How Swift-friendly is Winchester City Council?

Introduction

Previous Hampshire Swift blogs (https://bit.ly/2TdKx5c; https://bit.ly/3ra4A11; https://bit.ly/3fWavmD) have highlighted the absurdly low number of Swift nest sites planned for the Cala Homes development at Kings Barton, Winchester as well as the shockingly poor quality of ecological advice Cala have received from their ecological consultants, RPS. Rightly there has been considerable criticism of the actions and decisions of Cala Homes and their chosen advisers but are they only organisations we should be holding to account? Here we explore the actions of Winchester City Council (WCC) in the context of Swift conservation.


There are 2 areas of operation where WCC activities impact on Swift conservation:


1. Renovation of council-owned properties

2. Planning decisions and the Local Plan


WCC owned properties.

Back in the summer of 2018 Hampshire Swifts received a number of reports that the re-roofing of council-owned properties was proceeding with inadequate surveying, resulting in the destruction of House Sparrow, Starling and Swift nest sites, actions which are illegal during the breeding season. Hampshire Swifts met with WCC and eventually got this work suspended until the Swift breeding season had finished. Subsequently we arranged a public meeting with WCC in Nov 2018 to highlight the value of the council-owned housing estates in Winchester for Swifts and how we would like WCC to proceed in future.


To their credit WCC responded positively, employed a second ecologist and agreed to pay for Swift boxes to be attached to all such properties that were to be re-roofed as part of the renovation work carried out across the city, provided the tenants were willing to have a Swift box. This collaboration with Hampshire Swifts continues to this day.

Model 30 boxes, Portal Way Winchester

WCC are rightly proud of their actions, so much so that this is now included in the updated Biodiversity Action Plan (https://bit.ly/3yE8UYD) where they claim that:


“(WCC have).. installed 34 swift boxes in Winnall and Weeke to provide more nesting sites for a species which has declined in recent years. This is in addition to our biodiversity re-roofing project which has seen hundreds of bird boxes go up on council properties over the last 3 years”.


It is probably churlish to point out that this only happened because Hampshire Swifts held WCC to account back in 2018 and that the figures are slightly exaggerated as the actual total is 184!

However, in terms of council-owned properties, WCC are clearly doing the right thing and both parties should be proud of what has been achieved.


Moving on, what are WCC doing about ensuring that Swift bricks are included in new housing developments? Thousands of new houses will be built in the WCC planning authority catchment area over the next 20 years or so and including a Swift brick in each one would go a long way to replacing all the nest sites lost over the past 25 years or so. Without doubt this would be the most important contribution WCC could make to the conservation of Swifts and other declining urban crevice-nesting birds and it all comes down to the Planning Process….


#calasoundofsilence

The Planning Process

The processing of planning applications is the responsibility of local government and should ensure that new building developments meet standards that are set out in a document called the “Local Plan” (LP). This document is effectively an instruction manual for developers like Cala: if they comply with the requirements of the LP then they should get planning approval.


So, for example, what does the current Winchester City Council LP say about biodiversity enhancement (i.e. creating spaces for wildlife in new houses)?:


The Local Planning Authority will support development which…..enhances biodiversity across the District, delivering a net gain in biodiversity and has regard to the following: new development will be required to show how biodiversity can be…enhanced through its design and implementation, for example by designing for wildlife, delivering Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) targets, maintaining a network of local wildlife sites and corridors to support the integrity of the biodiversity network, prevent fragmentation, and enable biodiversity to respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change, supporting and contributing to the targets set out in the District’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for priority habitats and species”.


On the face of it these statements appear very supportive of our request for developers to include Swift bricks in all new developments. But all is not what it seems:


1. “Biodiversity”, when defined by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), does not include nest sites built into new developments. Integrating Swift bricks, therefore, does not currently count as contributing towards biodiversity net gain, even though it obviously does. As a result, developers are not incentivised to consider Swift bricks.

2. The Biodiversity Action Plan cited was dated 2005! This was a very different time when Swifts were considered common and not in need of protection.

3. The LP was approved in 2013 so any planning approvals granted before then (as would be the case for large building developments such as the Cala Homes project in Kings Barton) would have been granted under the auspices of the previous, far less biodiversity-conscious LP.


In effect, the current WCC LP has zero requirement for Swift bricks to be included in new housing developments.


Recently there have been 2 developments which provided an opportunity for WCC to rectify these shortcomings:


1. The WCC BAP has been revised.

2. A revision to the WCC LP has been opened up to public consultation, allowing individuals and groups such as Hampshire Swifts to contribute.


The new WCC BAP is dated 2021 and, as has been requested by Hampshire Swifts for several years, Swifts have now been added to the list of priority species listed in the document, which is an important step. However, there is a caveat: the document states that the BAP is for Council use and focuses on those actions the City Council has direct control over and can deliver within its work programmes (e.g. putting boxes on council properties, as described above). How this translates in terms of the new Local Plan is yet to be revealed but the wording suggests that WCC has absolved themselves of all responsibility for Swifts as a priority species outside of council activities (e.g. planning….). Indeed pages 22 & 27 have pictures of Swifts, referencing the collaborative work done with Hampshire Swifts described above and yet totally ignores the role that planning can play.


As part of the public consultation for the revised Local Plan, Hampshire Swifts proposed that the following simple and clear wording be included in the BAP 2021. Note that this wording was taken from the Oxford City Biodiversity Action Plan:


“Swifts and other urban species such as House Sparrow and Starling have seen huge declines in cities and towns across the UK over the past 20 years. Two of these species are already red-listed birds of conservation concern and Swifts will shortly be designated as such. These 3 species should be designated “priority species” in need of protection and enhancement.


One of the main reasons for the decline of urban species of bird such as House Sparrow, Starling and Swift is the loss of the gaps and crevices used as nesting sites in buildings as they are renovated and repaired. These species tend to use the same nesting sites and so protecting existing nest sites or providing artificial nest sites for Swifts helps all 3 species. If nest sites are blocked off then these birds cannot breed, explaining the rapid decline in their populations. This is why it is critical to ensure that:


- nest sites used by these urban bird species are protected or replaced when repairing or renovating existing buildings.

- all new housing developments are designed to include integrated nest sites, ideally at a density of 1 nest site per dwelling.

A range of Swift bricks are available which makes it easy and cheap to accommodate Swifts (and hence House Sparrows and Starlings) into building design.”


Unfortunately, WCC chose to ignore the majority of this.


Swift brick installed in New Milton. Photo courtesy of Bob Lord

Moving on to the revised Winchester City Council Local Plan (Local Plan 2038) the public consultation ran from 15th Feb 2021 to 12th April 2021 and all interested parties were encouraged to contribute comments. Hampshire Swifts submitted the following comments (based on the Hackney Local Plan):


“The current metric used for defining “biodiversity net gain” does not take into account the biodiversity benefits of integrating nest sites (in the form of Swift bricks or boxes) into new developments so removing the imperative to integrate such measures. There is a need, therefore, to update the existing Local Plan Policy CP16, “Biodiversity” to specifically include such measures. A number of planning authorities now include such wording in their Local Plans and an example of suggested text is given below:


“All development schemes where the buildings have an eaves height of 4.5 metres and above shall provide integrated swift nesting bricks which are used by swifts, sparrows and starlings to help preserve endangered urban biodiversity. These integrated Swift bricks shall be installed at a rate of one per dwelling. Where this isn’t practical eg due to wall tiles then an eaves box with a 65x32mm hole in the fascia can be created. Swift bricks should be set flush into the external wall to match adjacent brickwork wherever possible. Internal nest boxes are favoured by the Council.”


The revised Local Plan is not yet available, but the promotional document can be viewed at http://www.localplan.winchester.gov.uk/ and in response to a recent enquiry from Hampshire Swifts the Strategic Planning Manager for the Local Plan, Adrian Fox stated:


“We are currently analysing all of the comments that we have received to the recent consultation. Whilst I cannot promise anything at this particular moment in time, we will review the information that you have sent across and we will have a look at what other LPAs are doing in their Local Plans so thank you for signposting me to them.


Any policy requirement that we do include in the new LP will need to be tested as part of LP viability appraisal as this is something that we will be tested at the examination as we will need to fully understand any costs and demonstrate to an independent Inspector that any policy requirements (this include everything from affordable housing, Community Infrastructure Levy and other demands) are deliverable when considered against all of the competing demands. If you do have access to any information on the cost of installing these into a new build properties it would be helpful if you could please pass on this information to me so that we can consider this issue further”


Interpret this how you like but it doesn’t bode well for the inclusion of the need for mandatory Swift bricks. To be clear, all we are asking for is an average of one (1) single Swift brick to be integrated into each new house built in the WCC area. These cost approximately £30-£40, require zero maintenance, are easy to include in the construction methods, are so discrete as to be invisible to all but the most determined observers and will provide much-needed nest sites for rapidly declining urban birds. There is no downside to this proposal, so why is it so difficult?


Swift bricks New Milton. Photo courtesy of Bob Lord

In conclusion, WCC literature waxes lyrical about the greening of the WCC area and the inclusion of measures to boost biodiversity but in practice, even for such a simple but effective measure such as including Swift bricks, there seems to be a reluctance to commit despite:


1. Increasing numbers of planning authorities including mandatory Swift bricks in their Local Plans

2. Increasing numbers of building developers routinely integrating Swift bricks

3. The National House Building Council (NHBC) Foundation publishing a report recommending routine installation of Swift bricks in new developments (https://bit.ly/2T4F2FL).


Our view is that Winchester City Council still have a long way to go when it comes to the provision of nest sites for some of our most rapidly declining urban bird species. They are happy to base some of their biodiversity credentials on the work which was forced on them by Hampshire Swifts but seem reluctant to face up to the construction industry and implement a strong unambiguous message that all new housing in the Winchester City Council area should include Swift bricks.


Data from the British Trust for Ornithology tells us that we have already lost approximately two thirds, or 100,000 pairs of Swifts, in the last 25 years or so, and they are continuing to decline at around 5% per year.


WCC have proved they can talk a good biodiversity message, now they need to deliver.





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