Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
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.

Break in Debate

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:26 p.m.

I agree that this is a complex area that requires detailed consultation not only with developers, but with public-sector land managers, such as Network Rail, HS2 and local councils. We also need to look at the way our wildlife uses not only our built environment but our natural environment in different ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) made a clear distinction between building on brownfield and building on greenfield sites, but there can be bird nesting sites in beautiful trees on both brownfield and greenfield sites, so we need to take steps to deal with what is sometimes a false distinction in our legislation between brown and green, but also to deal with the different ways in which different species use our built environments. I am grateful for the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) has just made.

The report from the UN said that we need “transformative change” to stop the trend of habitat loss, and we do. That is why it is really important that the Minister take the concerns expressed in this debate not only back to her Department—I hope that she will speak about the built environment in a moment—but to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because we need a cross-Government approach to address many of these concerns.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:29 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. It is important that we look at how we farm our land. The vast majority of land in this country is used for growing food, and there is a real issue because as it becomes more industrialised in scale, there are fewer hedgerows, bigger fields and less attention to biodiversity. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should support measures to encourage farmers to farm more sustainably, with more regard for the biodiversity on the land?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:28 p.m.

I agree entirely. A few weeks ago, I visited a farm just outside Plymouth run by a fantastic farmer called Johnny Haimes, who demonstrated how agriculture could be more sustainable and still be profitable. That is the type of best practice that we need to encourage right across our agricultural sectors if we are to address the high levels of carbon that they use, but also to make our soils and our waterways in and around those agricultural lands more sustainable.

A number of hon. Members have made the point that it is not just developers that we need to look at. As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) said, we need to look at how the public sector should lead by example on this matter. The majority of that can be done by local councils, but the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), in the good and passionate rebuke to austerity that I am glad he made, spoke about the loss of planning inspectors at local level. That has hollowed out some of the expertise, particularly in relation to wildlife; I am thinking of the loss of wildlife officers from our local councils.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the superb work that the Labour council in Exeter has done in choosing swift bricks. More councils should be looking at that. Indeed, about a month ago, there was a national day for putting up a bird box, and my mum—who should always get a good mention in these debates—bought me not one, not two, but three bird boxes for my birthday, so my garden in Plymouth has plenty more nesting sites.

That brings me to a good point about whether the habitats that are lost should be replaced one for one. That is a discussion that has just been had. I mentioned to the Minister before the debate that there was a fantastic piece on “Countryfile” last night about the net gain consultation—perfect wordplay for the debate that we are having today

That consultation was run by DEFRA, and it asked whether we should have a net gain of biodiversity if there is to be economic development. The Government consultation received 670 responses and closed in February. In theory, the results are to be published alongside the environment Bill later this year. I would grateful if the Minister could tell us whether that is still the plan, because we know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs publishes plenty of consultations, but takes very little concrete action. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what she intends to do in respect of that.

Break in Debate

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.

Break in Debate

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.