Bat Habitats Regulation Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:57 pm on 16 January 2015.

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Second Reading

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 2:00, 16 January 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill has attracted a lot of outside interest. Indeed, there was a letter in The Times earlier this week saying what a brilliant Bill it is and that it should command the support of hon. Members. It builds on the concerns that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry has raised in debates in Westminster Hall and those expressed by church conservation authorities.

I hope it is not out of order to say that, in his Christmas card to me, the noble bishop whose diocese is situated in my constituency wished me good luck with my bats Bill. The reason for that is that this is a narrow but significant issue for churches up and down the country and for our built heritage, including the fabric of churches, whether it be their stone or marble structures, and the brasses and other artefacts inside them. It also applies to people: we may be able to tell those who worship at the church that they should keep wearing their hats if there is a problem with bat infestation, but that would not really work if a children’s day centre or nursery group meets there: we cannot expect all the children to wear bonnets to protect themselves against the bat infestation.

The Bill seeks to increase the number of bat habitats while at the same time introduce measures to prevent bats from being in what might be described as the wrong place. Clause 1 sets out provisions to enhance the protection available for bat habitats in the non-built environment. In that respect, I hope the Bill will find favour with organisations such as the Bat Conservation Trust, because by enhancing that protection we will be able to support our bat population.

Interestingly, a 2013 survey by Hurn parish councillors in my constituency identified eight different species of bats in Hurn parish and Hurn forest in particular. They are concerned about the adverse impact of the cabling for a proposed wind turbine development on that bat habitat. Such situations are covered by clause 1, which would ensure that when a problem in the non-built environment may affect bats adversely, developers should take remedial measures, such as providing a bat box or artificial roost for each bat species located in the vicinity. It would also prevent onshore wind turbines from being constructed unless a local bat survey had been conducted and had established that there was no bat habitat in the vicinity, because of the direct adverse effect of wind turbines on bats.

Clause 2 deals with the issues raised by the Churches Conservation Trust and others about the impact of bats on our churches and those who worship in them. Currently, the habitats regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 work together basically to make it impossible for bats roosting and living in our churches to be controlled in any way whatever. In essence, they are above and beyond the law.

If the Second Church Estates Commissioner says that it is absurd that the EU habitats regulations should apply to our United Kingdom domestic bat population and that we should use our common sense, it seems to me that that should be reflected in legislation. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend George Eustice—I am delighted that he will reply to the debate—has Eurosceptic credentials second to none. I hope that he shares my concern about the European Union dictating to us what we can and cannot do with our domestic bat population. We are not talking about migrating mammals—bats are of course mammals, not birds—but our own domestic bats. Surely this is an issue for subsidiarity, to use that ghastly EU word, and an area on which we in the United Kingdom Parliament know what is best for our own bats.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I naturally agree with that sentiment. Why is my hon. Friend seeking to apply the clause only to places of public worship, because I am pretty sure that its provisions would equally apply to other buildings from time to time, and that that would be very much welcomed in different communities, depending on their circumstances? Why is the clause restricted to places of public worship?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

As the Bill is a private Member’s Bill, I was trying to restrict the degree of controversy that might develop about it. I know that the mere prospect of legislating on bats has already created an almost hysterical reaction among some members of bat conservation societies. I am therefore loth to make the Bill wider than is necessary to deal with the immediate problem, which has been drawn to my attention by the Churches Conservation Trust and the Countryside Alliance. They are concerned about the adverse impact of bats and bat roosts in buildings used for public worship. I recognise that other buildings could be similarly embraced by the Bill, and perhaps if it goes to Committee, an order-making power might extend the provisions to other areas in due course.

I am promoting this Bill because everybody recognises that there is a genuine problem. The Church Monuments Society is collectively tearing its hair out at its inability to do anything to address effectively the problem of bat damage that is affecting the conservation of furniture, liturgical objects, funerary and ensemble, works of art and so on, in buildings used for public worship and community functions. I hope the Minister will not say that having no control at all over bats in such places is reasonable. Surely we need some sensible control, and I hope the Bill finds favour with the House.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 2:11, 16 January 2015

I rise briefly to expand on the reasons why I support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Mr Chope, and to say why it may be worthwhile extending its provisions.

Recently in my constituency, the great town of Bingley was desperate to see the old Bradford and Bingley headquarters demolished. The building was lying empty and is, I am delighted to say, currently being demolished, although that could have happened much earlier. The building was owned by Sainsbury’s, which decided that it did not want to build a supermarket but would demolish the site and move it on. However, it was told that it could not do that because a bat had been spotted in the building.

We seem to have got ourselves into a bit of pickle. There are bat habitats nearby and I am all for taking measures to encourage bats to move to other habitats—I do not want to destroy wildlife or anything like that, but that seems perfectly reasonable. We seem to have got ourselves into a muddle with the current planning system, because the simple mention that a bat has been seen basically stops anything whatsoever from happening. Some of us were rather cynical about Sainsbury’s motives, and suspected that it might want to hold on to the site until it became more valuable, but, as events have transpired, that was probably an overly cynical view. However, the situation was not helped by the fact that the whole process was stopped completely and the regeneration of Bingley was put on hold because of an alleged sighting of a bat.

When I asked Bradford council whether it could verify the sighting or whether it had seen a report to back up the fact that a bat had been seen—one bat, I might add—nothing was produced to show that there was indeed a bat. There was no report or verification. It was based simply on somebody’s word that a bat had been seen. That is what halted the essential regeneration of Bingley. There must be some alternative route and we should apply common sense. In effect, a whole town’s regeneration was held to ransom by the alleged viewing of a bat, even though it was never verified and there was no report of it before or since.

My hon. Friend’s Bill is an excellent first step, but why can it not be extended to help places such as Bingley? If the Bill had been enacted and extended in the way I suggest, it would have provided a perfect opportunity for that development to go ahead without unnecessary delays. As it transpired—I am sure the House will be interested to know this, for completeness—it seems that the bat had disappeared by the time anybody had bothered to go and do a proper report. The demolition could therefore go ahead, but I suspect it could have gone ahead a lot sooner had we had more appropriate laws in place.

I support my hon. Friend’s Bill. I hope the Minister will consider it seriously, because I think it would make a big difference. I would like to the Bill to be extended to other areas. There are many other common sense examples where an opt-out of current legislation would be sensible.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:15, 16 January 2015

The Bill may remind some hon. Members of episode 39 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Unfortunately, the Bill does not, in the immortal words of Michael Palin:

“shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.”

It seems more like the stuff that that phrase was describing. I will briefly address the three issues raised by the subject of the Bill: bat habitat in the non-built environment; bat habitat in the built environment; and the legal protection of bats.

First, on bat habitat in the non-built environment, during the 20th century bat numbers plummeted in parallel with dramatic changes in the countryside. Several species of bats were seriously threatened. In the past two decades, one species, the greater mouse-eared bat, became extinct as a UK breeding species. Although all the species monitored appear to be either stable or increasing according to 2014 records, those positive results should be considered in the context of historic severe declines in bat populations. That decline was particularly great in the second half of the 20th century. More sustained population increases will be needed to indicate recovery from that extended period of decline.

The increase in bat populations between 1999 and 2012 should be celebrated as a success of the current regulations. It was also a success for the Bat Conservation Trust and the public, private and voluntary organisations involved in bat conservation. However, it should not be an excuse to set aside the regulations that have precisely achieved that success. We should remember that one year of poor summer weather in 2012 caused a very sharp dip in the population.

The Bill seeks to prevent the occupation of a new building in an area where there is existing bat habitat unless a bat box or artificial roost for each species of bat located in the vicinity is put in place. In so far as that goes, that is welcome. However, it might be more logical to say that the building could not be occupied if it was taking the space where that bat habitat had previously been unless the new bat boxes and the artificial roosts that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to provide were also occupied. That might indicate that some translocation had taken place and provide a degree of comfort, but that is not in the Bill.

It also seems somewhat odd that the same provision, as contained in clause 1(2), has not been inserted into clause 1(3), because in it we find that

“No wind turbine for which planning permission is required shall be constructed unless prior to its construction a local bat survey has been conducted and it has been established that no bat habitat is located in the vicinity”.

It might be more logical, and certainly more in keeping with the first two subsections, if the hon. Gentleman had said that it should not be provided where bat habitat is found, unless, as he has proposed in subsection (2), that

“a bat box or artificial roost for each species of bat located in the vicinity” has been provided. There is an internal inconsistency in the Bill, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise and seek to rectify and remedy.

The information currently available on bat behaviour in the UK is not sufficient to assess the threat that wind turbines may pose to populations. Anecdotal records of individual collisions exist, but no quantified data at the colony or population level are available. Natural England and Bat Conservation Trust guidance should be followed. That is all we can say based on the evidence we have, so the hon. Gentleman’s efforts go beyond what the evidence base suggests.

Let me turn to bats in the built environment. Bats and people have been sharing dwellings for thousands of years. In the UK, this is most notable, of course, in our churches and cathedrals, as natural roosting sites have become scarce due to development and land use change. The number of artificial roost sites has increased in the form of houses, bridges, mines and barns, but particularly churches and cathedrals.

Natural England, English Heritage, the National Churches Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings all have excellent advice available on how to manage a building where bats are also present. If work is required on a property that has the potential to disturb a bat roost or if issues arise as a result of bats and humans living in close proximity, that advice is available for any dwelling or church.

Due to the good will and expertise of a very large number of licensed volunteers in the UK, there are many instances where such advice can be offered free of charge. It is offered in the form often of a phone call or an e-mail or sometimes in the form of a physical visit to the building to inspect. The visit will result in a letter detailing how to carry out the work with the least disturbance to the bats. This might mean that the work has to be carried out at a particular time of year, which might in some instances cause some of the delays to which Philip Davies alluded. Bats are usually only seasonal visitors to roosts. Sometimes the particular materials that can be used might be affected, but it is neither possible nor desirable—nor, I believe, necessary—to take the actions set out in the Bill.

The suggestion that we should remove certain buildings from the habitats directive altogether is, frankly, absurd. It serves only as a superb example of how an obsession with Europe and a disregard for our natural environment can be combined with a dislike for wind turbines. There is no reason and no excuse for watering down legal protection for bats. We should let the work of Natural England—it is already engaged with this work—improve the regulation. It should run its course and we should revisit the issue when we have adequate evidence and viable alternatives on which to base a debate. The Bill is ill conceived, inconsistent and I urge the House to reject it.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:22, 16 January 2015

In debates such as this one, we learn something new every day. I learned this morning that there are no fewer than 17 different bat species in the UK. Most evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves, but many have now adapted to roost in buildings, including barns, houses, churches, tunnels and bridges, because so many natural roosts have been lost through modern agriculture and forestry practices as well as urban growth.

Artificial roosts have thus become essential to the survival of many bat species, but with so many man-made roosts under threat from the demolition of old buildings, barn conversions, an increasing use of artificial lighting and the move towards airtight buildings, the remaining roost sites are of increasing importance. Decreasing the protection afforded to bats in these important sites is therefore likely to have an impact on the conservation status of bats in the UK.

In light of their vulnerability, bats have been subject to national protection, most recently under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. At the European level, this was augmented by protection under the European habitats directive in 1994. In accordance with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, which transpose the habitats directive, it is a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. There is also a strict liability offence of damage or destruction to their breeding site or resting place. Additional Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provisions protect bats from disturbance in their place of rest or from the obstruction of such locations.

The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Chope proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any new buildings are built to assess the presence of bats in the area, and that if there are any bats present, the building should proceed only if bat boxes are provided with the building. However, the requirement to be aware of the existence of bats, and to consider the impacts of any building on their numbers, already exists. Local planning authorities already have a duty to take biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive into account when considering developments. Mitigation of damage to bat roosts and resting places may be required, but bat boxes and artificial roosts are only two of the possible measures that can be implemented, and each case should be considered on its merits. Furthermore, bats require not just protected roost sites but suitable habitats in which to feed, and the Bill does not take account of that.

The Bill requires a bat survey to take place, and prohibits the placing of wind turbines in the vicinity of any bat habitat. However, bat surveys are already undertaken at potential wind turbine sites when bats are nearby. An interesting discussion is taking place about evidence of the impact of wind turbines on bats. That evidence is fairly mixed. Some studies in the United States and Canada suggested that there could be an impact, but, in order to clarify the position in the United Kingdom, the Government are conducting their own research, which will be completed later this year. If that research establishes that the current approach to planning in respect of wind turbines is insufficient to protect bats, we will review our approach at that point.

The Bill proposes that bats should be excluded or removed from any place of worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have an adverse impact on the users of such a place. Apart from the fact that the Bill is rather loosely worded—for instance, it does not define an adverse impact or a place or worship—such a blanket prohibition does not take account of either the potential importance of some churches to vulnerable bat populations, or the work that the Government are doing to alleviate the impact in such places when bats are causing a nuisance or distress.

In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features that are so important to bats have been lost as roosting sites, churches can be important to, in particular, some of our rarer birds. However, the Government recognise, and are sympathetic to, the concern of parishioners who are suffering from the effects of bat droppings on pews, precious artefacts and equipment in the public and private areas of their churches. To address that concern, we have invested considerable resources in research and development to establish how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches.

A three-year research project was completed in March 2014, and a current project, led by English Heritage, is devolving a toolkit to assist churches with significant bat-related problems. That current project is also bringing benefits to some of the worst-affected churches. Natural England, as the Government’s licensing body, is producing a licensing framework as part of the toolkit, which will be the mechanism through which the research will be delivered. External funding is being sought to support the roll-out of the toolkit, and to create an effective national support network for churches with bat-related problems. Major strides are being made. For instance, at one church in Yorkshire, St Hilda’s, work instigated by Natural England has dealt with the problem comprehensively, while ensuring that bats are able to roost in the roof of the building.

My hon. Friend alluded to my Eurosceptic credentials, and asked me about the impact of the habitats directive in this country. He may be aware that the European Commission has committed itself to reviewing certain elements of the directive to establish whether they are proportionate. So, in addition to all the work that we are doing nationally, a European-level review is under way. However, I think that the work that we have done locally and nationally demonstrates that peaceful co-existence is possible, and that we can deal with the problem without necessarily removing bats.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 2:29, 16 January 2015

In the light of what the Minister has just said, I hope that a review of the bat habitat regulations and the directive will be one of our main renegotiating points when we come to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union. While noting some of the measures that the Government have put in place, I also have to note that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs among people involved in church conservation. They believe something much more stringent and urgent needs to be undertaken, which is why I would like to continue this debate—

The debate stood adjourned, (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 23 January.