Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Mrs Heather Wheeler Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:32 p.m.

The right hon. Lady is right to be cautious, because with net gain the devil is in the detail. It cannot simply be used as a stamp, to pretend that it makes the activity greener when it does not. A number of us share that suspicion about the consultation, so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that.

Finally, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I thank Maggie Moran, Nell and John for their work in setting up the petition, as well as Simon Leadbeater, who initiated the second petition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned. We all need to do our bit to put pressure on developers, to ensure that the cruel and inhumane practice of netting precious bird-nesting sites comes to an end. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the Government will be doing that with a cross-Government approach in the weeks and months ahead.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mrs Heather Wheeler) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:33 p.m.

It is also my first time serving with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on securing the debate. I am sure it was a bit of a lottery and that probably many people applied for it.

As we have heard, more than 355,000 signatures are on the petition. That shows the strength of feeling about the misuse of anti-bird netting in our country, so I am pleased to see the passion shown in this debate. I am grateful for the contributions made by hon. Members from across the House and representing most parts of the country. The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), who has unfortunately had to leave, highlighted the importance of developers using netting when it is not necessary. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) reminded us that netting should only be used outside the nesting and breeding season. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) made such a powerful point about the great interest shown in this issue by the good citizens of the Buckinghamshire area in particular.

I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position and the action we are taking, and to respond to the important points made in the debate. This Government share the public’s concern about the misuse of anti-bird netting. That is why we lost no time in taking action. On 8 April, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government set out the Government’s views. In an open letter to major developers, circulated by the Home Builders Federation to all its members, he made clear that using anti-bird netting to prevent birds from nesting is not acceptable. He called on house builders to act, reminding them of the Natural England guidelines that specify what surveys of the potentially developed land are to be carried out, and how we can prevent or mitigate any danger to wildlife.

It is worth taking a moment to remember why this is so important. Native bird species have been in shocking decline since the 1960s, with 40 million birds vanishing from our skies. Some 56% of bird species in the UK are in decline. Nets stop birds getting through to make their nests. Gaps in the netting can leave birds trapped or young birds unfed.

I am aware that this is a complex issue. Nesting birds present in trees and hedges can cause real delays to construction. Some of the nets are placed with good intentions. In Norfolk recently, a district council draped nets over cliffs so that a sandscaping project could proceed. However, the nets covered more than the spring breeding ground of sand martins than was necessary. In this case, with advice from the RSPB, the upper section of the netting was removed, allowing nesting where there was no risk to the birds during the work.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:37 p.m.

A lot of people were very distressed when they saw the pictures of the sand martins that had flown thousands of miles back from their winter migration and could not get back to their nests. I accept that there probably needed to be some work done on coastal erosion, or whatever the reason for the netting was, but there must be an issue of timing with such things. It was done at exactly the wrong time, when those birds were returning to their homes.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:37 p.m.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. That council has learnt its lesson. It should have brought the RSPB in much earlier, but it did rectify the situation. I also watched that footage and it was very distressing.

Netting is permissible if the intention is to protect birds, but I suspect that many of those who signed the petition are concerned that these rules are often carefully misunderstood by some developers. Netting should never be used to hinder the natural cycle of nest building and the nurturing and feeding of young birds. Nets should protect birds not profits.

The law on protecting birds and preventing the disturbance of nests is clear. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, prosecutions can be brought if someone causes unnecessary suffering to a bird by an act or failure to act, especially when the person concerned knew or reasonably ought to have known that their action or inaction would cause harm. Breaches can lead to fines or imprisonment. I am happy to acknowledge that some developers get the message. As we have heard, Bellway and Bovis Homes have declared that they are both changing their policies to stop the use of bird netting, and Barratt Homes does not net hedges or trees on any of its 400 or so sites across England, Scotland and Wales. Their actions show that it is possible not to use bird netting when firms plan ahead, so that construction does not clash with the nest-making and chick-rearing season.

As we have just marked Hedgehog Awareness Week, I am particularly aware that there must be wider recognition that we must do all we can to safeguard and enhance our biodiversity for the future. Today, local authorities already have a duty, under our national planning policy framework, to pursue net gains for biodiversity. The Government intend to give local authorities more powers to insist on the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. Our 25-year environment plan is a symbol of that deep commitment and a reflection of our shared desire to leave our environment in a better place than we found it. To answer the question of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) specifically, our forthcoming Environment Bill will make biodiversity net gain mandatory for development.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:39 p.m.

Thank you.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard

There’s a scoop for you.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard

The Minister is doing well in picking up on all the points. If it will be made mandatory for all developers, why do the Government not make it mandatory right now for HS2 to stop its netting?

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard

Regretfully, we need legislation to do that. When the Bill comes in, that will be the legislative vehicle for it, because whether it is birds or hedgehogs, we are determined that our wildlife does not just survive, but thrives.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy - Hansard

I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which have been conducting pre-legislative scrutiny on the bits of the Environment Bill that have been published. Although I welcome the idea of biodiversity net gain, there is real concern about how it would be enforced. It is not something that we can replace like for like; it would take an awfully long time to replace what was destroyed, and in some cases, it could not be replaced. I urge the Minister to talk to environmentalists, ecologists and other specialists about whether it is feasible to make the proposed swap.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:41 p.m.

Again, the hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point. I am sure the people in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have heard it and will pick up on it.

DEFRA’s recent consultation proposed introducing a requirement for new developments to deliver a 10% net gain for biodiversity, onsite or off. It also includes an alternative tariff that developers could pay to offset the costs of providing environmental improvements. I look forward to seeing those proposals considered and debated in due course. I hope the hon. Lady will be involved in that.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist - Hansard

Does the Minister accept that many residents faced with the loss of hedges or the offsite mitigation of environmental benefits are unhappy? They want their local environment to be preserved for birds and other wildlife and for local enjoyment, rather than some money to be paid to address the issue in another place.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard

In every planning application, the matter will be dealt with at the local level, so local wishes will be part of the decision-making process.

Helen Goodman Hansard

I am sorry to say this to the Minister, but if the legal framework is inadequate, the local planning authority cannot take such matters into account, because it does not have the vires—the powers—to do it. That is why we are looking for legal change in the area.

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard

Indeed, and as I like to remind hon. Members, that will be debated as part of the Environment Bill when it is introduced. I am sure all hon. Members present would like to take part in that debate when it happens.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard

Can the Minister tell hon. Members present when we can expect the Environment Bill?

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:43 p.m.

In due course.

There is no question of making a choice between homes and nature. We can and must have both, because for us, as well as for animals, the benefits are clear. Our natural environment can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health. We need access to our natural environment; it is part of what makes life on earth worth while.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with all of us. Our planning system and our planning authorities play an essential role in the mix; mechanisms allow them to say what can and cannot take place on a construction site, as well as when. Planning conditions, including surveys and other pre-construction stages, can be enforced by local authorities. If developers do not comply, a development may become unlawful.

The Government are working tirelessly to set up further protections. Through our revised national planning policy framework, and with help from stakeholders such as the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust, we are supporting planning tools that protect our natural environment. We have increased the protections for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees; any loss or harm from development must be “wholly exceptional”. We have also clarified the importance of local wildlife sites in plan making by introducing the need for plan makers to take a proactive approach to rising temperatures and, wherever possible, to help to improve environmental conditions, including water and air quality.

As announced in the housing White Paper in 2017, we have provided £6.9 million over three years to Natural England, which will allow it to roll out a proportionate risk-based approach to protected species licensing nationally—principally, for great crested newts. That will provide greater protection at the same time as speeding up the process and reducing costs. We have also provided £210,000 to the Woodland Trust to support the first update of the ancient woodland inventory maps since the 1980s, to make protection more effective.

Developers must play their part in the wider wildlife agenda. They must provide access to new green space and develop green infrastructure, such as swift bricks, bat bricks and hedgehog highways, because our wildlife and its habitats are interconnected. We would like developers to design in as many nature-friendly stipulations as are reasonable. The Housing Minister saw that done impressively on a visit to Kidbrooke Village last week, where natural corridors and landscapes are a core part of the masterplan behind the regeneration. Let me be clear that gains in biodiversity must be genuine, not just a token gesture by a developer ticking a box by drilling holes for a theoretical hedgehog highway.

We must all play our part. Existing householders, neighbourhood planning bodies and parish and town councils can help to ensure that wildlife-friendly features are built into every garden in every neighbourhood. People can also make their voices heard—for example, the recent public outcry about the netting spread over a hedgerow in Berkshire led to it being removed by the council. Today’s petition is another example of democracy in action and people making their voices heard. Although we reject today’s call for yet more detailed regulation on bird netting—I have described the protections that already exist—I have the deepest respect for the aims of the petitioners, in particular Mrs Moran and her family.

Even as we pursue our campaign to build the homes this country so badly needs, we must do all we can to champion our natural environment. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:47 p.m.

Equally, in the words of Joni Mitchell:

“They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.”

I hope we do not get to that.

Next to Hartlepool is RSPB Saltholme, which is a lovely nature reserve in an industrial landscape. Recently, a site of special scientific interest was extended around Hartlepool’s beautiful coast. Because netting had been used in my town for development, I was grateful that the Petitions Committee allowed me to introduce the debate.

I must thank the petitioner, Maggie Moran, who is present, and the second petitioner, Mr Leadbeater. I also thank the right hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and all hon. Members who intervened so wonderfully. I thank Petitions Committee staff for, as ever, getting involved in researching the subject and for all the interactive work they did on Facebook.

It has been a helpful and useful debate. I hope we make some progress to tighten up on a practice that has clearly been escalating lately, given the demands of the housing sector and the requirements to protect our wildlife. On the second petition, the netting of existing buildings to prevent migrant birds returning to their nests needs to be looked at as well. As has been pointed out in relation to HS2, the Government have a responsibility for the work that the contractors who work for them do on such big projects.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 244233 relating to protecting nesting sites for birds.