Last Saturday, while volunteering at the local shelter, I was called out on to the street to help a man who could’ve frozen to death under cruel winter winds. Good-hearted local people had alerted the police to his condition. Over the next few hours, as temperatures fell still further, we got him warmed up and to a place of safety, with the help of the police, the local shelter and the local council.
I’m sure that he, and many others like him, are in all our thoughts as the ‘Beast from the East’ hits Britain this week.
Action is being taken across the country to protect people who are most vulnerable, older people who are home alone, people who live in homes that are not warm enough, as well as people who are living on the streets. Emergency shelters will open and the homelessness issue will be highlighted in the minds of millions. Already we have seen homeless people die on the streets of Chelmsford and Westminster this winter.
By no means all but some of these deaths will be exacerbated by poor housing conditions. At its simplest, it will be due to a lack of adequate shelter and warmth.
This winter there are homes waiting in factories and diggers sitting idle, while newts, other amphibians and reptiles gambol in the snow. Not literally gambol, because I am told that newts do not gambol. We know this because we know an awful lot about newts.
The UK Government and the EU each fund study after study on these delightful creatures. Newts prefer stagnant water, but such water should be clear rather than muddy for breeding. They do not like flat ponds, they prefer sloped banks with slopes between 20° and 45°. They like a bit of sunshine and they prefer small water plants to big water plants. They like the width of their pond ideally to be about 1.5m and shallow in parts. A mineral base is preferable to a mud base. They do not thrive alongside fish, which are natural predators to their eggs. And there is the rub.
If newt protection meant killing off all the fish in a local pond in order to keep the newts living in their preferred happy habitat, I strongly suspect that there would be a national outcry. But when it comes to the choice between housing people and housing newts, the newts win, hands (or legs) down.
Newts are abundant in the UK. They are protected not because of a lack of them, but because of other EU countries who have failed to take adequate steps to preserve them.
Newts are not the only such protected species to be put first over people. Along the A11 between Suffolk and Norfolk you will see a series of strings, air bridges, across the road that look like preparation for a foot bridge. But these air bridges have not been built with any leisure walker in mind. They are bat bridges and they cost a staggering £350,000. Up and down the country, I have visited sites where priority is given to building what has been described as bat hotels and even bat playgrounds – leisure spaces for our winged friends to, literally, spread their wings. We are building five star bat accommodation before builders can get on with building affordable homes for people.
Of course, there is a balance between species and development. But is that balance in the right place? Has the pendulum swung too far in wildlife’s favour? What about the plight of vulnerable people this winter?
The Government itself recognises protected species such as newts and bats are holding back housebuilding. In a flurry of headlines in 2015 it was declared that newts would no longer block housebuilding. But in 2017, the Government White Paper recognised it was a continuing problem and in 2018, the newts still have the upper hand.
Not enough homes are being built, and that lack of supply, year after year, has been driving up house prices and reducing access to affordable and warm homes for the many and not just for the few. But can we build more homes faster and protect the newts?
Practically speaking moving newts and other protected species can only be done at certain times of the year. Miss the window, and you could be waiting on the weather for up to another year. One approach would be to provide advance funding on sites to move the creatures during the spring and summer on all newt likely sites that could come into building in the next two to three years. This would also fund the mesh and fences that are required to keep the newts or other species from returning to the site.
That way we could reduce the time during which sites are currently being held up for reptile, amphibian and other species rehousing and get houses built for people faster.
There is another approach. As Britain leaves the EU, there is an opportunity to review the EU habitat list in order to ensure that it is relevant and proportionate for our own country. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, has recognised that the Habitats Directive drives up house prices for the next generation and impedes social mobility.
This Prime Minister says housing is her personal, and the national, priority. If so, she should accept that the practical reality of why homes are not built on time includes these ‘green’ issues. Protecting the environment is important and is a safeguarding task from generation to generation. But so is ensuring that each generation can have access to safe, affordable homes. It is necessary to consider and take urgent action to check the balance is actually right - to ensure that action to protect and preserve the environment is proportionate, relevant and effective, particularly when balanced against other equally important competing priorities.
If bat bridges and the like do not work, they are not ‘effective’ for the purpose and money should not be spent on them.
If homes are being delayed year after year for a species that is plentiful in the UK because of EU imposed sanctions, this is not ‘proportionate’ to the urgent housing priorities of this nation. Indeed it may not be ‘relevant’ to our country either.
It is a sobering reality that there is no penalty for a person dying in the cold this winter. However, if you touch so much as a leg of a newt or a hair of a bat that carries with it stiff personal criminal sanction. That simply cannot be right. It is time we as a country recognised that such unequivocal environmental policies that contain neither discretion nor proportionality are not the British way. The environment must be protected, but so must people’s lives and futures.