Paul Goodenough (L) of Rewriting Extinction, Hannah Bourne-Taylor (C) and Jeff Knott (R) RSPB outside No.10, (c) Goda_Krastinaityte
In today's Why Policy Matters blog, Jeff Knott, RSPB Director of Policy and Advocacy, reflects on working with Hannah Bourne-Taylor on her Swift bricks campaign.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of supporting Hannah Bourne-Taylor in her campaign to make swift bricks mandatory in all new developments. These bricks provide cavities for swifts and other red listed species to nest in, countering the loss of these crevices in many modern buildings.
But its not the important conservation message I wanted to talk about today, it’s what Hannah’s efforts might signal about the future of campaigning and an important reminder for everyone who has spent years or decades fighting for nature.
Hannah’s campaign – The Feather Speech - has been driven by her personal passion and dedication. Launching her petition by walking naked through the streets of London was certainly an attention grabbing way to highlight the plight of swifts and from there she pushed on to get over 100,000 signatures to secure a debate in Westminster.
Importantly, while supported by organisations like the RSPB, this was very much Hannah’s campaign throughout. Had this been work led by any large, established conservation organisation, it likely wouldn’t have been just about swift bricks, but the broader challenges nature faces. And it almost certainly wouldn’t have involved public nudity as a tactic!
The point is, because this was led by an individual, the approach was markedly different. Now, I’m certainly not saying campaigning by big charities has had its day. Far from it! Given the forces aligning against our wildlife, that powerful voice has never been more needed. But traditionally, many large organisations (RSPB included) have campaigned almost exclusively by setting out what the evidence tells us needs to happen and then asking people to join us. The swift brick campaign was something very different – driven by passion and emotion - topic and tactics set and driven by an individual, with our role simply being to highlight and amplify her voice.
I believe this approach is key to the future of campaigning. Not to the exclusion of big organisation led engagements tackling the major issues, but to add colour and variety to the conservation landscape. Supporting and lifting up those passionate individuals will only become more important and harnessing these voices – for example through the People’s Plan for Nature - will be essential if we are to tackle the nature and climate emergency.
I only met Hannah for the first time a couple of weeks ago, outside the gates to Downing Street for the hand in of her petition. What immediately struck me was her infectious enthusiasm. Clearly “passion is a superpower” wasn’t just a tagline, but something very visceral and authentic. After the hand in we headed to Westminster Hall for the debate triggered by the petition. In the debate MPs from across the political spectrum spoke in support of mandating swift bricks. Would they have been engaged by a similar campaign led by a big organisation? Maybe, but maybe not.
Unfortunately, the responses by the Minster and Shadow Minster were less enthusing, but I left the hall feeling quite positive. It’s rare in these debates to get such universal support from MPs and the ministerial responses weren’t much of surprise, particularly given how peripheral swift bricks are to their jobs. I do have some sympathy with both, who may well have never heard of swift bricks until their officials briefed them for this debate.
Outside, it was clear Hannah’s reaction was very different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, having dedicated a year of her life to this campaign, to see it dismissed in a few short minutes was a tough pill to swallow. It was clear she was angry and disappointed.
On the train home I was reflecting on why my emotions had been different from Hannah’s. True I’d dedicated a tiny fraction of the hours she had to this, but was it just that? Having spent more than a decade working in advocacy, I’ve seen a fair few of these kind of debates, some good, some less so, and I was left wondering if perhaps my expectations for success had been lowered by the years of knock backs. I’m naturally an optimist, but anyone who has been involved in conservation for any length of time will have experienced the disappointment and defeat and managing that is important to avoid sending yourself mad.
With that in mind, I was pondering how to help Hannah deal with the disappointment. I needn’t have worried. Hannah’s response was to throw herself into next steps. Mere hours after the debate had finished she was lobbying other Ministers to pick up the debate and rallying for the next phase. What I had perceived as a small victory to be satisfied with, Hannah had clearly taken as a challenge to press on. She has already done more than I would have thoughts possible in months, with more to come
The campaign for swift bricks is incredibly exciting precisely because it is so different. But beyond the obvious benefits it would give to our declining wildlife, there are some really important messages for all of us to take away.
To conservation organisations:- Lets challenge ourselves to give voice to others, not to replace our efforts to tackle the big, complicated, long term threats to our wildlife, but to enrich and enhance them. Sometimes the specific can be more engaging than the big intangibles.
To those working in conservation policy:- Lets challenge ourselves not to be satisfied with the small wins. In a nature and climate emergency, we must keep raising our eyes and pushing for what nature needs, rather than just what is politically expedient.
To individuals who care:- You too can make a real difference. The array of threats facing nature can feel big and impossible to know where to start. But, now more than ever, a passionate dedicated individual can drive real change. We need more Hannahs.
And finally, whoever you are and whatever your role, when it comes to saving nature, passion really is a superpower, and its one we all need a top up of every now and then. Thank you Hannah for topping up mine and lets keep fighting for swifts and for nature.
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