Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Melanie Onn Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(5 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Lord Swire Portrait Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)
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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 that 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.

Melanie Onn Portrait Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
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The point the right hon. Gentleman is making about the volume house builders and their complete disregard, it seems to me, for some of the planning regulations in place has been reflected in my local authority area. In Humberston, Persimmon Homes has cut down about 200 perfectly healthy trees to build its properties without having the proper permissions in place. It will now have to replant all those trees, but they should not have been removed in the first place. Does he agree that there should be much more enforceable action on these big build companies to ensure that they adhere to the rules that are laid down in the first place?

Lord Swire Portrait Sir Hugo Swire
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I do and I do not agree; I agree that that sort of behaviour is wholly unacceptable, but I do not agree that they should replace like for like, if it is the case that they have done this where there were tree preservation orders or the like. If they have cut down a number of trees, they should be obliged to plant many, many times the amount of trees they have cut down, to encourage a change in the pattern of their behaviour.

I am afraid that it often comes down to the lack of local planning officers or their inability to challenge those large companies. Local councils are terrified of being taken to appeal, because then they have to fund it, so it becomes a vicious circle and a win-win for the volume house builders, as we have seen—although I say again to the volume house builders, or their representatives watching this debate, that I do not view them all in the same light.

That is one of the points on which I wish to conclude. The Government have been quite clear, but they need to be a little bit clearer what they are going to do about this. Why do we not have a register run by the Department, naming and shaming the worst offenders, so we can see on a regular basis which house builders and developers are behaving responsibly and which are not? There are also such things as shareholder action groups, and they and others can vote at annual general meetings and so forth and can bring the matter to the board’s attention. Naming and shaming, in this instance, is an extraordinarily good way to proceed.

I believe it is time to stand up to that sort of abuse. We are in the slight conundrum—or I am—of castigating some of these volume house builders while at the same time recognising that we need to build more houses, and quickly, if we are to avert what is becoming a national crisis in getting younger people on to the housing ladder. However, with the current scrutiny of developers, I would have thought it would make eminent good sense from the point of view of their own public relations. Indeed, if I were advising them—I am not available to advise them, incidentally—on public relations, I would say, “This is precisely the sort of headline that we don’t want to read about ourselves.”