Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Dame Diana Johnson Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:54 p.m.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and I shall let it stand, but I should certainly be interested to see where the route lies and where the path takes us. There is no doubt about it: 20 years ago, after I became the MP for Chesham and Amersham, one of the great joys in the Chiltern hills was the reintroduction of the red kite. One of the great pleasures,—if the hon. Lady would like to come out and visit the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—is to see the red kites flying. They really are a source of great joy. It is a pity that we cannot do the same with some of our smaller nesting birds, which, sadly, we are losing.

I think I have made my point about HS2 and the Minister has heard it, but I must say that it begs the question why, if parts of the countryside have to be removed to make way for so-called progress, tree and hedge removals cannot be completed outside the nesting season,. After all, it has taken 10 years and we do not even have the go-ahead for HS2, but we are already damaging the environment—irreparably, in my view—with the enabling works, even though we do not know whether the project will go ahead.

We are engaged in a major battle for the environment against global warming. Today we are discussing another battle—the battle for our birds in the United Kingdom. If we do not pay attention to the smallest creatures of our wildlife, we shall end up with a sorry, barren world, in which the next generations will be forced to live.

Dame Diana Johnson Portrait Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:55 p.m.

I think this is the first time that you have chaired a debate that I have taken part in, Ms McDonagh, so it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

It is good to see so many hon. Members here to discuss this important environmental issue. We have already heard some excellent speeches on the consequences of netting and the action required. I commend the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), who set the scene well.

In a short speech, I will concentrate mainly on my constituent, Maggie Moran, who started the petition that is the reason we are all here this afternoon. Maggie and her family are in Parliament today. She started her petition in the early hours of the morning after a long shift at Hull Royal Infirmary, where she works. At first it was shared among friends; it went on to gain more than 300,000 signatures, national media coverage and a response from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which I understand has written to developers reminding them of their legal obligations.

Maggie was kind enough to write to me before the debate. I know that she has also spoken to the media and received a lot of media coverage, and has explained why this issue is so important to her. In her note to me, she talks powerfully of her upbringing and how her family instilled in her a deep love and respect for nature. She speaks fondly of holidays where she and her father calculated the age of hedgerows. As she reminds us, our hedgerows are ancient, beautiful, rich ecosystems. They are homes, breeding grounds, safe corridors and hibernation spots for birds, bats, dormice, reptiles, insects, hedgehogs and others. They play a major part in preventing soil loss and reducing flooding. I represent a constituency in east Yorkshire. The Humber estuary is prone to flooding and 95% of the city of Hull is below sea level, so flooding is an important issue for me and my constituents. Also, hedgerows help to reduce road noise, and they produce oxygen, which of course helps with the climate challenge. Hedgerows are not obstacles to be removed, but life support systems to be protected. As has been discussed in more depth today, netting puts those fragile ecosystems at risk. It can entrap birds, dormice, bats and hedgehogs, separating them from their nests and food, injuring them and even putting their lives at risk.

We must look seriously at ending the practice of netting, but we must also think beyond that. Last year in the UK, numbers of bats, hedgehogs, birds and insects continued to plummet. The UN report last week spoke powerfully of how nature’s decline will presage our own. Awareness is growing that to support society, we must change the rules to give nature room to thrive. The Government must look again at how the developments we need—houses, schools and hospitals—can be achieved without destroying nature. As Maggie said, we must look at prioritising brownfield land, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England has said can be used for more than 1 million homes on 18,000 sites. When greenfield is the only option, we should include original habitats, including hedgerows and trees, in the designs.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:59 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech; I hope her constituent appreciates what she is saying on her behalf. As parliamentary species champion for the swift, I am keen to ensure that in urban development we put swift bricks into houses, which provide those birds with a habitat,. That is a really easy step and councils such as, I think, Exeter have made it compulsory for new developments. Does she agree that that is an excellent way to provide a home for swifts?

Dame Diana Johnson Portrait Diana Johnson - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:59 p.m.

My hon. Friend, who is a great champion of nature and the environment, makes an important point. If that practice could be spread far and wide, it would be an excellent measure.

I will conclude by saying that it was nice to meet Maggie’s children Nell and John today; they are seeing at first hand what campaigning can achieve. Maggie told me that she put together the petition and brought her children to Parliament today because she hopes they will witness the lesson that, if we speak out, we can create real change for the future. To use her words:

“I want them to see that…if they believe in a cause, and if they have conviction and are willing to speak out and work hard, then anything can be achieved”.

I am profoundly thankful to Maggie for raising this issue with us. I hope that this debate will prove her right and that action will be forthcoming to deal with netting of hedgerows.

Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con) Hansard
13 May 2019, 5 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on obtaining this debate in response to the public e-petition, which has rightly engendered a lot of support and interest up and down the country.

The petition comes virtually at the same time as the publication of the United Nations report that shows the extinction rates accelerating and “nature’s dangerous decline”. That report, from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, raises some interesting points. It ascribes some of the loss of those natural species and habitats to

“changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species”.

I instigated a debate here on the latter subject not long ago, regarding the importing of plants, trees and so forth from overseas.

It seems to me that the RSPB strikes a chord when it states:

“We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demanding it fits in with our plans.”

The problem is that since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled, from 3.7 billion to 7.6 billion. Since 1900, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%. There has also been a 100% growth of urban areas since 1992. All those things conspire to squeeze out nature or, if not to squeeze it out, to squeeze it into a tighter spot.

That is why I believe that, with the exception of some eminent hon. Members sitting around this Chamber, we have woken up very late to all this. There must be a trade-off between economic growth and the need to provide houses for people, which no one debates, and the requirement to ensure that the built environment is sustainable for the natural environment. We cannot have one without the other. Where would the world be without birdsong? A very sad place. Where would the world be without swallows? I have not spotted a swallow in my part of the world, Devon, at all this year.

Doing nothing is simply not an option. For too long we have put up with some of the behaviour of the volume house builders. It is perhaps unfair to paint them all with the same brush. It is an easy thing to castigate, but somebody has to build those houses. I lament that there are not more local house builders. I think this Government can do a lot more, as they have said they will, in encouraging smaller local house builders—those same house builders who were squeezed out by the last recession—to play their role, because they are from the communities in which they will be building, so they are likely to build in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Time and time again we have seen, up and down the country, the major volume house builders riding roughshod over local planning officers—because there are not enough of them and many of them are not qualified enough—changing the terms on which they develop and, too often, squeezing out the natural environment. I am not against profit; I am a Conservative, and I believe in profit and that a rising tide lifts all ships. However, I am a believer in responsible capitalism, and it is about time this Government, or any Government of any hue, were a little tougher with some of those volume house builders. Perhaps then we, as Members of Parliament, would not have to put up with so many constituents complaining to us about shoddy finishes and the like.