Kew Gardens (Leases)

– in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 2:43 pm, 30th January 2018

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to the management of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, include the power to grant a lease in respect of land for a period of up to 150 years.

Kew Gardens is a priceless asset, not only to those of us who are lucky to live in west London or even to the UK, but to the whole world. I feel immensely fortunate that my constituency covers Kew, but my interest in, and support for, the gardens goes well beyond my role as the local MP.

Many Members will know the beauty of Kew. It is a UNESCO world heritage site that attracts nearly 2 million visitors every year, including 100,000 schoolchildren, and is an oasis of calm and beauty in our frantic and busy city. I am also honoured to represent the great Sir David Attenborough as one of my constituents—I might even say, my children excluded, that he is my favourite constituent—and he described Kew as

“the premier botanical gardens in the world”.

Tourists flock from all over the world to see it.

Kew has the world’s largest collection of living plants, but it also has one of the world’s largest botanical library collections. Last November, I was taken round Kew’s herbarium, where more than 7 million plant specimens are kept, including 350,000 type specimens—the original specimens on which new species descriptions are based. The plan is to digitise that entire collection and make it available to anyone in the world who wishes to access it.

Kew’s real value derives from much more than being an attraction, or even a stunning garden: it has been a pioneer in plant science and research for well over 250 years. Kew is at the cutting edge of research to identify, for example, ways in which plants can help combat cancer, diabetes, antimicrobial resistance and much more besides. It is worth pointing out that a quarter of all prescription drugs come directly from plants.

Kew is also leading the way on climate change adaptation of crops. Fifty per cent. of the calories consumed by our species come from just three big grasses—wheat, maize and rice—so the in-built vulnerability of the global food system is self-evident. The work being done at Kew to breed resilience into essential commodities is critically important. Kew truly is a national treasure.

Hon. Members may wonder why the management and finances of Kew Gardens are a matter for this House. Kew is Crown land and as such, is governed by the Crown Lands Act 1702. It is managed by the Secretary of State and a board of trustees, and it is partially funded by the Government through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Four years ago, I led a debate in Westminster Hall along with the now shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, when it became clear that the Government’s proposed cuts to Kew’s funding were threatening its core scientific work. I was absolutely delighted that we won our argument. The right hon. Gentleman is not here now, but I pay tribute to and thank him for his help in delivering that change.

Since then, Kew has gone from strength to strength. The Bill that I am proposing would help to build on that success and ensure Kew’s future for many more years to come. This straightforward and simple Bill would have a very big impact on Kew Gardens. It is backed by Kew Gardens and its trustees, and the Bill’s previous incarnation—it was brought to the House during the last Parliament by my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger—was also backed by Members from across the House. It is also supported by the three councillors who represent Kew ward.

Simply, this is what the Bill would do. The 1702 Act prevents the sale of Crown land and limits the length of leases granted from Crown land to a maximum of 31 years. The Bill would simply allow the Secretary of State to grant leases of up to 150 years, in line with Crown Estate land. In practice, 31-year restrictions on leases are stifling, and Kew Gardens has struggled to find commercial interest. A 31-year limit is clearly not attractive to those who would seek to lease the buildings, but a 150-year lease clearly would be.

I stress that the Bill—this change—-would not involve selling assets, nor would it be about renting out Kew Gardens. The sale of Crown land is forbidden already by law, and any leasing of land would be on non-core land and property, and not on the gardens. The Secretary of State, who has the power to grant a lease, can do so only with the consent of Kew’s trustees, who are duty-bound not to approve anything that would affect the gardens’ core purpose. The Bill would do absolutely nothing to undermine that. Kew’s UNESCO world heritage status adds further protection.

It is difficult to give a precise figure for the financial benefits that accrue from 150-year leases, but Kew Gardens estimates that the revenue generated could amount to around £40 million, with the majority coming in the first decade. There would also be the added benefit of lower maintenance costs by transferring the liability for land and property that had been leased. That extra income would be significant and transformative for Kew Gardens. As Members will know from visiting it, much of the Kew estate is in need of improvement and conservation.

The phenomenal scientific research I have described can be continued only if there is sufficient funding. This simple Bill would help Kew become more financially self-sufficient. It is backed by Kew Gardens, Kew’s councillors and numerous London MPs—many more than I could pack into the Bill. I am sorry I could not include Dr Huq in the list I will be reeling off shortly, but she has expressed her support as well, along with other MPs. The Bill is entirely uncontroversial, and I hope it will receive the House’s support today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Zac Goldsmith, Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger, Richard Benyon, Ruth Cadbury, Theresa Villiers, Dr Matthew Offord, Robert Neill, Bob Blackman, Paul Scully, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Philp and Andy Slaughter present the Bill.

Zac Goldsmith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February, and to be printed (Bill 158).