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Churches (Bat Infestation)

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 11 December 2014

6. What recent estimate he has made of the costs to churches of damage caused by bat infestation. (906594)

“Baldry on Bats” part 2: the full financial cost is difficult to calculate, but the damage to local and nationally significant cultural heritage is substantial. Approximately 6,400 churches are infested with bats.

Having come down from the eaves and woken up, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has had any discussions with English Heritage, which, after spending a lot of money on restoring churches, then finds that environmental authorities do not allow the exclusion of bats from churches? It will not harm bats to be excluded from churches. They did not start there; they started in trees and other such places. We need to exclude them from churches because they are doing a huge amount of damage and wasting taxpayers’ money that has already been spent on restoring churches.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. St Nicholas church in Stanford-on-Avon in his constituency is one of the worst affected churches in the country. We are carrying out research and work with Natural England, and we hope that that will offer solutions for managing bats in the worst affected churches in the country and, most significantly, financial help in carrying out those plans. Such work does help. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has in her constituency St Hilda’s church in Ellerburn, which has successfully excluded bats from the interior of the church, and has now allowed the congregation back in the building to worship. Adaptations are also being made to Natural England’s licensing system, which will make it easier for consultants to carry out licensed bat work in churches.

I raise this point with some trepidation as the right hon. Gentleman got very cross with me when I raised it in a Westminster Hall debate on the same topic, but does he not accept that the Bat Conservation Trust has been doing some good work with some churches in helping to enable bat populations to live side by side with congregations? In some instances there are ways of managing this without causing a problem. Does he support the trust’s work?

The Bat Conservation Trust is a worthy partner, but it and the hon. Lady must accept that churches and cathedrals are not field barns; they are places of worship.

Will the full might of the Church of England be deployed in support of the Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, which is due for a Second Reading on 16 January 2015? That Bill would protect churches and deregulate the system so that bats did not get a free ride inside our churches.

As I think EU Commissioners have acknowledged, no one expected the EU habitats directive to cover places of worship.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his solicitous concern about the number of years that the congregation was excluded and bats seemed to be given a higher right of entry to the church than the congregation. We tried to do as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) proposed—allowing bats in the roof, with the congregation below—but it was simply incompatible.

I am glad that after all this time we have managed to solve the problem at St Hilda’s at Ellerburn. It demonstrates that with perseverance and working together with Natural England, it is possible to come up with a solution that enables congregations to worship but does not harm bats.

When I opened the Christmas fair last Saturday in Wessington church, I had loads of conversations with everybody, including the vicar. Not once did they ever mention that there were bats around. It is just conceivable that the bats were not there because the beast of Bolsover was in the church.

“Baldry on Bats” part 3 has not contemplated the idea of getting the hon. Gentleman around to every church that is infested with bats to exorcise them, but it is certainly worth considering.