Clause 1 - Maximum Term of Leases for Zoological Society of London

Zoological Society of London (Leases) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 28 February 2024.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 2 stand part.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It is great to see a variety of colleagues from across the House. I have to say, it is a great relief that colleagues have taken the time and trouble to be here today.

The Bill seeks to amend the Crown Estate Act 1961 to allow an increase to the maximum term of the lease that may be granted to the Zoological Society of London, which I will refer to as ZSL for brevity, in respect of land in Regent’s Park and for connected purposes. I thank everyone for taking time out of their busy day; indeed, for those who suffer the trials and tribulations of the Jubilee line, it is a wonder we are all here. I welcome colleagues contributing to the debate, as long as their speeches are short and to the point. No doubt, colleagues may wish to get their names on the record, either by intervening on me or on the Minister. I am grateful to the Government and to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for supporting the Bill.

London Zoo has been a staple in London since it first opened to the general public in 1847. For centuries, tourists have flocked to the 36-acre site in Regent’s Park to get a closer look at some of the world’s most exotic creatures in the oldest scientific zoo. Today, some 177 years later, London Zoo continues to be one of London’s most popular attractions, welcoming over a million visitors each year, including more than 80,000 schoolchildren. For many, it provides a unique experience to see some of the 20,000 animals London Zoo is home to up close and to learn about the unique species.

Indeed, I am sure that London Zoo is a childhood memory for most of us. I still remember vividly my first visit and the excitement of seeing in the flesh the huge animals who had previously been confined to the television screen. In my days, it was black and white television, so it was quite something. Over the years, some of London Zoo’s most notable residents have influenced our childhoods. The likes of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo the elephant are said to have their origins in the animals of London Zoo. Recently I was lucky enough to be welcomed back by Matthew Gould, Vicky Godwin and the team to take a look around. That was a year ago, but I have been back since and can safely say that at whatever age people visit it really is a fantastic day out. It is one of London’s tourist attractions that people count on going to when they visit London.

London Zoo is run by ZSL, which is an international conservation charity that was established by royal charter in 1826. The charity is driven by science, with 140 scientists working on site to protect species, restore ecosystems, collaborate with communities around the world and inspire positive change for biodiversity. The work it carries out across the globe is completely led by evidence. It currently produces the hugely beneficial data for the Living Planet Index—the world’s leading dataset on global wildlife.

London Zoo has a huge number of benefits for both local communities and the animal kingdom. Each year, tourists from London, the wider UK and across the entire globe visit the zoo. That contributes to funding for the zoo and to the UK’s wider economy, as visitors are more likely to spend money in surrounding areas, particularly as it is only a stone’s throw from most of London’s cultural hotspots. Each year, the zoo is responsible for contributing a huge sum of over £24 million to the local economy.

Community outreach projects are instrumental in the philosophy of the zoo. On all my visits, I have been impressed by the new garden area, where volunteers with complex needs can spend the day gardening and visiting the animals for much-needed respite and wellbeing. That is a lifesaver, particularly for individuals who might have special educational needs. The zoo has recently implemented a community access scheme to enable those on income support and other benefits to visit for as little as £3. It is essential that everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to nature and outdoor space. I am therefore pleased that ZSL is committed to providing access to those who need extra help so that no one, but no one, is left out. Further, the education offerings provide a critical supplement to classroom work. The workshops are specifically tailored to cater for all age groups and learning needs, educating children on hugely important topics, including wildlife, conservation, climate change and the impacts of pollution.

The research conducted by the zoo has benefited animal welfare extensively, shaping the future of many previously endangered species. Many animals at risk of extinction have participated in the zoo’s breeding programmes to ensure that they are safe for future generations. In 2021-22 alone, more than £17.5 million was spent on conservation sites and field conservation programmes and £38.5 million was spent on conservation and animal care, breeding programmes and conservation translocations.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I congratulate my hon. Friend on driving forward this important legislation. As he has mentioned, zoos do tremendous outreach and educational work, as well as being visitor and tourist attractions. The research, conservation and breeding work done by London Zoo protects some of the world’s most precious wildlife. Does he agree that the Bill, which secures the long-term future of London Zoo, is vital for the continuation of that work?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Part and parcel of this is not just the attraction for people to come and see animals, but importantly, the work done by the scientists to ensure that species breed and grow not only in the zoo but across the world, protecting animals in their natural environment.

Moving on to the main purpose of the Bill and of gathering everyone here today, the Crown Estate Act 1961 currently governs the lease of ZSL’s Regent’s Park site. The Act caps the lease at a maximum of 60 years, which presents a number of difficulties. Through this Bill, the maximum lease tenure will increase to 150 years, in a 90-year extension. In 2018, a similar Bill was introduced to extend the lease for Kew gardens: another area of London that we know and love. At present, having only 60 years on the leasehold has a detrimental impact on the zoo’s ability to fundraise, create new partnerships, expand support programmes for the local community and, importantly, invest substantially in the regeneration of the existing site. With extremely high running costs, rising energy bills, which cannot be compromised due to a need for sustained climates for the animals, including protected species, and its status as an organisation that receives no Government grant at all, it is vital that the zoo is able to secure as much funding as possible and plan for the future wherever possible. To continue with only a 60-year lease would make the zoo financially impossible to sustain.

Looking back to 1826, when the zoo was founded, the average life expectancy peaked at about 40 years, thus making a 60-year lease comparatively longer and therefore quite a respectable length. Thankfully, with the advancements in modern medicine, a better understanding of health and evolution, our average life expectancy has soared to more than double, averaging around 80 years, making a 60-year lease far more redundant. Thus, in terms of tackling the complex challenges facing global wildlife, it is simply not long enough.

The knock-on effects of extending the lease will no doubt transform the site. More certainty in the lease length will enable ZSL to find global investment partners willing to fund state-of-the-art laboratories and drastically improve the current buildings that act as the animals’ habitat. One hundred and forty scientists currently work in a dilapidated building—I recommend individuals go and see it for themselves—which is inhibiting their research considerably. Unsurprisingly, we need to provide new, fully equipped areas where they can conduct vital studies that will benefit the animals, as well as other institutes, through the Living Planet Index, which I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, London Zoo currently houses 16 species that are extinct in the wild and more than 100 that are seriously endangered. Extending the lease would give it the space, research and developed understanding to increase those numbers and prevent us from losing any more of these wonderful animals.

This is a brief Bill, as I am sure colleagues will be grateful to hear. Clause 1 sets out the extension from 60 to 150 years. Clause 2 outlines the logistics: the Bill will extend to all four countries of the UK, and the Act will come into force two months after it is passed.

I remind colleagues of the important contributions that London Zoo and ZSL have made to our world over the past 200 years. The iconic naturalist Charles Darwin conducted many of his studies at the site, so it could be assumed that without London Zoo we would not have an understanding of the theory of evolution. Another significant character to come out of the zoo, I am told, is my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire. I am sure that without his zoological background, his adept manner of dealing with the animal-like behaviour in Parliament would be very different.

I will leave the Committee with a final thought from the legendary Sir David Attenborough, which further highlights the essential need for the Crown Estate Act 1961 to be amended to enable a lease extension of up to 150 years and ensure the continuation of this renowned establishment:

“ZSL’s work is vital in driving forward the vision of a world where wildlife thrives…from tiny dart frogs to majestic tigers and everything in between.”

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

I will be very brief. In 1985, I worked at London Zoo, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned. I was paid 75p in luncheon vouchers, which is why it does not appear on my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I worked in the aquarium. The trouble with the aquarium was that it was under the hill where the goats and the bears lived. That was fine, except that the bears would escape and fish in the filters. The warning we were given was, “If you come round the corner and see a bear, run away and shut the door, because they’re very, very dangerous.”

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the need for proper progress and proper development. I believe that Ken Livingstone was one of the trustees of London Zoo at the time, when the zoo was going through a process of evolution: it was moving away from totemic species such as lions and tigers, and experiences such as elephant rides, and towards protecting the environment and endangered species and dealing with habitat loss. It was a fascinating process.

My question to the Minister is whether 150 years is enough. Human life expectancy has changed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East says, but that is not true for animals—and it is the animals that need to be thought about. It is the zookeepers who give up their Christmas day to make sure that animals are properly looked after, and it is the animals that are endangered. It is not really about us, the people who enjoy this wonderful facility; it is about our duty of care, not only to our creatures but to the wonderful people who look after them.

I believe that 150 years is nothing, particularly as ZSL started in 1826. If I am right that we need longer, I hope that we can amend the Bill on Report. If 150 years is satisfactory, we will be back in 190 years’ time, or whenever, to ensure that the lease is correct. It strikes me that, as the lease is granted by the Department, it does not have to be limited to 150 years. With the best interests of the zoo at heart, I hope that the zoo will fix that.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for introducing this very important private Member’s Bill on the maximum lease term that may be granted to the Zoological Society of London. I thank him also for abbreviating that—I shall do the same, which will make my speech substantially shorter. His proposal has very strong support from the Government. I am very glad that the Jubilee line sped him here in time, and I thank the Lord that a bear did not eat my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire and that he can be here too.

We had a very good debate in Westminster Hall on this matter before I went on maternity leave. At that time, I confess, legislation was not ready to go. I imagine that it is down to the great skill and influence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon that we are here today.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 10:15, 28 February 2024

I will be brief. It is always a huge pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister. I am aware of the immense breadth of her responsibilities, and I wonder why this Bill comes under her remit and that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, when I believe we still have a zoos Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

That is a good question. I am going to speculate that it is because it is to do with the Royal Parks estate—[Interruption.] Everybody is nodding, so I am going to say that I am right on that one, but I will correct the record if it turns out that that is not the case.

The ZSL lease was most recently renewed for 60 years in 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said that that is simply not long enough, and I take that point. I should also put on the record that I would like to extend the lease of Sir David Attenborough—I hope he will be with us for many decades to come. Like any well-managed and forward-thinking organisation, ZSL wants to make sure it can be around into the future.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire asked whether 150 years is enough, but I want to ask whether ZSL is enough. It strikes me that other institutions benefiting from similar leases may come across the same problems—the length of investment period and so on. Has the Minister had the opportunity, given the responsibility she has now discovered she has, to look at similar leases to determine whether they might require the same treatment?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I confess that the same point struck me as I was looking at the Bill. Other organisations that come under the Crown Estate Act 1961 have had to go through this convoluted and seemingly unnecessary process. It might be simpler to change elements of the Act to encompass all the organisations affected by it, but I will take that away.

Establishing the mechanism for a longer-term lease will bring ZSL in line with other similar organisations, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. This should be an uncontroversial change, but it appears that we have alighted on some controversy in dealing with this matter. We think the change will positively impact the organisation so that it can build its resilience, develop strategic relationships and increase the scope for potential commercial and philanthropic partnerships that will hopefully ensure its continued growth well into the future.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I confess that my constituency is a long way from London Zoo, but in Cheshire we benefit from the fantastic Chester Zoo. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that what is good for London Zoo is good for the rest of the zoological sector. Collaborations and partnerships can be built on if London Zoo has a long lease and can undertake long-term, strategic planning.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the fantastic collaboration between zoos, not only in this country but across the globe. ZSL has long been at the forefront of that collaboration, and we should all be proud of that. Chester Zoo is an absolutely superb place to visit, and I hope one day to be able to take my children to it.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

The point to be made about the 150 years is that we can go further. Once the law is changed, we can change the leases as much as we like without coming back to Parliament for legislation. I am sponsoring this Bill, but I am conscious that there are Members who expressed concern about the Kew Gardens (Leases) Act 2019 and may express the same concern on Report about whether this measure potentially adds to public sector debt. I appreciate the Minister may not need to answer those questions today in order to get the Bill through Committee, but she should be mindful of the concerns expressed by others, although not by me—I want this Bill to sail through.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I very much appreciate my right hon. Friend’s intervention. She leads me to some of the challenges that may arise in future stages of this Bill. I shall certainly endeavour to look at those concerns in more detail.

London Zoo is a very important part of our capital’s heritage, culture and tourism offer, and it is the 10th most visited attraction in London, contributing over £24 million annually to the local economy and over £54 million to the national economy. It is also the world’s oldest scientific zoo, operating since 1828, and it is a leading force in wildlife conservation and biodiversity. Advances in our understanding of animal welfare have shown that many of the current structures within the premises simply are no longer suitable for their intended purposes. Work is ongoing to reimagine those spaces in new, innovative and sustainable ways, while ensuring that conservation remains at the core and that endangered spaces are cared for.

Looking forward to 2028, London Zoo will celebrate 200 years since its opening, and I am sure that I am not alone in wishing it success in the next 200, with continued modernisation and redevelopment. That will allow its animals to thrive, including through the development of a biodiversity campus to champion the needs of nature across sectors and to increase public engagement and learning opportunities, one of which I myself benefited from about 15 years ago when I was a keeper for a day. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for introducing this Bill, and I urge the Committee’s support.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Would the hon. Member for Harrow East like to sum up?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Thank you, Sir Edward. I also thank the Minister and colleagues on both sides of the Committee for their support. An important point has been raised about whether 150 years is long enough. The most important aspect of what we are considering is that, at the moment, ZSL cannot get the necessary finance to update the zoo and its cages, which were once considered to be suitable for animals, but no longer are. It needs to raise external finance to do that without incurring public debt, which is key. This does not mean that ZSL will have this franchise forever; in future times, a lease could be granted to an alternative organisation. However, it does safeguard the current ZSL lease and ensures that it can raise the necessary capital to improve the site and all the scientific elements that we are keen to ensure we deliver.

I thank all colleagues for coming along and for their contributions. Obviously, as the measure proceeds through Parliament, everyone will know the potential dangers for what is effectively a private Member’s Bill. I caution colleagues that, on Report, amendments are not welcome, because they endanger the chances of getting this on the statute book.

I also thank Matthew Gould. This is one of those lucky experiences: Matthew was a constituent of mine; he went off to become our ambassador, and then he came back to take on the role at London Zoo. When he was considering what to do, he phoned me and asked, “Can you help?” Here we are as a result. I thank Matthew, Vicky and all the London Zoo colleagues for their research passion, assistance throughout the process and determination. After all, we started this process about 18 months ago, and it has taken that length of time to get to this stage, but I am grateful to everyone for getting here.

I thank the Clerks from the Public Bill Office who bore with us all the way through this process, particularly last Wednesday when we had a last-minute scramble to ensure that we resolved the membership of this Committee. After several colleagues announced to me at Wednesday lunchtime that they could not take part, I needed to find others to take their place.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire for his forbearance on the Committee of Selection in ensuring that we held the Committee ahead of the deadline. Anne-Marie Griffiths’ knowledge and patience on these processes have been a great asset to me and my team not only on this Bill but on previous ones. We are grateful for the help with those formalities thus far.

The Minister and her officials have supported the Bill throughout, for which I am exceptionally grateful. Their advice and assistance on drafting it and checking that we had exactly the right wording have been invaluable, and it is great that the Government are supporting this worthy change in the lease, benefiting the zoo and the local area.

Finally, as always with these things, I thank my parliamentary assistant Hattie Shoosmith, who has been very helpful, to put it mildly, in getting everything together. We know as parliamentarians that our staff do a lot of the work behind the scenes, but they never say that in the speeches that they give us to make. I place my thanks to her on record.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported without amendment.

Committee rose.