on the right point, but that can be dealt with by the guidance. If there is a mandate to require swift bricks wherever possible, the guidance can be laid out afterwards on how to go out and do it.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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Again, I appreciate that, and I will take it back to the Department following our debate.

In addition to the strategies I outlined, a range of cross-Government measures will support the needs of nature more widely in local planning, including mandatory biodiversity net gain, which sees most types of new development required to deliver improvements of 10% or more in biodiversity. Work is ongoing with DEFRA to finalise the regulations, but we are confident that that update to the planning process will have positive outcomes for biodiversity.

The hon. Member for Bristol East asked specifically about that issue. As she outlined, DEFRA has committed to keeping species features such as swift bricks and bat and bird boxes under review. It is also committed to updating its biodiversity metric every three to five years, which will provide further opportunities for change and innovations to be considered.

Another measure that is in place to support the needs of nature in local planning is the green infrastructure framework, published in January 2023. The framework helps local planning authorities and developers to meet the national planning policy framework requirements to consider green infrastructure in local plans and new developments. The framework’s “Green Infrastructure Planning and Design Guide” is a helpful resource, which already advocates using British Standard 42021, calling for integral nest boxes to be installed in new developments. Furthermore, the requirement to consider green infrastructure in local plans is embedded in the national model design code, which provides guidance for local planning authorities on setting clear design standards through design codes and already refers to the green infrastructure framework, reinforcing the importance of the measures it outlines.

As we consider the implementation of a national policy, we need to reflect on its practicalities and whether planning is the most appropriate mechanism to achieve the desired outcomes. There is no denying—it has not been denied in this Chamber—that the planning process can be confusing and outdated for users. That is why our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is crucial to deliver changes to planning policy to address that complexity, including modernising it, increasing flexibility and regulating pre-application engagement with communities.

The changes that we want to make to the planning system will see a more consistent, streamlined and digitally enabled approach to the way planning applications are made. They will be proportionate to the scale and nature of the development proposed, to ensure faster and better decision making.

I must make it clear that the Government recognise the fact that many local planning authorities, as well as the wider planning sector, are facing capacity and capability challenges, which is why we have developed a programme of support, working with partners across the planning sector, to ensure that local planning authorities have the skills and capacity they need, both now and in the future. To that end, we are concerned that the introduction of mandatory conditions may impose an additional burden on all local planning authorities to enforce breaches of conditions. As legislators, we need to be mindful of the potential unintended consequences of introducing a national policy.

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Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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I am grateful to the Minister for taking another intervention. I add my voice to those we have just heard: this issue is a way for her to make a real mark on nature. It could be something that she could forever say she had done that had helped the future. I hope the Department will forgive me, but I feel that it is quite a niche subject, and perhaps one that the Department does not understand in the way it ought to in terms of how it could help. Would the Minister agree to meet a cross-party group of people who care about this issue and who will come and plead the case again? Maybe then she will be able to say that she will think again.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison
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My hon. Friend pre-empted my final sentence. I was going to offer to meet interested Members from across the House and interested campaigners from across the country to discuss the issue further. I recognise that it has provoked hearts and minds, and it is important that we get it right to stop the decline of swift populations.

Finally, I assure hon. Members that we want to build a future where swifts can thrive and soar high in our skies, bringing joy to all who, like myself, witness their graceful flight. I am grateful to all hon. Members for taking such a close interest today.