I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 626737, relating to the use of swift bricks in new housing.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This debate supports e-petition 626737, titled:
“Make swift bricks compulsory in new housing to help red-listed birds”.
This is an incredibly important issue, with a huge number of people having signed the petition. The momentum behind the campaign is the result of an incredible effort by campaigner and author Hannah Bourne-Taylor, whose energy, determination, expertise and creative approach to campaigning have helped raise awareness of the plight of this iconic and much endangered species. In preparation for the debate, I spoke with Hannah and representatives of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wild Justice and the Home Builders Federation.
It is a fairly simple ask in terms of putting measures in place to provide for endangered species in new build housing, but this is an incredibly urgent debate, as these birds are, quite frankly, running out of time. Swifts, house martins, starlings and house sparrows recently joined the international red list of species experiencing sharp population declines, and it is essential that we take action to prevent their extinction. In the UK, the swift population has declined by 57%. Swift bricks are one measure that could help turn the corner for those four species.
The current Government approach means that policy on swift bricks remains under the jurisdiction of local planning authorities, few of which have adopted a requirement to put swift bricks into new developments; where they have, it is because local campaigners have pushed for the measure. There are questions around whether local authorities have the expertise and, indeed, the capacity to properly consider this as a policy. As the swift population continues to decline, it is evident that we need a new approach—a move to a national policy, which could drive much-needed change.
Swifts are incredible birds, flying from our roofs all the way to Africa and back every year and crossing the Sahara twice. Their top speed has been recorded as 69 mph—they are the ultimate urban boy racer.
On the point about local councils, I have always been fascinated by swifts in North Norfolk. The east of the country is actually one of the better breeding grounds, thanks to our warmer climate. I am concerned that only eight local authorities have put any real effort into implementing swift bricks. Surely one area where we could improve, if there is not national legislation, is adjusting local plans. Why cannot local authorities ensure in their local plans that swift bricks are used in all new buildings to help solve this problem?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is disappointing how few local authorities have adopted this approach. I am currently harassing my local authority about this, and I am sure many of our parliamentary colleagues will be doing the same. Today we are calling for a central approach from central Government to drive that.
Many of us watch out for swifts, believing they herald the beginning of British summer. Their status as an established British icon is clear from the support the petition rallied, capturing the imaginations and support of 109,894 members of the public from a wide cross-section of society and from across the entire United Kingdom. The number of signatures alone clearly demonstrates the public’s concern about losing these iconic birds completely, which would be a huge loss to our country’s biodiversity and culture. A loss of nesting sites has been cited as one of the biggest factors in the decline of bird populations. Embarrassingly, the UK has been rated as the worst in the G7 for the amount of wildlife and wild spaces lost to human activity, as measured in the biodiversity intactness index.
The issue stems from a lack of swift nesting sites, which are commonly found in the eaves of our houses or in gaps in brickwork. Swifts nest inside draughty spaces, which we target with mortar and expanding foam when we go about remodelling, renovating and insulating. Since 2013, the Government’s energy company obligation scheme has insulated 2.4 million homes, including by providing external wall insulation. Millions of birds have lost their homes due to us improving our homes’ energy efficiency and the issue’s rising status in the Government’s agenda. As we demolish 50,000 buildings each year, so that figure grows. The loss of nesting sites is particularly hard for swifts and house martins, which are site-loyal birds: they and their life mates return to the exact same site every year to nest.
The hon. Gentleman is making a wonderful speech. One of my constituents, Helen Lucy, came to see me and presented me with a very informative booklet about this campaign. Does he agree that there is no reason why action cannot be taken? I have written to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ask for swift bricks to be made a national planning requirement. They are a win-win: they do not cost house builders much, and they would help to save the swift. As the hon. Gentleman said, the swift population in this country has declined by 57%. Swift bricks are an example of a simple action that the Government and those in power can take to make a real difference to wildlife in our country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point: swift bricks cost little and have a huge impact. That is our ask to the Government, but regardless of whether we manage to pull it off today, I hope we will all go back to our constituencies and local authorities and drive for a bit more change.
When swifts return from their perilous nine-month flight and find that their nesting site has been blocked off or destroyed, they try to break entry. They are, unsurprisingly, not strong enough to break through several layers of insulation, and many injure themselves in their attempt to get back into their old nesting spots. If they are unable to fly, they will likely die. If they do not succeed but survive, they face a tough task of finding a new spot to nest in time to breed. That leads to many missing the mark, with the consequence that the population fails to grow again.
Old nesting spots are being lost, and new developments do not provide an alternative. Modern developments have no purpose-built nesting habitat for these birds and lack natural alcoves for birds to shelter. The swift brick is an answer to that problem. It is an intended nesting spot, providing permanence. It is a bespoke option that can host a wide range of nature. It has been designed to fit the dimensions of a standard UK brick, and is highly suitable for developments, since the overwhelming majority of modern houses are built from bricks or blocks. The bricks sit inside the wall and do not compromise its strength or insulation. They are fully enclosed, with a small, outward-facing hole for the swifts to enter. They are not offensive to look at and can be adapted to comply with the strict aesthetic requirements that developers need to meet.
As the planning Minister at the time, I had a hand in the changes to the national planning policy framework that encouraged the uptake of swift bricks, so I am pleased that this debate is taking place. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are two further advantages to the brick over the box? First, although the brick is primarily aimed at swifts, it can also offer a home to another species that is in decline, and which was the music of my childhood—the house sparrow. We do not see them as much as we used to in urban areas.
Secondly, particularly in the south-east of England, the brick protects swifts from being evicted by the parakeet. The six swift boxes on my house have been overtaken by parakeets, which are able to widen the opening because it is wooden, rather than brick. Using bricks would give other species opportunities and would protect swifts from being evicted by more aggressive species.
I bow to the experience and knowledge of my right hon. Friend, who is the proud owner of six swift boxes—hopefully he will use bricks. He makes a very good point. I used to listen to the house martins when I was younger; I have not heard much from them recently, and I would like to hear more from them in the near future. I thank my right hon. Friend for everything he did to get things to this juncture, and I agree that we need to go a bit further to ensure that these bricks reach houses across the UK.
In addition to permanence, the swift brick offers weather resistance and climate control. That is the most convincing argument for choosing swift bricks over an external bird box—other than the parakeets.
The first concern that some raise is the fear of noise or mess. People are concerned about what the bricks mean for their sleep, their patios and their clean washing, but those concerns are misplaced. Swifts are incredibly clean birds, which go about their business far from their homes, and they make minimal noise inside their nests. Surprisingly even to me, 85% of respondents to a recent survey said they would not be dissuaded from buying a house because of a swift brick, and the remaining 15% believed it would increase their likelihood of buying the house. What is not to like? Swift bricks are clean and noise-free, the public like them, and they could help to protect four endangered species.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. There was a particularly strange claim by the Government that there might be instances in which the provision of swift bricks are “inappropriate”. The RSPB has given that pretty short shrift, so does the hon. Member agree with the RSPB—and with me—that there are no reasons why swift bricks should not be appropriate in high-density schemes?
I would very much agree; in fact, I will come on to that. When we look at the costs—actually, we will come back to the costs too; we will come back to it all. I think the RSPB makes a very valid point. It is a no-brainer in many ways, and there is little to be lost by putting swift bricks into homes.
There is another reason to commend swifts, which is that they are not actually here for very long. As my hon. Friend may know, they broadly arrive in the first week of May and certainly leave, like clockwork, in the first week or so of August. They are not here for terribly long, which is why we should give them a nice home to live in.
I very much agree.
So what is not to like? Swift bricks are clean and noise-free, the public like them and they could help to protect four endangered species. But what about the cost, and what do the developers say? Swift bricks are incredibly low-cost. They are already produced by multiple manufacturers, and home builders have the opportunity to shop around. Prices online start from as little as £25—although I do not know how much my right hon. Friend paid for his—which is pennies to large housing developers. Swift bricks represent one of the most cost-effective conservation measures and help developers to comply with their responsibilities in the Environment Act 2021, creating biodiversity gain.
After speaking to developers, and representatives from the Home Builders Federation, it is clear that they take their responsibilities for the environment seriously. They welcome the proposals and see them as giving clarity and direction and as a meaningful way of complying with the Environment Act. In fact, there are many examples of house builders being proactive and putting swift bricks in place without being compelled to do so.
In their response to the petition, the Government said they would not be legislating for a nationwide approach, because in
“some high density schemes the provision of ‘swift bricks’, for instance, might be inappropriate”.
I just wanted to ask a specific question about that. If it might not be appropriate—if a brick might not be inhabited by a swift—what is the harm? Does it matter? Of course it does not; the brick just lies there empty and uninhabited. I fail to see that that is doing any damage at all.
That is a very good point, and it is one that Guy Anderson, from the RSPB’s migrant recovery programme, has made in response to the Government. He has said that he cannot see any reason why swift bricks would be inappropriate in any development in the UK. He says:
“there may be some buildings where the design...makes it...less likely...to ever be used by swifts...however, even if...not used by swifts...red-listed house sparrows, red-listed starlings or red-listed house martins may use them”.
I would therefore urge the Government to look again at the policy and at what can be done to either enforce or encourage the delivery of more swift bricks in homes across the country.
To end on a brighter note, there are now many examples of swift bricks being used. One of the largest installations of swift bricks has taken place across the Duchy of Cornwall estate. The “Big Duchy Bird Box Survey” showed that, across all of the newly installed swift bricks from 2015 onwards, almost half had been used.
I want to give credit to the RSPB for this campaign, but also to the Stroud Valleys Project, which has been a really strong campaigner on this. It does things such as a “Swift Walk” around Minchinhampton common, which is absolutely fantastic. I wholly endorse the proposals for changes in terms of local authorities and planning, but what I want to hear from my hon. Friend is a real gee-up for everybody who is promoting the protection of these species, because there is actually a lot going on in many of our communities. I am not down on the swift boxes, by the way; while homeowners do not necessarily have the bricks, they can look to have the boxes. I think that this is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate these birds.
One thing to say about this petition is that, while there are lots of petitions that people sign because it is in their own interests, for the 109,000 people who signed this petition, this was not necessarily in their personal interests but was something that they saw as being in our natural interest and as a huge game changer for the country.
We can combine that result from the “Big Duchy Bird Box Survey” with other large-scale installations that have taken place. Barratt Homes is leading the way and doing its bit, going above and beyond. It has installed boxes on a huge number of sites, and it reckons that as many as 96% are being used, with that percentage increasing over time.
There is plenty of climate anxiety to go round at the moment. Unlike Hannah, I am not going to take my clothes off, and nor am I going to go round chucking orange powder and confetti everywhere, but I will leave Members with this thought. In a survey carried out by Lancet Planetary Health into climate anxiety among children and young people, around 60% of those young people said they feel extremely worried about climate change and our natural environment. This proposal is an opportunity to help to save four species at minimal cost and inconvenience. It is welcomed by the public and by developers, and it is time to get on with it before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, to speak in this debate and to follow the powerful speech that has just been made.
I start in by extending my enormous thanks to Hannah Bourne-Taylor for starting this petition. It has been a real pleasure working with her, and her dedication to saving our precious swifts has been an inspiration.
As I am sure that many of the people gathered here today will know, last week was Swift Awareness Week, which was a chance for all of us to celebrate this amazing bird and the steps being taken to restore its numbers. But I have to say that I celebrate swifts every day throughout the summer, because they are absolutely my favourite bird; they truly are one of nature’s miracles. As we have heard, their migrations span continents, and I have read that a single bird has been known to fly over 1 million miles in its lifetime. Their 12-week stopover in Europe, when they pause to breed in our rooftops, is the very definition of summer.
Swifts spend most of their lives flying; sometimes after leaving the nest, they do not land again for an astonishing three years. Indeed, they can do everything on the wing: feeding on insects and airborne spiders; skimming mouthfuls of water to drink when flying over smooth rivers or lakes; and bathing by flying slowly through falling rain. They can even sleep in flight.
Humans have long been captivated by swifts. Back in the 18th century, the English cleric and naturalist, Gilbert White, was inspired to write poetry about the swifts coursing around a church:
“To mark the swift in rapid giddy ring
Dash round the steeple, unsubdu’d of wing”.
Yet, alongside other cavity-nesting urban birds, such as house martins, common starlings and house sparrows, swifts are on the red list of highest conservation concern. As we have heard, their numbers are declining at a terrifying rate, with a staggering 62% fall between 1995 and 2021. But let us be clear: it is not swift populations alone that are collapsing. Swifts symbolise the decline of almost all long-distance, insect-eating migrants to the UK. Since 1995, the common cuckoo is down 35%; the nightingale is down 48%; the willow warbler is down 10%; the house martin is down 37%; the whinchat is down 57%; and there are many others in that depressing list. The thought that we could lose these beautiful birds from our skies forever is truly devastating, so we must do everything we can to prevent that from happening.
Many of the steps that we can take are easily taken. As we have heard, swifts are urban birds, making their nests in the walls of our homes and living side by side with us. When they have established a breeding site, they miraculously return there—to the same place—year after year. It is therefore thought that the loss of suitable nesting sites could be a likely contributor to the decline of swifts, with many old buildings being renovated or demolished and new builds not providing suitable nooks and crannies.
Swift bricks are a cheap and proven conservation measure, with evidence demonstrating that their installation is beneficial not just to swifts, as we have heard, but to other birds, such as blue tits and great tits, as well as what are perhaps less glamorous species on the red list, such as house sparrows and starlings. Despite that, swift bricks continue to be left out of developments, with recommendations in the design codes guidance and a British Standards Institution standard having failed to have the necessary impact.
So I wholeheartedly endorse this petition, and I urge the Government to mandate the installation of swift bricks in all new developments.
The hon. Lady makes a really important point about new developments, as indeed did my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). However, could swift bricks not also be a planning requirement for extensions? In a cost of living crisis, many people might not be able to afford to move, and they might need to enlarge their homes, so if a new brick is going in, there is no difficulty in making it a swift one.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady. With a bit of imagination, we could really make a difference, and hers is a very good suggestion.
I urge Ministers to act with urgency and, for example, to bring forward an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to make this law. That step has been endorsed by many Members of all parties, the director of the Conservative Environment Network and former Government Ministers. It is not often that one points to such cross-party support for any kind of proposal, and this proposal has that cross-party support and could be easily put in place.
Let me say a few words about Brighton, because as hon. Members would expect, it is leading the way on this issue, as on so many others. Since June 2020, any building over 5 metres is mandated to include swift bricks, and the county ecologist has recommended specific requirements for major developments. That follows the redevelopment of the former site of Brighton General Hospital, which was home to the second largest colony of swifts in the south of England. The swifts had been using old and decaying ventilator bricks and other gaps in the walls as nesting holes. Of course, any repairs to the holes would have rendered them unsuitable for the swifts, so swift boxes were retrofitted into the building. They matched the existing brickwork and conformed to British brick standards, which meant that the boxes and bricks could seamlessly fit into the design of the building. The project is now being seen as a flagship example of swift provision. I pay tribute to conservationists in Brighton and Hove, including Heather Ball, who have worked so hard to make our city more swift-friendly. Local swift groups have been inspecting new developments to find out whether they adhere to the rules.
I want to take a moment to challenge some of the arguments in the Government’s response to the petition. I very much hope that they will change their response. They say that although they welcome action by developers to provide swift bricks, they consider this
“a matter for local authorities depending upon the specific circumstances of each site”,
and that they therefore “will not be legislating” to mandate specific types of infrastructure. That is a massive wasted opportunity. It would take such a small thing to mandate the measure nationally, and we know that not enough local authorities have done it and that it would take a long time for each one to come to a local plan and start to mandate it. This measure would have huge support and could be driven appropriately from the centre. Instead, the Government have pointed to planning conditions that local authorities can impose and the introduction of new local nature recovery strategies. Although some local authorities mention swift bricks in their guidance for local plans, only a handful have made it a condition for new housing, and although local recovery strategies may identify swift bricks as important, there is currently no legal link into the planning system.
A legal duty to include swift bricks in all new developments is essential to deliver the new level of action that is required to save our swifts. As the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) mentioned, there are also ways that we could extend that duty to extensions and other moments when people do work on their homes. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) has already quoted the RSPB, which quite clearly demolished the idea that swift bricks can sometimes be inappropriate, so I hope that the Government will not keep saying that. Instead, let us see a change on this as soon as possible.
Time is not on our side. As I have said time and again in this House, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with a staggering 15% of species now at risk of extinction. Swift bricks and swift boxes are important, but they are far from enough. Nature is under assault from every angle—from our intensive agricultural system, which douses our fields in poison, to ancient woodlands being destroyed to make way for roads and railways, and water companies incessantly pumping sewage into our waterways. If we are to have any chance of changing that terrifying picture, we must start by quite literally making a home for nature—by living once again with a species that has long been our closest neighbour.
If the swift goes, it will be its own tragedy, but it will also be symbolic of so much else. The author, naturalist and campaigner Mark Cocker has just written a wonderful book about swifts, which I warmly commend, called “One Midsummer’s Day”. He writes:
“The declines are profoundly troubling but they are important in an additional sense. They are part of the birds’ deeper capacity to serve as symbols for all life. For this in truth is a deeply troubled planet…Until now we have seemed unwilling to educate ourselves, or to feel in our deepest core, that life is a single unitary whole: that all parts are fused inextricably within a self-sustaining, mutually giving, mutually dependent, live fabric”.
If we were truly to live as if that were true, we would know that taking care of nature is a way of taking care of ourselves and all the other species with which we are so privileged to share this one precious planet.
Mandating the use of swift bricks in new buildings is one of the smallest and simplest steps we could take, but it would symbolise so much more. It would be that first step, but it would also be a symbol of our recognition of deeper interconnectedness. It is a step I hope that the Government take, and I hope that all Government Members who have spoken so strongly about the importance of swift bricks will carry that passion into future debates about things like industrialised agriculture, which is sadly destroying precious nature and is such a force for ill.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, and to follow such a passionate speech from the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts).
I, too, am a rural MP, and the benefits and protection of swifts is an issue that is incredibly important to my constituents. Indeed, one of my constituents, Sarah Gibson, is the author of a fantastic book about swifts called “Swifts and Us”. Although I have not read it yet, I have obtained a copy and I am very much looking forward to reading it. A total of 305 people from North Shropshire signed the petition, and I have received frequent casework about the topic of swift conservation and the importance of ensuring that swift bricks are included in planning regulations.
It is understandable that so many people feel passionately about this matter, because as we have heard this afternoon, swifts are incredible birds. They do everything on the wing, so they do everything while they are still in the air—sleeping, mating, bathing, all while in flight. They also eat in flight, efficiently chasing down insects while in the air. In case that is not impressive enough, they are our fastest bird in level flight and have been recorded flying at almost 70 mph. Of course, on top of that, they are beautiful. The sight and sound of them coming in and out of the eaves of buildings are, for many people, the first signs of summer. I am sure that colleagues here will agree with me that the best canvass sessions are the ones with swifts screaming over the top of our heads.
Unfortunately, the swift population is declining. The number of swifts in the UK has decreased by nearly 60% since 1995. This is yet another reminder of the rapid rate of decline of a beautiful and important species. Like many other birds, such as the house martin, swifts joined the red list for the first time in 2021. Something must be done.
I confess that before I was an MP I had not heard of a swift brick, but I have since become aware of the campaign, and they seem to me to be a fantastic solution. They offer artificial homes for swifts, which the British Trust for Ornithology has said works incredibly well for the reintroduction of swift nesting sites in areas where they have been lost. Swift bricks have been incorporated into new planning developments in both urban and rural areas over the last few years. Alongside being cheap to produce, one of the main benefits of the bricks is that they can be implemented easily into many kinds of developments.
For example, they have been installed into the rooftops above Oxford Circus and the walls of Lambeth Hospital, and in Brighton, as we have heard. In addition, one of my constituents has created a Facebook group dedicated to the protection of swifts and designed to spread information about the ease of installing artificial nesting spaces in properties, which I understand has ensured that over 100 new artificial swift nesting places have been installed to properties around North Shropshire over the last 12 months. Artificial nesting places such as swift bricks seem like a fantastic solution to a serious problem.
I am even ensured by Swift Conservation that parents eat the chicks’ droppings, meaning that there are no piles of droppings under the nests. That is surely another benefit for homeowners, who might be concerned about having artificial nesting places for swifts in their property. The benefits of swift bricks are not only that they protect these most impressive animals, but that they provide nests for other types of endangered species, including other red-listed birds such as the house sparrow, starlings and wrens, which we have already heard about. While assisting the longevity of the swift, swift bricks would also create a home for other endangered species and improve biodiversity.
There is another hurdle to swifts’ attempt for survival that lies outside habitat creation and is related to their diet. A swift’s diet consists mainly of insects, specifically flying insects, of which they can eat as many as 100,000 in one day. They include aphids, flying ants and mosquitoes. The Wildlife Trusts have raised concerns about ensuring that there are enough insects to feed an increase in swifts. The decline in insect species is a sure sign of nature being under threat in the UK. The pollution of prime feeding habitats for swifts, such as wetlands and grasslands, presents another potential barrier to swifts flourishing in the UK.
The issue is twofold. We must provide sufficient space for swifts to live, but we must also consider their need to feed by tackling the depletion of insect varieties head on. Overall, I support Members’ calls to back the mandatory use of swift bricks in all new homes and extensions. As we have heard, it could be done so easily and quickly. It could be a measure we add to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, or there are opportunities in the national planning policy framework and the future homes standard, all of which we are waiting to see; they could all incorporate this important measure.
We should also stress that to support biodiversity for all bird populations, we must look at insect decline and a sufficient food supply for these impressive birds. I would therefore say to the Minister: look at planning regulations, look at the levelling-up Bill, look at the national planning policy framework and future homes standard and take this simple step to make the first move in support of these amazing birds and biodiversity the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as always, Sir Edward. I congratulate Hannah on bringing this petition forward, and I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate. It was a real privilege to be asked by the RSPB, quite a long time ago now, to be the species champion for the swift, but I am clearly not the only one—this whole room is full of champions for the swift. I think I rather lucked out in being chosen ahead of them. We have heard so much about what an amazing bird it is, so I will not go over that ground again.
Soon after taking up the role of species champion, I went to visit Bristol Swifts and saw the dedication among these local groups. A couple had spent seven years trying to attract swifts to their homes. Having put in the bricks and played mating calls, they finally managed to get the swifts to come, and last year their swift boxes provided nests for 16 breeding pairs and 36 chicks. That is just in the one home.
There are many other amazing groups. Particularly over the past year or so, I have seen on Twitter how many there are in localities such as Rother, Hastings, Lewes and Sheffield.
I apologise for intervening a lot, but it would be remiss of me not to congratulate Hampshire Swifts on its work. I opened a conference for it back in 2018, and it has contributed to the planning process and fed into the local plan review. Groups such as that are doing so much to push this issue; it just requires the Minister to push it over the line.
It certainly does. I was going to mention Hertford and Halesworth, and now I can say Hampshire too. Cambridge also has a group.
I pay particular tribute to Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins, which has a special place in my heart because it is run by my sister, who is in the Public Gallery. That shows the difference between us: I am always here talking about things, and she is actually out there doing things. That group has provided 170 new homes for swifts since 2020, and this year swifts have finally taken up home in her house.
Last year, because the heatwave made the bricks too hot, there was a real problem with fledglings trying to leave before they were ready to fly. All around the country, local groups rescued swifts; my sister cared for 17. I remember going down to Sidcup to pick up her daughter from university, and as the three of us sat outdoors at a Sri Lankan restaurant, there was a swift on the other chair being fed crickets—it had to be fed every hour to keep it alive. My sister did that while juggling three kids and working a full-time job.
An interesting fact is that a swift weighs the same as a Cadbury’s creme egg. Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins is making egg cosies to raise funds for swift groups. If anyone wants one, I am sure I can arrange that.
I also want to thank Milton Keynes Swifts, which works very closely with Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins. I thank Mike LeRoy for sending me a comprehensive briefing about the work that group is doing with developers and housing associations. It was particularly helpful on biodiversity net gain, which I will come to in a moment.
As we have heard, when a building is demolished or renovated, swifts lose their nests, and new buildings do not always offer the same nooks and crannies. That habitat loss is one of the reasons swifts are now red listed. They are a conservation concern, as their numbers fell by 62% between 1995 and 2021.
Other Members have explained effectively that swift bricks are very simple and easy to use. They blend into the building and do not affect insulation. That issue has been raised with me, particularly given the discussion at the moment about the need to retrofit homes, but the bricks will not have an impact on the energy efficiency programme. They are durable, low cost and do not require maintenance. Even if they do not attract swifts, they can be beneficial for other red-listed species such as house sparrows, starlings and house martins. Hibernating tortoiseshell butterflies and bees also use them.
I defer to the hon. Lady’s absolutely fantastic knowledge of swifts, and I thank the former aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), for his amazing account of swifts’ aviation.
Swift bricks have been around for many years—possibly 20 years. They are very simple and cheap to install. There is deep affection for these birds, not least in Stroud. I thank the 500 petitioners from Stroud and the thousands of others. Does the hon. Lady agree that we have waited long enough, so we need to mandate? The bricks are so simple, and it is obvious that we need to install them, but that is not happening at a great enough scale, so mandating will make the difference for that species.
As has already been said, only a small number of local authorities—Exeter, Hackney, Islington and Brighton and Hove—have taken the step of requiring bricks. I am working on Bristol, and I hope we will do that in the next iteration of its local plan. That is tiny compared with the potential of what we can do. It would be so easy to have swift bricks in all new developments—not just new housing, although the petition is about housing, but other buildings too. We need to do something to turn this from a nice little local initiative into something that is far more widespread.
It is important to say that developers are not opposed to this proposal. Barratt Homes has actively worked with the RSPB to develop a swift brick and has pledged to install swift bricks in all new houses built in Bristol as well as in several other cities. I actually went up on the roof of one of its new houses in Blackberry Hill—one of those classic “MP in a hard hat”-type pictures—to do that. Another sister of mine is working with a housing developer in Milton Keynes that is also putting swift bricks into all of its new houses. This work can be done and there is no opposition to it, so there is no reason for the Government to be cautious about it.
I just wanted to be clear about what hopefully we are collectively asking for. We are asking the Government to mandate the use of swift bricks—and the plural is important. As anybody will know, swifts are gregarious birds that like to nest in colonies, so putting in the odd brick here and there is unlikely to be fruitful. What we actually need is groups of four to six bricks, possibly more. As the hon. Lady said, in Bristol houses have got seriously more than that number. However, just putting in a brick—singular—is not much use to anybody, least of all the swifts themselves.
That is certainly the case, which is why we want to see this done at scale. As I think has already been said, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management has highlighted surveys that show that buyers would not be put off by a swift brick.
It has been asked whether this would be a nuisance. I live by the harbour in Bristol and every time I open my balcony doors, pigeons and seagulls come in. Indeed, a particularly resolute pair of birds are determined to build a nest on my balcony, so I cannot turn my back without them coming in. However, having swifts in a house is not the same as having pigeons or seagulls in a house. Indeed, they are excellent lodgers and most people would not even have any idea that they were there.
It is reasonable to ask why swifts merit a specific planning requirement, as opposed to any other creature that is under threat. I say in response that, first, this is a known problem with an identifiable cause and a practical, straightforward and cost-effective solution. I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would be delighted if we could say the same for all environmental challenges and all red-listed species.
Secondly, other species are already protected by planning policy in a way that swifts are not. The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 require a developer’s ecology report to cover protected species, such as bats, which are officially designated under those regulations. Mitigating steps are required if these species are present on site.
The problem is that the Birds of Conservation Concern red list, which was developed with funding from Natural England, is not covered by any similar legal requirement, and nor are swifts included in the list of habitats and species of principal importance in England, so there is no obligation on local authorities to consider swifts as part of their biodiversity duty.
The Government’s response to the petition emphasised local planning decisions and
“the specific circumstances of each site.”
Will the Minister tell us in what circumstances exemptions might be required? The benefits of including these bricks seem to outweigh the costs and, as has been said, even if the bricks are not ultimately used by swifts, they may benefit other species.
There is already a British standard on integral nest boxes to guide developers on selection and installation. There are also a variety of brick designs to suit different types of construction; an RSPB factsheet lists at least 20. The RSPB has said that
“there are no reasons why swift bricks should not be appropriate for high-density schemes”,
And, contrary to the Government’s response, the RSPB advises that
“connectivity to wildlife is largely irrelevant for swifts".
As I think has been said, swifts are birds that are either in the air or in their little swift bricks, rather than being out and about in nature.
Finally, I turn to the issue of biodiversity net gain, which the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned briefly. If, as the Government suggest, swift bricks are not appropriate for all developments, amending the biodiversity net gain rules would allow developers to consider whether swift bricks are an efficient way for them to meet their biodiversity targets.
Three years ago, I wrote to the then Minister for Housing —the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher)—calling for the building regulations to be revised to make swift bricks compulsory in all new homes. I received a disappointing reply then, and the Government’s response to the petition suggests that their position has not changed. However, the regulatory framework has changed, with the introduction of the biodiversity net gain requirement.
The Government’s own planning practice guidance emphasises the value of swift bricks to biodiversity net gain, but that is undermined by the habitat-based biodiversity net gain metric, under which the loss of a swift nest and the addition of swift bricks are irrelevant; they just do not count in the way that, say, hedgerows, trees or other sites for swifts’ nests would count. Can the Minister tell us what incentive developers will have to install swift bricks when they will not count towards their 10% biodiversity net gain?
The biodiversity net gain approach is not perfect because the loss of a swift habitat will not necessarily be captured in the baseline assessment—I suspect the Minister might say that in response. If a survey is not conducted at the right time during nesting season—as we have heard, it is only a 12-week season—the nest is likely to be missed. But including swifts in the metric as a starting point would mean there is an incentive to look for nests and check the RSPB swift survey or the Swift Mapper app. I am sure all the local groups would be delighted to assist the Department in telling people exactly where swifts are likely to turn up. Even if no nest is detected, it means developers have one easy way to secure some biodiversity net gain credits.
Milton Keynes Swifts this weekend was checking the nest boxes for a developer who had agreed to incorporate nest sites. It told me the development did not install swift bricks because the architect was not aware of those at a sufficiently early stage in the process. If swift bricks were included in the biodiversity net gain metric, it seems they would be more likely to be considered during the design process.
The biodiversity net gain metric already includes design features such as green roofs, so it is not a big ask to include swift bricks as an option. In fact, it is a lot easier to put swift bricks in than it is to make sure that a green roof is installed and thrives for years to come. Relying on biodiversity net gain has the added benefit of considering all developments, not just housing, with larger public buildings and commercial premises potentially able to accommodate more bricks.
Swift bricks also give more options for biodiversity net gain in urban environments—something that was sadly neglected in the Government’s environmental improvement plan 2023. We have to ensure that we green our urban environments. We cannot have everyone’s gardens concreted over and green spaces built on, and that offset somewhere way outside the cities. We must improve urban environments, and swift bricks are an ideal thing to do.
Does the Minister agree that the biodiversity net gain metric has adversely changed the regulatory landscape for swifts? I hope she will tell us that she thinks a revised BNG metric could be a useful tool. I know that that is a matter for DEFRA rather than the Minister’s Department. DEFRA has already committed to reviewing species inclusion in future major updates to the biodiversity metric. I urge the Minister to discuss that with DEFRA colleagues.
On a final note, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, we are talking about this in the context of a massive biodiversity loss and ecological emergency. Swift bricks are one easy step towards addressing that, so I hope the Minister looks favourably on what we have said today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the petitioners on securing today’s debate.
Swifts, as we have heard, are truly remarkable birds. To me, their screeching calls are the sound of summer arriving. I love the sound so much that I use their call as the ringtone on my phone, although that has been known to confuse keen birders. Swifts are known to spend 10 months of the year entirely airborne and land only to breed. As we have heard, they return to the same nest site for a few short months to raise their young.
When swifts arrive back in the UK in spring after a marathon journey from their wintering grounds in Africa, they need two things: a safe place to nest, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) pointed out, and plenty of invertebrates to eat, but those things are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As our houses are renovated and old buildings demolished, swifts find themselves shut out of the nooks and crannies that they make their homes in. Habitat loss, pesticide use and other factors are also making it harder for swifts to find enough food to breed successfully. In 2021, the species was added to the red list of endangered birds after its population fell. In Chester, we have seen a 46% decline.
Swift bricks and boxes are a simple solution to the decline in nest spaces for these birds. I have had a swift box installed on the side of my own house by local members of the Chester branch of the RSPB. We have talked about domestic buildings, but we should be incorporating bricks into public buildings, too. When I was leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, I was pleased to work alongside the Chester RSPB on its Chester swift conservation project to raise awareness of the alarming fall in breeding swift numbers in the UK and to co-ordinate actions to increase the availability of suitable nest sites around Chester.
Chester Northgate is the most significant development in the city for decades and was led by the council. Because of the importance of sustaining the local bird population, 20 swift hotels were installed in the Northgate car park brickwork as part of the Northgate project. I am proud to have promoted it as part of a progressive decision by a local council. Councils can go so far, but more support is needed. The Bluecoat building on Northgate Street in Chester, where my constituency office is based, also installed swift boxes as part of the Chester conservation project. The trust funding enabled RSPB Chester to increase the availability of suitable nest sites around the city by offering subsidised box installations in areas near existing swift colonies. Through RSPB Chester’s swift box scheme, more than 80 boxes have been installed in houses and buildings in and around Chester so far. The boxes are free of charge, and the RSPB will even put them up for residents. I encourage any residents in Chester to consider putting a swift box up in their house.
The decline in nest spaces has a simple solution, and I am pleased that in Chester, among other places, we are leading the way. Swifts have been with us for millions of years, and I hope that we can ensure that this remarkable species stays with us for much longer.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Many hon. Members have talked about the constituents who urged them to attend this debate, and in my case the group Devon Swifts recommended my attendance. It has over 1,000 followers on Facebook and is pledging to turn up at shows and events in Devon under a gazebo to encourage other people who live in Devon to take a greater interest in swifts.
Two years ago, in 2021, swifts were added to the red list in the UK’s conservation status report, and the RSPB reports that the number of swifts has halved in 20 years and that fewer than 90,000 arrived last year. The same is true of other species that can use similar nesting sites: the house martin has declined by 50% since 1960. It should be said that species that are on the list, which are retreating or falling in number, are being threatened on a global level. It is not just in the UK that numbers are falling. This is very much an international issue, and it is made worse by climate change. Environmental degradation around the world is affecting bird populations.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) hoped that some hon. Members present might also take a greater interest in wider environmental issues around nature degradation and turn up to the relevant debates, and I agree with her. While we think about compulsion and how the Government might make some things mandatory of developers, we should also think about the insulation of homes. Some 2.3 million homes were insulated in 2012, whereas fewer than 100,000 homes are insulated per year now.
Swifts prefer to build their permanent homes by squeezing through tiny gaps in roofs, and as older buildings are changed, modified or taken down, some of those nest sites become unavailable to them. Swift bricks can be embedded in walls in the upper section just below the roof, and they offer a safe space for swifts to establish themselves. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), to whom I pay tribute for securing the debate, referred to concerns around noise and mess, before he allayed the worries that people might have. I would add to that: he is right, but developers can choose where to put these swift bricks, and they could not be so selective if we did not have swift bricks. I have heard concerns about mess and noise from these bricks being used by other bird species—for example the starling—but the swift brick can be placed away from people, in a home where the mess will not bother people underneath. That is great: we can choose to put these bricks in a particular location. They help dozens of other species—not just starlings and swifts, but blue tits, wrens, house sparrows, house martins and many others on the red list for endangered British birds.
I was looking earlier at the RSPB’s swift mapper. In my part of Devon, we have 114 pairs reported south of Honiton and 133 pairs west of Cullompton. It seems that the Government are opposed to making these new bricks a mandatory part of future planning developments, arguing that local authorities can choose to make this a condition on their own account. Typically, I would welcome that sort of devolution. Many areas that Westminster legislates on would be better put within the purview of local government, but in this instance I am not quite so sure: given that there has been so little take-up—only eight local authorities have chosen to use swift bricks—there needs to be a degree of compulsion. I pay tribute to Exeter City Council for being among those eight local authorities, but clearly, if we are to avoid losing further swifts in the future, we need to require developers to use swift bricks.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would recognise that the Government mandate an awful lot on housing, not least to do with human occupation—whether we should have a front doorstep, the dimensions of windows and, in London, even the height of ceilings. It seems odd that the Government would not mandate on something as simple as this.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that point, and I agree with him. It is an area where a small action by the Government could deliver a real benefit for our natural environment. I urge the Minister to listen to the strength of feeling, not just from right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber, but from activists and campaigners here and in our constituencies. This small action could make a big difference, and I would be grateful to see this change made.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, as ever, Sir Edward, and to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I thank Hannah Bourne-Taylor for creating the petition and the members of the public who signed it in such large numbers. It is unsurprising but nevertheless still heartening to see so many people mobilise against the decline of nature across these isles and in particular in defence of the swift.
I recognise, as several hon. Members have, the contribution made over many years by local swift conservation groups across the country. The various initiatives they have collectively developed and implemented have made a difference, and they deserve to be commended for their work. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and thank all hon. Members who have participated. It has been a debate defined by a series of passionate, thoughtful and informative contributions.
The debate has fallen to me to respond to as a member of the shadow Levelling Up, Housing and Communities team because it ostensibly relates to a technical planning matter. However, as the debate has made abundantly clear, the specific issue we are considering touches on a far broader range of concerns. As hon. Members have alluded to, when we weigh in our minds the case for specific measures such as swift bricks, context is everything. It is for that reason that Labour starts by recognising that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with analysis from the Natural History Museum suggesting that with an average of only 53% of our biodiversity left, the UK is in the bottom 10% of the world and the last in the G7 when it comes to the state of ecosystem biodiversity. It is unarguable that more must be done to protect and enhance our natural environment.
Labour fully appreciates how sharply breeding swift numbers across the country have declined over recent decades—as hon. Members have mentioned, they are now on the red list of birds of conservation concern in the UK. The precise reasons for the rapid decline of the species are complex. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), have alluded to some of them, but the loss of available nesting sites, largely through home renovation, insulation and demolition without sufficient alternatives being created, is undoubtedly a significant contributory factor. In our view, it is essential that as part of efforts to increase biodiversity net gain, we drive up rates of swift brick installation in new build properties—not only in houses but, quite rightly, in other public buildings across the whole of England.
The question is therefore not whether the Government need to do more to halt and reverse the decline of the swift population in the UK, or whether swift bricks would make a significant difference to swift numbers and other red-listed species. This tension has featured throughout the debate. The question is rather whether it is necessary, in order to boost swift numbers in the UK, to mandate the incorporation of swift bricks into all new build properties, as opposed to taking steps to better encourage and incentivise their roll-out.
Our instinct when it comes to achieving biodiversity net gain, including the specific 10% BNG target in all new developments that will apply from November this year, is to allow for maximum local discretion. It is local communities and their representatives that are best placed to determine what specific measures are appropriate on any given development site. As such, we certainly have a degree of sympathy with the Government’s position that local authorities and developers should not be compelled to include swift bricks in every single housing unit that they respectively authorise or construct.
However—there definitely is a “however”—we are deeply concerned about current swift brick installation rates. To the best of my knowledge, no agreed estimate of the total number of swift bricks needed to restore the swift numbers lost over recent decades exists, although I know that some people have made estimates. But there is little doubt that the numbers currently being incorporated into new buildings each year are lower than they need to be if we are to address the decline of swift numbers in the UK. That is not to overlook the tangible progress that has been, and is being, made in various parts of the country. We appreciate that many local planning authorities and communities have already included specific provisions relating to swift bricks in their local development and neighbourhood plans and associated supplementary guidance. We recognise that many new residential developments across England are incorporating large numbers of swift bricks.
However, it is undeniably the case that those incentives remain the exception rather than the norm—not least because, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), swift bricks and other species-based features are not explicitly included within the metric for calculating biodiversity net gain. The result is that swift brick coverage across the country, estimated at fewer than 20,000, remains far too limited at present.
Labour therefore takes the view that current national planning policy and guidance on the matter, which essentially amounts to listing swift bricks as one of the many small features that can measurably increase biodiversity and recommending them as part of best practice local design guides and codes, is insufficiently prescriptive. Although we do not believe that local discretion should be overridden lightly, we intend to reflect carefully on the arguments made in favour of making swift bricks mandatory in every new home built in England, and we certainly do not rule out such a measure in the future.
However, as things stand, we are absolutely convinced that there is a robust case for the Government to consider revising existing national planning policy and guidance in this area, at least to create a presumption in favour of incorporating swift brick provisions within local development and neighbourhood plans and associated guidance. Under such an arrangement, and with swift bricks properly scored on the BNG metric system, the onus would at least be on local authorities and developers to justify not installing swift bricks in each instance across specific sites.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be making life so much more difficult for himself and for all of us. I honestly could not believe my ears when I heard him basically saying that he would not—yet, at least—support the position that swift bricks should be mandatory. It would save so much time rather than putting in place all these extra hoops. We know that this is urgent. We know that having a swift brick can do no harm even if a swift does not use it. We know that starlings might, or sparrows. I really do not understand where his reluctance is coming from.
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.
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?
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?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I will do my best to address all the points raised; if I miss any, I will follow up in writing following the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing the debate, and I thank all hon. Members here for their valuable contributions.
We have received in-depth aviation know-how from a former aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts); incredibly informed views on the planning process from a former planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse); and some wonderful anecdotes and poetry about swifts. Some of my favourite memories of nature are sitting out in the early morning, watching them swoop and dive and dance. It is one of the most beautiful things that is so pure about swifts as a species. One of the great things about this debate is that we are all united in wanting to improve the population of swifts across the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South referred to them as urban boy racers. I appreciated that; they certainly feel the need for speed when we watch them.
Before I address the points raised, I will make it clear that the Government greatly welcome actions by developers that contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment. We recognise the importance of protecting priority species, which is why our national planning policy framework establishes that opportunities to improve biodiversity in and around developments should be integrated as part of their design. That consideration is especially essential when it could secure measurable net gains for biodiversity. That is why it is so encouraging to see design features such as swift bricks in new builds to provide nesting facilities for birds included in housing plans.
In some circumstances, we support planning conditions or obligations being used to require that planning permission provides for works that will measurably increase biodiversity, just as we have seen with Brighton and Hove local planning authority. It has taken decisive action by mandating the inclusion of swift bricks on certain types of developments. I am sure that is due in no small part to the tenacious campaigning of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am sure many hon. Members are aware of similar actions in their constituencies, some of which have been highlighted, where specific species necessitate such measures.
In the case of swifts, action is needed—I think we are united on that. It is of great concern that a staggering 62% of these magnificent birds have disappeared from our skies over the past 26 years. So worrying is their decline that they have been added to the UK red list of birds of conservation concern, as a number of Members have highlighted. Although external factors such as adverse weather and a lack of insect food for chicks are contributing to their decline, the scarcity of suitable nesting spaces only exacerbates the issue. That is why I wholeheartedly agree that conservation efforts must continue to focus on ensuring safe nesting sites are in sufficient supply.
Furthermore, since swifts can be found throughout England, any urban or rural area with buildings can potentially provide homes for these birds, but it is worth noting that to maximise the chances of successful colonisation by swifts, it is crucial to install the bricks within certain parameters, considering aspects such as openness and height off the ground, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney outlined. Planning practice guidance sets out the benefits of resting facilities for birds, but I take on board the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney and I will take them back to the Department.
This is a rare moment of cross-party unity. It is rare that myself and the shadow Minister agree at the Dispatch Box, but the Government also believe that we need to be cautious when it comes to mandating national planning conditions. There could be some circumstances where development proposals will not impact on bird habitats. We should not impose conditions and ensure that planning permissions are subject to additional and unreasonable requirements to accommodate species that are not present in an area while creating financial burdens to comply with and to discharge the condition.
I cannot believe what I am hearing. This brick costs about 25 quid—that is a tiny amount for new developments. There is no worst case scenario if one is put up but does not get used; there would be no problem, and other birds would probably use it. Can I impress upon the Minister that warm words do not get us anywhere? I am hearing too many warm words and not enough action. This is a simple thing that she could do, and I cannot believe that she is refusing to do it.
I am pleased to hear the Minister’s enthusiasm. The point is this: when the last revision of the NPPF came in, introduced this guidance towards biodiversity net gain and indicated things like swift bricks and hedgehog highways, there was a hope that developers would take it up. They have had several years to do so, and they have not.
In many developments, the box is ticked by putting up some wooden boxes here and there that will deteriorate over three or four years and then be gone. The point about the swift brick is that it is permanent. It cannot go. It does not weather or deteriorate. After seven or eight years, my wooden boxes are already looking a bit ropey after the predations of the parakeets and will need to be replaced. A brick would not. That is why we are all so keen to see them mandated.
I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has incredible wisdom in this field, having served in the Department and focused on planning during his time in government. He will know that we have recently consulted on the new national planning policy framework. I will come to that later on in my speech, which I hope will address some of his concerns.
It is fair to say that more research is needed on how best we monitor and improve swift populations, as outlined by the shadow Minister. I have received assurances from DEFRA and its agencies that they will monitor swift populations and assess any positive effect.
I pass on my thanks to organisations such as Swift Conservation and to local groups such as Hampshire Swifts and Save Wolverton’s Swifts and Martins—I have to do that, as the sister of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is in the Public Gallery. It would not be right not to pay tribute to those groups for their work.
The Government do not at present intend to make swift bricks compulsory in new housing, but I assure Members here today and the House that measures are being introduced across Government to protect and enhance our natural and local environment, and I will outline those now.
Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that other familiar birds, such as sparrows and starlings, which were added to the UK red list 21 years ago, have remained on that list since. To tackle that, we are placing greater emphasis on implementing a range of policies that intersect with planning to achieve better outcomes for habitats and species in England, and we have already made great progress. Just last month, the Government announced funding of £14 million to support 48 authorities in England responsible for developing local nature recovery strategies. Those identify and outline ways to enhance or recover the existing or potential species in the respective areas. Their importance cannot be overstated.
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.
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.
The Minister will know that my constituency neighbour, our right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), shares a local authority with me. Test Valley Borough Council already requires a long list of specifications when a planning application is granted, including what type of brick and roofing material will be used and what the windows will look like. Mandating a standard brick per dwelling does not seem very complicated to me.
I have heard my right hon. Friend loud and clear, but I hope she will recognise my wider point about not wanting to add unnecessary additional complexity to a service that already faces a great deal of it.
Consultations such as the one on the national planning policy framework in December 2022 are invaluable sources of information, as mentioned by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan). We are currently analysing the responses to the consultation, which included answers about how national policy could be strengthened through small-scale nature interventions—for example, swift bricks—and a Government response will be provided in due course.
We also used the consultation as an opportunity to outline our commitment to a wider national planning policy review, which will align with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill receiving Royal Assent, and will ensure that the planning system capitalises on all opportunities to support the environment, address climate change and, of course, level up the economy. In the review, we have already committed to exploring how we can incorporate nature into development through better planning for green infrastructure and nature-friendly buildings. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that we cannot pre-empt the findings of the review, so we would not want to introduce a national compulsory planning policy until it has been concluded, but we remain conscious of the plight of our swift population and the potential benefits that mandatory swift bricks could have.
Before I close, I reiterate that the Government are committed to protecting and enhancing our natural and local environment. Through our planning changes and cross-Government working, we are pursuing a fair and balanced approach to achieve better outcomes for biodiversity. Our policy interventions will empower local areas to adopt a targeted approach in reversing the decline of swifts, based on local opportunities. Local planning authorities have the power to adopt policies locally that protect species, and it is important that that is done in a holistic way.
Before the Minister finishes, could she confirm to us that she is not saying no to introducing mandatory swift bricks? I understand that she is a Minister in a Department and that collective decision making has to be gone through, but will she go away and have a think about it? In doing so, will she consider two things? First, she should have a look at the wooden boxes that developers may have put up three or four years ago, get a sense of whether they are all still there and consider their permanence. Secondly, I understand that she has given notice that she will not be standing at the next general election but, in a small way, she may be able to leave her mark for the future. If she said yes, we would all be happy to call it the Davison brick, and she would be able to gaze at the swifts with some joy in the future and see the part that she had played in their success.
I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention but, just to confirm, it is not something that is being considered by Government at the moment. As I said, in the review of the national planning policy framework there are opportunities to feed in, and I would encourage all Members here and all interested campaigners to feed into that consultation.
The problem is that that review is absolutely massive—it covers a huge range of things. The reason we are having the debate today is to try to flag that this issue needs a very specific response. How can the Minister assure us that, when it comes to the consultation, this does not get lost among everything else?
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.
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.
I thank the Minister for her comments. She has heard the call, and I hope she will reflect the arguments and the passion to the Government. It has been great to see such passion for swifts; in fact, hon. Members have put their words into action and installed many swift bricks in their own homes.
As MPs, we debate measures to do with protecting our natural environment, which all too often come down to arguments around costs and consequences. These tiny bricks come with tiny costs but can have a huge impact on a treasured species. It seems like a no-brainer. I am confident that, given the passion of Hannah, the campaigners and so many MPs, the campaign will not end here.
The debate has raised awareness and driven huge press coverage. Like many others, I have lost count of how many times I have had to explain to people what a swift brick is. Congratulations to everybody involved, and congratulations to Hannah on a fantastic petition campaign—keep going! I am in touch with my local council about what we can do in our area with these fantastic bricks, and I am sure that, as a result of the debate today, many others will be in touch with theirs too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 626737, relating to the use of swift bricks in new housing.