One of the matters considered at West Berkshire Council’s full council meeting on 20 July 2023 was a petition, first presented on 6 October 2022, “to consider establishing hedgehog highways in new developments.” This might seem like a minor matter among all the problems we face. None the less, this – and the 10 July debate in the House of Commons about swift boxes – give us useful insights into the limits of institutional power and the influence that less formal groups can have on issues that concern us.
Our favourite wild animal
Hedgehogs are well-loved in this country. They’re also a generalist species, meaning that they feed on a wide range of things. Their population therefore gives us an insight into the general level of bio-diversity. By many evidences, their numbers have been declining. This led to the petition that WBC should introduce a policy to encourage hedgehog highways – gaps cut in fences – to support the species (by allowing them to roam to find food and mates) and also satisfy a number of other Council’s policies.
The petition makes reference to The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2022 report, by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (“State report” hereafter). WBC’s officers’ response refers to this document and feel the problem is not as serious as the report claims is (or that there’s evidence for). Also, the State report is national, whereas WBC is only concerned with West Berkshire.
However, page 5 of the State report provides some maps from the National Gamebag Census between 1985 and 2019 which suggest that hedgehog populations in West Berkshire have fallen sharply over this period. The State report talks of a national fall “of between a third and three-quarters of the population in the last two decades.” Why is this?
Why the decline?
The WBC officers’ report suggests (5.18) that “the reasons for the decline in hedgehogs is complex and ranges from predators (badgers, foxes, dogs and cats) to poisoning (intended and unintended (i.e slug pellets) vehicular traffic and obesity.”
I’m not sure what the evidence for this statement is. No other sources are mentioned, which would suggest it’s either from the State report or the Gamebag Census, which WBC cite in 5.17. However, cats, dogs, foxes and obesity aren’t mentioned in either document. (With regard to cats I’m not surprised: I’ve been a cat owner all my life and have never seen or heard of a cat attacking a hedgehog.) Badgers feature, but the evidence for their impact on hedgehog decline is ambiguous. Slug pellets and traffic are mentioned by the State report though neither is suggested as a major reason for the decline.
What is, however, stressed in both documents is habitat loss, in particular the loss of hedgerows (a word that appears eleven times across the two papers), which hedgehogs prefer rather than open countryside. Hedgelink.co.uk suggests that “we’ve lost 50% of our hedgerows since World War II – and around 60% of the hedgerows we still have aren’t in good condition.” This seems in broad terms to mirror the species’ decline. The clue’s in their name, after all: hedgehogs like hedges. One could argue that reversing the decline in hedgerows might be a better way of helping the species.
The officers’ report suggests that the hedgehog highway measure would have little impact as there are “only just over 500 residential new builds” in the district each year, some of which are flats. It seems odd that WBC’s planning officers didn’t focus on hedgerow loss as the main problem (which it seems to be) as this would have underlined the point they made elsewhere that the planning system will not provide the best solution to this issue.
What remains as an option for householders is, by agreement with their neighbours, to make these apertures themselves. WTO’s planning officers didn’t directly refer to this as, the homes having been built, this is not a planning matter.
Whereas the officers’ summary of the environmental aspects could be challenged (which the councillors had the opportunity to do at the meeting), on matters of policy and pragmatism it’s on more solid ground. It’s important to remember that this was a response from a planning department about planning matters. Opposing the petition as it stood doesn’t mean that the officers are a bunch of hedgehog haters. More than once, the officers’ report said that other approaches to addressing the issue than the planning system, such as public information campaigns, should be adopted.
Nor did the report abnegate all responsibility. 5.16 said that national legislation “already makes hedgehogs a material consideration for planning authorities during the planning process. The document does not call on planning authorities to make policies regarding connectivity in developments for ground dwelling species but states “depending on your ecologist’s assessment, they may propose mitigation measures, habitat enhancement works and/or monitoring”.”
5.23 added that “with regard to development management, the existing planning policy guidance is enough to require ecological evidence to be submitted as part of the planning application and if applicable a suitable condition for ecology be included in the decision letter. This could include a hedgehog suitable fence if it was suitable for the proposed development but it does not require a blanket policy based on no evidence.” Many might disagree with the “no evidence” remark: but there are other even more relevant points.
The first is the wording of the petition. The original submission, as in Newbury Town Council’s Planning Committee minutes on 11 July 2022, was in support of this national petition which urged councils “to adopt a policy of requiring hedgehog friendly fencing in all housing developments. This fencing would include a 13 cm hole in the bottom of a fence…”
The petition submitted to WBC urged WBC “to reconsider the decision not to make hedgehog highways a planning condition for major planning applications.” (My italics in both cases.) Remarks at the Full Council meeting of 20 July 2023, including by the WBC’s Planning portfolio-holder Tony Vickers, suggested this would include developments such as industrial parks, solar farms and recycling centres, for which places these measures would be irrelevant, indeed actively harmful.
The petition’s phrasing could not be changed. However, I wonder whether WBC’s Executive might have asked the officers to respond to a recommendation that it only apply to housing developments which had close fencing. I don’t know how many answers would have been different but at least we’d be sure that they were responding to the petition’s intention.
The second point was that “if each protected species was to have its own planning policy local plans would become incredibly long…” The local plan is long enough already, as are the processes, including planning committee meetings, that determine applications. I can see that officers, and perhaps members, don’t want to add more unless they have to.
More important than any of these is the matter of enforcement. Every new policy implies a new condition. We already know that most planning authorities have trouble enforcing the policies they have. The summary points out that “once the house is built there is nothing…to prevent the hole from being blocked up”: but this leaves open the question of whether the hole could be enforced in the first place. Carolyne Culver pointed out in the debate that a positive way of looking at it was that many people would not block them up: and she’s right. However, the wider point is whether this should be a planning issue in the first place.
I tried to establish if any other planning authorities had come to a different conclusion from WBC and had introduced, or were planning to introduce, policies in favour of hedgehog highways. I couldn’t find any. This supports the view of WBC’s planning officers. One can take issue with the summary of the environmental issues and the causes of the decline: but on planning matters there are problems, enforceability not least.
Swifts in the Commons
A similar matter was discussed in the House of Commons on 10 July when members spent an hour and a half debating the motion to “make swift bricks compulsory in new housing to help red-listed birds.” Swifts are remarkable animals, as I learnt at a fascinating and well-attended talk in Hungerford a few weeks ago, and face in their different way as many challenges caused by habitat loss as do hedgehogs. Dehanna Davidson, representing the government in the matter, came to an almost identical conclusion as did WBC’s officers with regard to hedgehogs: “I have heard my right hon. Friend loud and clear, but I hope she will recognise my wider point about not wanting to add unnecessary additional complexity to a service that already faces a great deal of it.”
She added that “Given the tenacity of the members present and the incredible campaigning of groups such as those sitting in the Public Gallery today, I am confident that the issue will remain on the radar of both my Department and the wider government.” In other words, your points are noted but we’re not going to introduce policies that we can’t enforce. WBC’s officers’ comments might have been reduced to a similar sentence.
Laws, policies and people
So, on the face of it we have hedgehog-hating local councils and swift-averse MPs voting to do these animals down. Or do we?
A council could introduce a policy that no construction traffic would be permitted after 3.15pm or a government could legislate, once again, that people should not steal things from other people’s houses. No sane person would as a result allow their children to play in the road near a new housing development or leave their front door unlocked when they go out. We place too much faith in regulation. Many things cannot be enforced. Planning policies and national laws should perhaps be seen merely as aspirations.
It’s therefore perhaps a good thing that we now understand that hedgehog highways cannot be mandated by local councils and that swift boxes cannot be imposed by Whitehall. Were either to have been agreed, many would have said, “oh great; it’s now a law or a policy, so we don’t need to worry about it any more.” It’s good that these issues have had public exposure but now they are back in the hands of local campaigners. This is perhaps where they ought to be. Laws and policies can’t be relied upon to produce their intended results. The voice of interested individuals can speak far more effectively. We all need to take our own actions to support what we believe is right. If enough of us do, it will become the norm and there’ll be no need for rules.
Returning to hedgehogs, there’s still a lot that WBC can do. Recommendation 2 at the Full Council was to “investigate the possibility of a hedgehog-positive campaign to encourage residents to adopt hedgehog highways.” I look forward to more details and seeing if it will address wider matters such as hedgerow loss and the needs of other species. There are many individuals and voluntary groups in the district that are already doing what they can. They do not need instructions from WBC but I’m sure a bit of support would be welcome. This having been stated in a Full Council document, I’m sure we can look forward to some positive initiatives before long.
These should include advice about what we can do, according to our own circumstances and interests, to help protect these wonderful creatures whose space on the earth we share and whose success supports the bio-diversity on which we all depend. It might also include lobbying developers to ensure they put suitable measures in place in what they build. Enforcement is once again the issue. So, if you buy a home in a new development and features like hedgehog highways or swift bricks were promised but not delivered, complain like hell.
Down to us…
At least we know where we are. The problems of hedgehogs and swifts are recognised by councils and governments but they don’t have the bandwidth to solve them (certainly not through the planning process).
All this tells us something useful about the way government works. We’re often told there’s an equitable contract between the rulers and the ruled, limited by some abstract ideal of what is reasonable for the rulers to impose. The reality is that a government’s power is limited to what it can enforce. I’d rather have no policies or laws on matters like hedgehogs or swifts than ones that are likely to be ignored. At least with these two we know where we are. Local organisations, campaign groups and individuals can still make a difference. Without this, policies and legislation are meaningless. We have to take responsibility ourselves – in this area and others – and not always rely on policies or laws to provide what we think is right.