Willow tit under threat as Government make it easier for developers to build on disused mines

Conservationists fear that moves to build thousands of new homes could sound the final death knell for the tough little northern bird

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The Independent Online

There were few winners from the death of coal mining in northern England in the 1980s, which saw thousands of jobs lost and disused collieries and factories allowed to turn into wasteland.

One winner, however, was the willow tit, a tough little northern bird just about managing to survive its own battle against extinction by making the region’s post-industrial landscapes its home.

The willow tit, with its puffed-out grey chest and sooty-black cap, has seen its population decline by more than 80 per cent over the past 50 years and around 3,500 pairs are now all that remain in Britain.

They live almost exclusively in the marshy scrubland that has taken over the old mining and manufacturing sites in Lancashire, South Yorkshire and the Midlands that closed during the Thatcher years.

But now the feisty birds – a “red listed” species because they are so at risk – are under threat again as part of plans by the Government to make it easier for developers to build on disused industrial sites.

Conservationists fear that moves to build thousands of new homes could sound the final death knell for the willow tit. They say the birds’ plight needs to be considered carefully before the bulldozers start to roll.

Around one in 10 willow tits are fighting their corner at sites in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, including the Wigan Flashes, a 600-acre landscape of reed beds and lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence.

“Willow tits are a unique bird,” said Mark Champion, the Wigan projects manager for Lancashire Wildlife Trust. “The scrublands formed from old coal fields and industrial sites are perfect habitat for them, but they have experienced the largest decline of any British bird.

“People will go out of their way to save oak forests or orchid fields, but they often see scrubland as a wasteland with no particular value. These birds need these sites to survive. It would be so easy to throw up some houses or a supermarket, but care needs to be taken that we don’t lose the willow tits for ever.”

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced plans in July to allow housing projects on brownfield land to be fast-tracked as part of a broader push to boost Britain’s productivity.

Analysts questioned whether there was enough brownfield land – a term which refers to sites previously developed but which have become derelict – to meet housing needs over the next 15 years.

Official figures show more than 570,000 new homes have been built since 2010. Local councils have a duty under the National Environment and Rural Communities Act to take biodiversity into account in their decision making.

James Wharton, minister for the Northern Powerhouse, said earlier this week that the Government intended to create a fund to unlock brownfield sites for housing.

He said: “We want brownfield land to be brought back into use and for homes to be built on it. This Government is committed to delivering the houses needed in places across the country.”

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “There are strong safeguards in place to protect local wildlife in legislation and in the planning system.

“Our planning reforms also mean councils and local people decide where developments should and shouldn’t go.”

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