My Lords, I suppose I should begin with a brief word of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Soley. I congratulate him on getting his Bill to Committee stage rather earlier than I had feared and I wish him well.
It is some 46 years since I introduced my first Private Member’s Bill, the Historic Churches Preservation Bill, in another place. It led to state aid—later, through English Heritage—being made available for historic churches in use. I introduced that Bill and wrote my book, Heritage in Danger, a couple of years later because I was deeply concerned about the state of our parish churches and the dangers that face them. I will not say that we have come full circle, but the Bill I am asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading to today was introduced because of dangers that were not very real then but now face 6,000 of the 12,000 listed parish churches in the care of the Church of England.
I begin by making it abundantly plain to your Lordships that this is not an anti-bat Bill. I have often taken delight in them, particularly when my wife and I used to sit in the garden of our house in my constituency and delight in watching the bats. They are amazing creatures and I am glad that there are 18 species of them in this country. It is right that they should be adequately protected. However, it is right too that churches should be protected from incursions that threaten their condition and purpose. As I said, we have some 12,000 listed churches—the Church of England is responsible for 16,000 plus in all—over 50% of which have a bat problem.
I hope that I do not have to convince any of your Lordships of the importance of the parish church—indeed, most of our churches—to the history of this land. It is through our great churches and even greater cathedrals that we come closest to the soul of the nation and understanding its history. They are buildings of enormous importance and consequence. Earlier this week, I talked to someone who made the point that when their church was threatened with closure, the whole village was up in arms. Even those who rarely, if ever, darkened its doors did not want to see it closed or be declared “redundant”—a rather horrible term in this context. In all our most solemn and joyful moments, both national and personal, we tend to gather in our churches. Week by week, day by day, they perform a very special purpose. They are not only havens of peace, but centres of the communities in which they are situated. Moreover, many of them are great treasure houses of the most important art in our country. Almost all medieval sculpture is in our churches. One goes beyond that: brasses recording the illustrious, and sometimes not so illustrious, citizens of the locality; alabaster monuments; painted screens; murals; amazing wall-paintings, sometimes dating from the 12th century; textiles; floors, and furnishings. All of this and the cycle of worship is at risk. It has been at risk since I first introduced the Bill to which I referred some 46 years ago. I want to give your Lordships some examples.
I first became acutely aware of this problem shortly after we moved back to my native county of Lincolnshire some seven years ago. I went to a church that I knew well as a boy and a young man, the great collegiate church of Tattershall, which some of your Lordships may know and which stands hard by Tattershall Castle, one of the finest brick-built medieval buildings in the country. The church itself is a wonderful example of perpendicular architecture: soaring columns, full of light and full of some of the most extraordinary brasses and monuments, and with a fine, original 500 year-old door which the church authorities are not allowed to repair, much as it needs it, because, in repairing it, they may block one of the access routes for the 900 or so bats of several species which have colonised the church.
It was very sad indeed to see those brasses, which I remembered well from earlier years, covered over, but when one removed the covers, one saw them pitted: the urine and the droppings of the bats were corroding them in a way that they could not be repaired. There are many other examples, of which I shall give just a few. Stanford-on-Avon in Northamptonshire has some of the most wonderful alabaster and marble monuments. Deene in the same county has brasses and monuments. All Saints, Braunston-in-Rutland, has a colony of 500 bats; again, there are some marvellous monuments. The same goes for St Andrews, Holme Hale, in the diocese of Norwich—I am glad and grateful that the right reverend Prelate has put down his name to speak in this debate; we much look forward to hearing what he has to say. I would go on and on, but I do not want to weary your Lordships; I merely want to underline that this is not a local problem but a national problem, a problem that is particularly acute in those dioceses such as Norwich and Lincoln which have an abundance of wonderful places of worship.
We should take this carefully on board. I want to pay tribute to one individual, Dr Jean Wilson—she is just about to give up after completing her term as president of the Church Monuments Society—because she more than any other individual has drawn attention to this problem and to the haemorrhaging of the cultural assets that our churches contain. Churches make an enormous contribution to our tourism revenue. The people who flock to Beverley in Hull go to see the Minster and St Mary’s. Were they not there, would they go? The same can be said of course of many other places. They are, as I said earlier, community centres of great importance, but first and foremost they are places of worship.
I shall quote from one or two letters that I have received. This comes from Norfolk:
“The warden spends an hour almost every day of the week sweeping up droppings. Because of the droppings it is difficult to raise money from exhibitions and choral entertainment, so the community of the church is interfered with”.
This comes from Sleaford in Lincolnshire:
“Those who clean the church have a constant battle trying to remove bat droppings and urine from every surface. Even if the church is cleaned on Saturday it still needs attention before a Sunday service. Prayer books and hymn books cannot be left out as they would be ruined by bat urine and there is also a danger to health. It is very unpleasant. The church has part of a medieval wall painting and a 13th century effigy which have been affected by the bats. An active craft group in the village has produced kneelers, involving many hours of work; they are also affected by the bats. Last year at the end of a service a bat fell onto the head of an eight year-old girl, causing much distress. Not surprisingly, she was reluctant to return to church”.
I have an even more graphic example from a wonderful church in the Golden Valley of Hereford where a parishioner and his wife were kneeling to receive holy communion from their woman vicar. Bat droppings descended during the most sombre part of that ceremony, the administration of the host, which went into the vicar’s hair and the hands of those who were about to receive. I am sorry to dwell on those examples, but it helps:
“To point a moral, or adorn a tale”,
as someone would have said.
Of course, churches are used at the most solemn and joyful moments of individual lives. Some now find it difficult to conduct weddings, or even to persuade people to have their weddings in the church. Many a stalwart of the local community has had a funeral in a church where the stench is overcoming. And there is a hygiene risk. It is customary in the Church of England to serve refreshments after the main Sunday service and particularly after special festivals and the like. Very few people are tempted to eat if they can smell and see evidence of bats. Professor Wilson sent me a paper from the American journal Microbe, written by several eminent scientists and entitled Bats Prove to be Rich Reservoirs for Emerging Viruses. These are things we cannot just disregard.
I want briefly to go through the Bill and what it seeks to do: I think it gives a balanced approach. I draw from the admirable briefing that the House of Lords Library has produced for us all—how grateful we are on so many occasions for what it produces. The Bill has four clauses. Clause 1(1) provides:
“No new building shall be constructed on a previously undeveloped site unless prior to its construction a local bat survey has been conducted and it has been established whether or not a bat habitat is located in the vicinity”.
Clause 1(2) states that if a survey,
“concludes that a bat habitat is located in the vicinity of the site of a proposed building, the building shall not be occupied unless or until the developer of that building has provided a bat box or artificial roost for each species of bat”.
Clause 1(3) states that the term “building” would also include wind turbines, therefore no wind turbines requiring planning permission could be constructed unless there was compliance with the provisions of this clause.
Clause 2 would set out that,
“the European Communities Act 1972, the provisions of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 shall not apply to bats or bat roosts located inside a building used for public worship unless it has been established that the presence of such bats or bat roosts has no significant adverse impact”—
and sometimes it does not. Clause 3 would require the Secretary of State to specify by statutory instrument,
“the criteria to be used in a local bat survey”,
“the meaning of … terms such as ‘in the vicinity of a building site’”.
It is a modest Bill and it is not, as I said at the beginning, anti-bat.
I have had a number of very useful and helpful conversations with Andrew Sells, the chairman of Natural England, and Sir Laurie Magnus, the chairman of Historic England. I welcome the initiative that they are taking, working together to see what can be done to tackle the problem in churches, which they both fully acknowledge, but there are one or two problems with their “Bats and churches” project. First, there is the speed with which it is being conducted. Sir Laurie has written to me to say that they have had some lottery funding to set up the pilot projects, but they really need more if they are to roll it out over the nation in a reasonable time. I hope that his plea will be heeded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but there are other worries. One is that Natural England subcontracts the enforcement of bat protection legislation to the Bat Conservation Trust. As someone remarked slightly mischievously in a letter to Professor Wilson, that is a bit like putting the National Rifle Association in charge of firearms legislation in the United States. We need to have balance and impartiality.
There really is a sense of urgency. Over this weekend, tens of thousands of bats will defecate and urinate in over 6,000 churches. We must achieve a balance between the way we protect bats and preserve churches. Nothing less than one of the most important parts of our heritage is at risk because once destroyed, great works of art created centuries ago cannot be replaced. A replica never suffices.
We all have cause to be thankful for the rich heritage that we enjoy. We all have a common duty to ensure that it is preserved, not only for the current generation but for those to come to enjoy. Whether they go to worship because they are believing Christians or, as so many do, just to look and admire—to be inspired by what they see and come away with a greater sense of local and national patriotism and a love of history—we want them to be able to continue to go, and enjoy what they see, without seeing it destroyed before their eyes or with a stench in their nostrils. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have the honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose dedication to the historical environment should not be overlooked. Through many years, I have followed the work he has undertaken. I also have a great love of the archaeology in this country and helped to found the all-party archaeology group. I understand the issues faced by many churches throughout the country.
In preparation for this debate, I thought first that, as we are discussing churches and places of worship, I would look at how the Bible deals with bats. There are three mentions of bats in the Bible: in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which say you cannot eat them, and in Isaiah, which has a particularly fine reference stating that you should take gold and silver idols and throw them to moles and bats. I am sure the right reverend Prelate will have some views on the essence of that teaching. I will leave that to him.
I know quite a lot about how the process around bats takes place because I had to replace the roof on my house two years ago, and there are bats in most of the houses on the estate. I had to call in the Bat Conservation Trust, which was particularly helpful and did a bat survey in the roof. You listen out for the ultrasonic sounds of the bats. You can listen to them when the frequency of the device is lowered. I was keen to see whether there were any bats in that roof, but the bat survey officer said that it was so damp they would probably have drowned, which was the reason for replacing the roof in the first place. When I replaced the roof, I made sure that there were three bat entrances so it could be recolonised, not just because I think that bats are wonderful creatures but because a small bat will eat more than 1 million midges in its lifetime, and if you live in the wilds of Northumberland, anything that eats midges has to be a good thing.
One of the issues I had is that work has been carried out on the estate on roofs where we know there have been bats. Clause 1 talks about mitigation measures, such as putting up bat boxes. I have put more than 30 bat boxes up with an ecological group that works in some woodland I have, but so far we have not seen any evidence that they have been used. This is a real issue that should be taken forward when we talk about bat conservation. So much of the legislation we look at says that we can replace a habitat quite easily by putting up bat boxes or roosts. That is simply not the case. This raises a fundamental issue about bats, which is that we have destroyed the habitat of ancient woodland, there are no caves left, everything else is paved over and new buildings do not have the same crevices or even roof felting, which bats quite like. That means churches are one of the last sanctuaries for bat species in that area. That is a real issue because if we remove that roost it does not mean that the bats will move somewhere locally; it could mean that the bats leave the area altogether.
I am quite involved in the conservation of our local churches, Holy Trinity at Horsley and St Cuthbert’s at Elsdon, an 11th century church with a mass of history. They both have bats, but they do not have the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned because most bat droppings, unless there is a concentration, are very dry because they are made up of the exoskeleton of insects and crumble into dust. Obviously the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is right that the concentration can have an effect, but for most species of bat and most churches, it will not have the major effect set out. While I understand the real danger to much of the heritage in churches, I am rather wary of this Bill because Clause 2 states,
“the provisions of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 shall not apply to bats or bat roosts located inside a building used for public worship”.
That is probably the wrong way round. Should we not look at the damage being done in certain churches and then have an exemption if it is of particular note rather than excluding all places of worship, which would include mosques and temples? That would be a more proportionate approach to the Bill rather than a blanket ban, which I think is draconian. It also raises the fundamental problem that we have at the moment, which is that development and species conservation often cause major problems. I have not come across a congregation that cannot find reasons to disagree with itself on certain issues, and I am sure that bats in roofs is particularly one of those.
So while I understand the need to conserve churches, I hope that the work of the Heritage Alliance, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, should have heritage funding from the lottery, is taken forward so that worshippers in church can look at the most effective ways of mitigating the problems of bats rather than the removal of bats. For centuries, churches have been seen as a place of sanctuary. Because of the way we have destroyed the habitat of bats, churches are some of the last refuges in the countryside for many species of bat.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for introducing the Bill, which raises an important issue, and I look forward to hearing the other contributions today. I should say at the outset that I very much support legislation designed to protect wildlife, including bats. That legislation has made a major contribution to the preservation and support of our biodiversity in the UK.
If the House would humour me for a moment, I have some bat credentials to declare. I am a trustee of a UK charity that supports the management of a small national park in Africa, where I used to live as a young man. Every year in November it provides the backdrop for what is thought to be, by numbers, the largest single gathering of mammals anywhere in the world. Some 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats—the eidolon helvum—gather in a small area of primary swamp forest known locally as “Mishutu”, which is a quite extraordinary spectacle, particularly because the eidolon is a very large bat; it has a wingspan of around 75 centimetres and weighs in the region of 300 grams. If my mathematics are correct, this equates to a total of some 3,000 tonnes of airborne biomass visiting a very small area of woodland for a few weeks in November. It could perhaps be thought of as the equivalent weight of 600 male African elephants. The problems in my noble friend’s church might be put into perspective in one way by that allusion.
To return to the Bill and the matter in hand, I think my noble friend has made an important point and given the House an opportunity to consider the inherent proportionality here, which is essentially part of the deal in any legislation for the conservation of wildlife and the conservation of our wonderful national heritage, of which churches are clearly such an important part.
My remarks perhaps go rather broader than purely related to churches. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, in the issue of bat surveys, which are referred to in Clause 1. My experience of that is only as someone who has sought and secured planning permission for an old house and some former farm buildings, but these issues are very common in rural areas where a bat survey is required in order to give information about what species may be present. That seems a very reasonable proposition, but every time an application is submitted, even if it is closely related to another application regarding the same building or cluster of buildings, then a fresh survey is required. If the renewal of planning permission is sought after the three-year expiry, the process is repeated all over again.
Each of those surveys costs many hundreds of pounds, and bat specialists come out at night with highly sophisticated equipment. In the course of evaluating and securing planning permission for the development of perhaps a farmhouse or former farm buildings, multiple surveys may be required over time and that could be at the cost of many thousands of pounds. I fully support the need to have a bat survey and find out what species are there. However, does my noble friend feel that due consideration has been given to a more flexible, targeted and intelligence-led scheme, where information has already been gleaned about bat populations? Bat surveys that I have seen in my, admittedly narrow, experience—I have commissioned half a dozen or so—have said almost exactly the same thing each time. The same species are present in broadly the same numbers. Broadly the same mitigating factors should be taken into account and broadly the same timing consideration for the development should be undertaken —it should be undertaken at a particular time of year.
That has caused me to think about the total number of bat surveys that must be commissioned across the UK annually. It would be interesting to know that figure; clearly, I do not expect an answer now. If one then looked at the total cost, it may be worth considering whether what I suspect is a large figure could be better targeted towards conservation of the most important bat species, gathering intelligence on what measures could be taken to support those populations.
I leave the House with that thought. In any area of law where the public are asked to spend considerable sums, they must feel that they are getting value and that it is not just a tick-box exercise, as I feel that it may be at the moment. We have great expertise in the bat field across the UK—the Bat Conservation Trust and others have been mentioned. I plead for a little more flexibility for local authorities, national park planning authorities and so forth to take an intelligence-led, flexible and proportionate approach, which may be to the value of conservation of both wildlife and buildings.
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for the Bill. He has pursued a subject which I think can too easily be treated with mirth, but is not at all funny for those congregations in churches where bats sometimes rule the roost. It is reckoned that about 60% of all 16th-century or earlier churches have bat roosts. It is as significant as that. It is the nature of access to the roofs of medieval churches, I think, which causes the bats to go there, rather than their appreciation of our great, historic heritage. In a diocese such as mine, with 640 churches, of which 550 are medieval, there are places where the bat population outnumbers not simply the congregation but our total number of parishioners.
I used to recommend the regular use of incense, partly because I am very high church and love incense, and bats appear to be very Protestant, as they normally departed where incense was used. But even that is not now guaranteed to do the trick. Clearly, bats have gone up the candle in their churchmanship. I will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, because that is as far as my theological disquisition will reach: I have not done my biblical homework as well as he has.
Of course bats should be adequately protected, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said. We agree on that, and bats and human beings can get on, as they do in many of our churches. Of that 60% of medieval churches where bat roosts are found, many situations are tolerable, but in some churches very large roosts prevent the church operating effectively for its primary purpose as a place of worship, a house of God and a place to gather and build community. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, pointed out, altars, monuments, pews and fonts can all be adversely affected by bat droppings. But it is the impact on what a house of God should be and do that is the most important.
All over Norfolk there are barns once used by bats that have been turned into beautiful homes for human beings, and their new owners do not want to share their property with them—so the bats have moved to medieval churches, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, pointed out. There seems to be an assumption among some that churches are barns rather than houses. I am fairly sure that if bats started to roost above us in this Chamber or, perhaps, deposited their droppings daily on the green Benches in another place, they would not remain there for long. I have often thought that that may be the thing to arrange to manage the situation. It is a testimony to the uncomplaining generosity of so many Church of England congregations that they seek to manage the presence of bats in their churches as well as they do. But I know of churches where people have come to the end of their tether and where a glorious building has become increasingly unusable for worship or any other community purpose. That cannot be what we would desire and cannot be the best way in which to enable bat conservation.
I have a great deal of sympathy for this Bill. I do not see why places of worship should be different to the Houses of Parliament or a barn converted into a habitation for human beings. I sometimes think that we tolerate that because we think that houses of God are not inhabited, but they are—and not only by God. They are inhabited by people, as well as past benefactors and worshippers who are part of the communion of saints, and they deserve some respect, too.
Church volunteers who cover and uncover monuments and clean on a daily basis need all the help that they can get, and they sometimes feel very frustrated by the bureaucracy surrounding this issue and are distressed and depressed by the financial burden. While bat deposits are common enough, they do not normally take monetary form or come via a standing order or direct debit, yet they add very considerably to maintenance and restoration costs.
It is a tribute to our congregations that they are engaging with the bats and churches project, in which the Church of England is partnering with Natural England, Historic England, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust. It is a five-year project intended to work with some of the most severely affected churches, finding ways in which to protect church buildings without harming bat habitats. One challenge is to recruit hundreds of volunteers who will help to care for these churches as well as the bats that live in them. However, I know in my case in Norwich that some of the churches affected are in very sparsely populated rural areas, so quite where hundreds of volunteers will come from, when there are not even hundreds of people living within a 10-mile radius, I am not sure.
It is certainly true that there are practical solutions and there is much to be discovered, as we have heard, about the environments that bats prefer. Three churches, including one in my own diocese, All Saints, Swanton Morley, just outside Dereham, have been involved in an initial pilot. If the Heritage Lottery Fund provides the money, it is expected to run for five years from this autumn. I wish the project well—I hope that it will have success—but much has been tried in this area without fully solving the basic problem.
I am now in my 19th year as Bishop of Norwich, and bat roosts in churches have become more problematic with every succeeding year. I am hoping that the bats and churches project will provide some solutions, but it is not incompatible with the aims of the Bill, which is a reminder in itself just how serious this problem is—and I pay tribute to the noble Lord for pursuing this vexed matter so assiduously.
My Lords, as this debate goes on, I become more and more fascinated by the subject of bats and their habitats. Like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I am not alarmed by having bats in my attic on the assumption that they are attacking the midges, but I have no idea which of the 18 species they represent and can only speculate that some species are rarer than others. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Goschen in his suggestion that a particular survey should be done in that respect.
I support my noble friend Lord Cormack in his efforts to solve the problems, which he has outlined so thoroughly. They are side-effects, probably completely unintended and unanticipated, of the measures for the conservation and protection of bats, which clearly we all agree are welcome and necessary. I thank my noble friend for his explanations and his customary clarity in introducing the Bill.
I am certainly no expert on bats, but I take an interest in wildlife in general and in historic buildings and our heritage. I believe our heritage comes to light nowhere more than in small, country churches. My noble friend Lord Cormack gave some extremely good examples of that. It was in attending a wildlife event in Parliament just a few weeks ago that I met and spoke to the representative of the Church Monuments Society, Professor Jean Wilson, and saw the extent of the damage that can be caused by colonies in some churches, where they live relatively undisturbed. When you see the illustrations, the extent of the damage is really alarming. The Church Monuments Society, a tiny organisation, should be congratulated on raising, and continuing to raise, awareness of this issue.
Perhaps one thing that comes out of this debate is the need to use our churches more regularly. I have noted the remarks of the right reverend Prelate, who spoke about this. The worst damage is clearly caused in small churches with small congregations, which are not in regular use and cannot, therefore, be used for other community events for the reasons already given. In a sense, it is a vicious circle that needs to be broken, because the more a church is used the less of a problem there is—at least according to the evidence that I have seen. I would like to know—my noble friend the Minister will possibly be able to tell us—about the outcome of the local pilot studies and initiatives carried out by Defra and other voluntary organisations in 2013, following the review of the European Union’s habitats directive. I hope my noble friend can help us on that, because it will give us some more concrete evidence on what does and does not work and may be useful in making modifications to the proposals from my noble friend Lord Cormack in his Bill, which could obviously be discussed at its later stages. Meanwhile, I reiterate my support for the modest proposals contained in the Bill, because something clearly needs to be done.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on introducing this Bill. It has enabled us to have a really interesting debate, so far, on the pros and cons of what one might loosely call “bats versus humans”. I suppose I am a late convert to interest in bats; my wife is in fact the chairman of the Isles of Scilly Bat Group and I have been taken out on a number of tours to see them and listen to them. I find them very interesting. I sponsored a bat evening in Committee Room G a few months ago and some noble Lords came to stroke the bats—I think they found it very interesting.
I am also on record criticising some of the costs associated with bats. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, and I have had many conversations about this in connection with HS2, where a new type of bat was allegedly found on the centre line. It cost, I think, £15 million and the committee was told to move them. Therefore, costs are a problem, but that has to be balanced by the fact that the available habitats for bats, which do not include bat boxes on pylons, are declining, and the number of bats are declining. I love churches and love the history and artefacts, and this is a classic debate about balancing the environment with human beings. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has done us a service by issuing a wake-up call. I know that he says that he has been doing it for 47 years, but that is good. Many noble Lords have tenacity with regard to certain issues and projects, and I commend the work he has done. I could give the House a long description of what bats do and how they live, but that is not necessary today, because all noble Lords who have spoken have demonstrated a great knowledge of bats, whether they think the present legislation is right or not.
However, I will say a word or two about the question of bat numbers, because there are some clear examples, which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, of colonies which are possibly growing and causing trouble in churches—I will come back to that. A very interesting survey was carried out by the Bat Conservation Trust and others, The State of the UK’s Bats 2017, which noted the increase in some species, put that in the context of the historic decline and emphasised the importance of protection. The decline has nothing to do with churches but, as other noble Lords have said, everything to do with the lack of suitable habitats in newer buildings. There is therefore still a strong argument for keeping at least the present legislation, which we have had since 1981, and accepting that churches are an important sanctuary for bats as well as humans—although for humans they are not, as they are for bats, maternity roosts and places for hibernation.
Although the Bill is a wake-up call, many of its parts are probably unnecessary, and they fail to take into account some of the complex nature of bat ecology. For example, why include wind turbines in Clause 1? I am not a bat, so I do not know whether I would be attracted to a wind turbine—I do not think I would be. However, specifying in legislation that bat boxes must be fitted to the bottom of turbines seems a bit odd if we are not to have bat boxes on every telegraph pole and pylon in the country. We should encourage other habitats. We should probably look at mobile phone masts as well.
We need to continue the survey to record the growth or decline of the different types of bat, but the key issue is probably dealt with in Clause 2, which seeks to remove some of the protection in churches. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has told us about the legislation that is still there, and which in my view should continue to be there. There seemed to be a bit of debate about the number of churches affected; the right reverend Prelate mentioned different figures. My information is that, according to the only nationwide systematic survey of bats in churches, of 30,500 churches and chapels of all denominations in England—I emphasise that they are of all denominations and ages, before someone picks me up on it—6,398 could be used by bats. Within that latter number are the examples referred to by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. Churches are important places for bats to roost in. I accept that bats cause trouble in a small number, and if it is your church that is affected, it is no good people down the road saying that that is all right. Things have to be right for the small or large number of bats and the small number of humans who deal with the problem.
I believe that there has to be a flexible solution to this which, one hopes, will build on the Bats in Churches project, which other noble Lords have mentioned. Those involved in the project have been working very hard on this. There are lots of details on websites about what they are doing and I think that the outcome is due in the next month or two. The conclusions are particularly important because they have to aim to find practical, tailored solutions for the churches that are most affected.
Yesterday I had a very interesting meeting with the chief executive of the Bat Conservation Trust at which I asked what the solutions are. The trust has not announced them yet—it is still working on them—but I asked whether there are any. Other noble Lords have more experience in this area than I have but two solutions seem worthy of being taken forward. One is what you might call ultrasonic barriers, which I am told work in some instances. The other is to try to restrict the areas in a church where the bats can roost to places where they do not, for whatever reason, cause damage to the people underneath. I believe that this could be done without legislation. It would need some more funding, which the people involved in the project hope to get from the Heritage Lottery Fund. If they can create a network of volunteers who are able to provide help and support, and, in the process, come up with solutions that are within the funding capabilities of those who live or work there or have access to funding, I am sure that that is the answer.
Therefore, I am not very happy with the Bill as presented to the House today. I will be very interested to hear what the Minister says in response and I look forward to an interesting Committee stage if the time for it is allowed.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack and I support the Bill. I also congratulate him on securing this Second Reading today. I think that we all care about bats but, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is a case of live and let live.
I declare my interests: I sit on the Rural Affairs Group of the Church of England, and for five years I had the privilege of chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the other place.
My interest in bats started in 2011, as I shall explain in a moment, but at a younger age I had a rather regrettable incident when a bat entered the bedroom where I was sleeping as a little girl, with a second bat trying to follow closely behind. Fortunately, that close encounter ended without harm to either the bat or me.
In Danish and German the bat is called a “flying mouse”. Of course, we associate mice with a risk to health, particularly from their droppings and urine, whereas bats are deemed to be cuddly little creatures. It would be interesting to explore why that is the case.
In 2001, a small number of bats literally took over the church of St Hilda in Ellerburn. It is a rather beautiful church in Ryedale. It is a small church but with a persistent and supportive congregation. I pay especial tribute to Liz Cowley, who at the time was churchwarden and campaigned to reclaim the use of the church as a place of worship. I will quote what she said to the Telegraph in August 2011:
“The smell is appalling … it’s a combination of ammonia from the urine and a musty smell from the droppings that catches at the back of the throat”.
She went on to say that the roosting bats had soiled the interior, damaging the furnishings, including the altar:
“You can see the urine marks on the altar; they won’t go away”.
It was discovered that this was the Natterer’s species of bat, which is in plentiful supply and not remotely close to extinction. The result was that the bats took over the church and the congregation was not allowed to worship there. A number of us raised questions at the time in the other place to our then honourable friend Tony Baldry, as second Church Commissioner. It was only when I intervened with Natural England—I knew the chairman at the time extremely well; like me, Poul Christensen is half Danish—that we reached a compromise whereby the congregation could reclaim the church and the bats were protected in the upper part of the loft.
That experience scarred me and showed me the cost of not being able to worship, as my noble friend so eloquently set out. Noble Lords should recall that churches were the only places that many farmers felt they could go at the time of foot and mouth disease in the early 2000s. Rural churches take on a special significance in sparsely populated areas.
I turn now to the Bill itself. I wonder whether my noble friend would be minded to agree to a wider power and insert a new paragraph to Clause 3(1) that would look at keeping all individual protected species— bats, newts, badgers and all sorts—under regular review so that the status of their protection could be updated. To look briefly at one example, badger baiting was unspeakably cruel and should never have been allowed, but we now have a situation where, I believe, we are the only country in the European Union that protects badgers. They are in plentiful supply, to such an extent that, as a carrier of TB, they spread disease through their urine to herds of cattle, which then have to be culled at considerable expense. Will my noble friend consider—and indeed the Minister; it could equally be a government amendment—such a review of these protected species, including bats? As my noble friend Lady Hooper said, until a survey is undertaken, we do not know what the species of bat might be. But once the numbers of that species have been restored, why do they continue to enjoy an almost permanent level of protection? This should be reviewed and, for the purposes of today, let us start with bats.
We must not gold-plate the regulations to the prejudice of people in favour of bats. My noble friend Lady Hooper may well have been in the European Parliament at the time that the habitats directive was passed—I had the honour to work with her in the humble capacity of adviser from 1982. Surely the habitats directive must not be gold-plated by any of the directives and regulations that we transpose in this country. I urge the Minister to be sure to seek a balance between humans and bats in the use of churches and, as my noble friend Lord Goschen said, other historic buildings.
I would like to consider for a moment the cost of the surveys that my noble friend Lord Goschen, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and others have spoken to. In the case of St Hilda’s, £30,000 was the cost of the survey alone to conclude that this species was very common and not at all under threat of extinction. Over and above that, the population spent tens of thousands of pounds of their own money. As my noble friend Lord Cormack will know, it is very costly for church repairs to be undertaken. It places a heavy burden on what can be small but significant populations in rural areas, carrying the additional charge of 20% VAT on top. This is an additional burden, protecting species that are in plentiful supply and not in danger of extinction. Why should bats be singled out to have this special protected status?
I would like the Minister to give the House an assurance that, post Brexit, when we are told we will have a very high level of protection for mammal species, this enhanced level will not be to the detriment of common sense prevailing—that in the wider picture, whether it is bats, newts, badgers or other endangered species such as red squirrels, we must seek a balance between humans and these other species. This is a timely debate, given the fact we will have hundreds of statutory instruments coming through, transposing many more protections that currently have not yet reached the statute book. When we leave the European Union we might face higher levels of protection. I urge my noble friend to persist with the Bill. He will have my support. I hope he will look favourably on the little amendment I proposed. I hope the Minister will ensure that his department will seek to reach a balance between humans and other species in this regard.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for successfully getting the Bill to Second Reading. I know this is a subject dear to his heart and one on which he has tried previously to secure a Second Reading. All the activities that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has described are taking part in churches up and down the country, especially fellowship over refreshment after the service has finished. We have had an interesting and very informed debate. I am not, as I expect noble Lords will have anticipated, an expert on bats or bat behaviour. I think it only right that I should tell your Lordships that I have no sense of smell, so if there were bats in my church the smell would pass me by.
My experience is limited to having a lady from the Bat Conservation Trust visit us at home some 30 years ago when we first moved in to check for bats prior to woodworm treatment commencing. She duly climbed into the roof—not an easy task given the lack of space and her age—and pronounced that although there were signs of bats it was obvious that this was a nursery site and we could proceed as it was not the time of year for the relevant bats to be reproducing. Over the years, the bats returned irregularly and it was a joy, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described, to sit on top of the bank in the garden in the twilight and watch the bats streaming out for the evening, foraging for food.
There were also a couple of occasions where juvenile bats found their way into the house, once when a tiny pipistrelle was curled up in the plug hole in the bath, and another when one flew up and down the landing until we managed to catch it in a tea towel. On both occasions we hung the bats on the wall below the opening to their roost where their mothers could collect them later.
As has been described by other speakers, the village church is an important landmark in any community, regardless of whether it is medieval or modern. It is a visual focal point, if not an essential meeting point. I have listened carefully to the arguments from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others, and I fear that I am unable to support him in limiting protection for bats in buildings used for public worship. Like others in this debate, we have bats in the church where we as a family have worshipped over the years. Unlike those that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke about, they are not a nuisance but provide a fascination for those in the congregation who have only seen pictures of bats in books and are keen to view the real thing. There are many other churches up and down the land where bats are something of a tourist attraction, as are the churches themselves.
I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for reminding your Lordships that churches are not just barns but homes for the worshipping community. I can understand that a large number of bats roosting in a church where there are priceless artefacts and relics can be a nuisance and that a remedy is needed to prevent both damage and unpleasant smells. Some sort of solution needs to be found to enable both congregations to coexist more harmoniously. I do not believe that this is an insurmountable problem but it needs flexibility and innovation. Solutions can be found, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering.
Like others, I was extremely interested to read that in February 2017 the Heritage Lottery Fund approved the initial five-year funding for the project Bats in Churches. This partnership, as has been said, includes Natural England, the Church of England, the Bat Conservation Trust, Historic England and the Churches Conservation Trust. This is a £3.8 million project to trial new techniques to enable bats and congregations to live together, which I believe is the sole purpose of the Bill and the debate we are having today.
Although it sounds like a large sum of money, it is not likely to stretch over many churches. While it is extremely important that the fabric of churches is preserved for future generations, I and my fellow churchgoers have many scars from skirmishes with Historic England over what it will or will not allow in the way of upgrading facilities for the worshippers of the 21st century. I will be interested to know how this project is progressing and to what extent physical measures within churches have been allowed to mitigate the impact of the bat droppings that are affecting the fabric, the interior and the congregation.
I was interested in the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, on the cost of the bat surveys in relation to planning. As a local authority councillor, I would certainly support a proportionate streamlining of this process and increased flexibility. The cost of £30,000 for a bat survey is ridiculous and we need to find ways of bringing that cost down.
The briefing from the Bat Conservation Trust was extremely useful, especially in respect of the number of bat species we have in the UK. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, bats are insectivorous and devour large numbers of midges, mosquitoes and other pests. There is a delicate ecosystem which survives around different species of animals, insects and grubs. I fear we would disturb the ecosystem at our peril. Should we expel bats from some of their traditional and habitual roosts, resulting in a drop in their numbers, we could well find that we have an explosion of mosquitoes and moths, followed by hordes of caterpillars and grubs marching across our gardens and countryside, leaving a trail of devastation behind them. We would be wise to be cautious of the way forward and how we seek to limit the range and lifestyle of bats.
The Bill is a step forward and I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on Clause 2: the emphasis should be reversed so that it is not a blanket ban. I regret that I am unable to support the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his endeavours, especially as he has spoken so eloquently on the subject, which is obviously an emotive one for him. For worship to take place, some building may be necessary but it is not essential, as Wesley demonstrated. Perhaps some of the priceless treasures should be relocated if they are at serious risk of damage. Our church community relocated to the village hall while the decoration of the church took place, and that did not result in a reduction in the number of people who attended.
I am sorry that I am not able to support this Bill in its current form and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing his Bill today and for giving us the chance once again to consider the dichotomy of on the one hand trying to defend a precious and declining species and on the other hand preserving beautiful and historic places of worship. Along with other noble Lords, I also fully acknowledge the considerable contribution that the noble Lord makes to our church preservation and heritage. He speaks, understandably, with enormous authority and passion on this issue. But of course he will know, because he has tabled similar Private Member’s Bills in the past, that the solution is not quite as simple as his Bill would have us believe. There is a balance that needs to be struck between conserving our natural and cultural heritage, and sadly I do not think that the Bill in its current form achieves that balance.
As the noble Lord has recognised, under the habitats directive all bats are listed as protected species and as a result, in the UK all bat species and their roosts are protected. This was found to be necessary because of the widespread bat population decline. As several noble Lords have pointed out, most of the 18 species of bat found in the UK evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves. However, many have been forced to adapt to roost in buildings, including barns, houses, churches, tunnels and bridges because of the loss of their natural roosting sites. Artificial roosting sites are now essential to the survival of many bat species, although I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that bat boxes and other artificial mechanisms do not always work in the way they were designed to do. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Berkeley for his statistics, but as I understand it, since the legislation has been in place, national monitoring data suggests that bat populations have been stable or increasing, although that is not a reliable calculation in itself because we cannot ignore the fact that there is a continuing decline in suitable roosting sites as barns and older buildings continue to be demolished or converted, as other noble Lords have said.
We recognise that this decline in alternative suitable sites is putting increased pressure on churches as a resource for bats. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has spelled out the damage that can be done by bats roosting in churches and we fully acknowledge both the financial and hygiene issues. For example, bat droppings can cause significant damage to historical artefacts and items of cultural value, as well as being a disruption to worship and other community functions. We fully acknowledge those issues. However, we do not believe that the Bill before us is the answer to those challenges.
Clause 1 proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any new buildings are built to assess the presence of bats in the area, and where they exist, would require bat boxes to be provided. However, this requirement already exists. Local planning authorities have a duty to consider biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive when considering new developments. The duty includes provision for bat boxes and artificial roosts to be made available. In addition, bats do not require just bat boxes, as we have been discussing, but suitable habitats in which to feed which are not covered in the noble Lord’s Bill. This clause also includes wind turbines in the definition of a building. There is evidence that wind turbines have an adverse impact on bats, with evidence that they kill around 200 a month. However, guidance on surveying for bats at proposed wind turbine sites has been in place since 2009 and the Bat Conservation Trust has been tasked with updating the guidance with the aim of reducing the impact of wind turbines on bats in a collaborative way.
Clause 2 sets out that the relevant EU legislation, including the habitats regulations, should not protect bats inside a building used for public worship unless it has been established that their presence has no significant adverse impact on the users of the building. I agree with several noble Lords who have said that the noble Lord has got that the wrong way round. Moreover, this would be extremely difficult to define and prove, and would mean that bats would no longer have access to large numbers of churches which they increasingly depend upon for protection and safety.
We believe that the solution lies in a new coexistence between our cultural and natural heritage. I say to the right reverend Prelate that I believe there are indeed bats in the Palace, so there is evidence that we can coexist if the arrangements are properly managed. Defra has already been involved in research projects to support initiatives in churches and other historic buildings; I am sure the Minister can spell out the details. It is important that we manage this properly without unduly affecting the welfare of bats. I am sure that more can be done to address this challenge. I agree with a number of noble Lords that there is a case for a more flexible approach.
In the meantime, as has been said, the Bats in Churches Partnership Project—funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund—brings together wildlife and heritage conservationists on a wide scale. We very much welcome that initiative. So far, £3.8 million has been devoted to the project, which involves a number of groups such as Natural England, the Church of England, the Bat Conservation Trust, Historic England and the Churches Conservation Trust. The aim is to develop new techniques and build up professional and volunteer skills so that best practice and a shared understanding can enable bats and church congregations to coexist, which I think has been the theme of a number of noble Lords. The project still has some time to go and I take the point that it may need more funding; again, that case has been made. We believe that such initiatives are the right way to tackle this problem in a sympathetic way, rather than the heavy-handed approach that the Bill, in its current form, represents. We therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has heard the concerns of a number of noble Lords and does not feel that he has to pursue the Bill, in its current form, at this time.
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.
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?
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.
My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this interesting debate. My noble friend referred to the three Front Benches. Looking back on my 40 years’ membership of another place, whenever the three Front Benches were in accord, I always smelt a rat, if not a bat. Therefore I will persist in the campaign of which this Bill is a part because although I am very glad that there were some unifying themes in the debate, we are all keen on our obligations to the environment and to wildlife, we all recognise the fascination and the importance of bats and we all seem to recognise that the glorious—my noble friend used that adjective correctly—churches of this country not only belong to us all but are the responsibility of us all. It goes far beyond the Church of England. I was particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate for the experience he brought to the debate.
I am not persuaded that we have got the balance right between the protection of wildlife and the preservation of heritage. Although of course I welcome the various initiatives to which the Minister referred, he used the word “balance”, and I do not think we have the balance right. A number of points were made which illustrate that. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, was accurate in his figure of 30,000 churches, but the Bill is essentially about the priceless heritage of medieval architecture, which is a small proportion of that figure, so although he is in one sense right, I do not think that figure should sway the debate.
I enjoyed the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, but she said that churches are not just barns. I say to her very gently that they are not barns at all. One of the reasons why this was not a particular problem when I introduced my Bill in other place some 46 years ago is that since then we have had so many barn conversions, which have been referred to. Unlike in France, there are very few vernacular buildings in our countryside that have not been converted to commercial use, human habitation or whatever. That is something that we all have to take on board.
Churches are churches. They are places of worship. In many cases, the parish church is the focal point of the community and is used by the community. My noble friend Lady Hooper seemed to suggest that it was only those that were not used that often that had the problem but that is not necessarily the case; many of those that are used a great deal have a problem too. When we have a situation where the parish church’s use is endangered, we have a duty—and I accept that this is recognised—not only to act but to do so with a greater degree of expedition than present plans allow. We are dealing with relatively small overall sums. The £3.8 million that has been used for the pilot is of course welcome and is a tiny sum in the context of the national Budget. The churches that are concerning me are not only irreplaceable but priceless. It is important, as I said in my opening remarks, that they are there to be used, enjoyed and appreciated by future generations, and they must not be despoiled in the way that many of them are being.
I would be the last person ever to claim that a Private Member’s Bill was perfect. I have introduced many; I have been responsible for getting three or four on to the statue book over the last 48 years, and many I have not. I suspect this will be in the latter category, but I believe it is important that we continue to address the subject. When we come to Committee, if we do, I promise my noble friend Lady McIntosh—she seems to have disappeared, but she had warned me that she had to get back to Yorkshire so I completely understand —that if amendments are moved they will be very carefully considered.
We have had quite a long day. I am most grateful to all those who have taken part, and I hope we have advanced the cause a little way and can continue to do so.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 2.37 pm.