Power to grant a lease in respect of land at Kew Gardens

Part of Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 24th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 3:35 pm, 24th July 2019

Kew is not only a fantastic tourist attraction, but it has also been a key pioneer in science and research for about 250 years. That is why it needs to be sustainable environmentally and economically, which is why we are looking at this legislation. Labour is supporting the Bill to allow leases to be extended from 31 years to 150 years in the hope that the expected £15 million windfall will make both the gardens and, importantly, the scientific research institution more sustainable. That is not to say that there are not questions that need to be raised now for the record, and there are a number of those—although very brief ones—regarding the clauses that the Minister has set out.

Funding is the key issue in this Bill. It is right that the Opposition continue to ask for the assurances that the Treasury will not deduct from Kew’s core funding the capital sums generated by these reforms. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the full value of any extra revenue derived from these changes will go directly to Kew and its scientific work, not to the Chancellor? It is a worry that the Treasury will see this as a cash bonus and take some of it away or see it as an excuse to avoid approving funding streams to Kew Gardens in future.

It is important to note that the Government funding for Kew comes exclusively from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has seen its funding slashed in recent years. Austerity is not over, regardless of what the outgoing Prime Minister may have said, and it follows that Kew has had its funding cut. Will the Minister explore getting access to funds from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for International Development and the Department for Education to ensure that this national treasure gets the funding it deserves to properly reflect the broad contribution and range of activities that it provides in support of the objectives in other Departments, too?

In relation to access arrangements, the Bill provides for the sale of leases of up to 150 years, which the Opposition do not oppose. However, can the Minister clarify something? Members of the public have raised concerns about whether the intention behind the sale of these leases is to sell the green spaces within Kew Gardens. I know that that is not the Minister’s intention, but given those concerns, it would be useful to be clear that this is about selling the leases on peripheral buildings to Kew Gardens and not the key assets themselves.

As we know, Kew Gardens is incredibly popular not only with local residents but with the British general public. Kew can sometimes be an expensive day out, at £42 for a family of four or £18 for one person at the gate. I recognise that local residents who live in the immediate vicinity are offered free entry, which is great if one can afford a home in the surrounding area, but that is not something that everyone can do. Will the Minister ensure that the core funding is maintained at such a level that Kew does not need to increase prices further? Not being content only with justice, will he also discuss with ministerial colleagues in DCMS and the Treasury how free entry for museums can also be funded at Kew to bring it into line with other national museums and attractions so that it can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their income? Does he have an understanding from Kew about what purpose the additional revenue derived from the reforms in this Bill will be put to? If so, can he state it on the record, because that would help folk to understand why this is happening?

Kew represents an absolutely essential asset to us in the fight to tackle the climate emergency, and it is right that funding is allocated in support of that. Kew is leading the way on climate change adaptation of crops. Some 50% of the calories consumed by our species come from just three big grasses—wheat, maize and rice—and that is a significant source of vulnerability within the global food system. The work being done at Kew to breed resilience into these crops is critically important and often overlooked. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether any of the income stream that he expects to be derived from these reforms will go into its research in this area, because that would be very important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who would usually have been here today, would not forgive me if I did not mention the importance of proper funding for the digitalisation of the herbarium records—which, I am sure, is an issue on all our agendas. It should be, though, because Kew currently holds the world’s largest records in its herbarium. That is an opportunity to learn from a collection of species that has been gathered on a global basis over many centuries, which is especially important as species are being wiped out as part of climate change and as part of human behaviour globally. More than 7 million plants specimens are kept, including 350,000 type specimens—the original specimens on which new specimen descriptions are based. If we saw a repeat of what happened at Notre Dame, this could all be lost, which would be a significant blow to our fight to stop the climate crisis.

We need to digitalise the collection as a matter of urgency. There is a £40 million cost to that work. I would welcome hearing from the Minister how progress is being made and what contributions these reforms could make to this effort. There would be another big advantage. Many people all over the world want to access the records but currently have to be able to afford to go to Kew in person. If those people, especially those from the developing world, were able to access digital records, that could be transformative in the fight against global biodiversity loss. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether he expects any funding from the sale of the longer leases to go into these important projects.

On the basis of assurances that we have had on Second Reading and the ongoing conversations between the Opposition and the Government, we do not intend to oppose the Bill at this stage.