London Zoo Lease — [Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 14 March 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 9:30, 14 March 2023

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, which goes to the nub of the issue that I am about to raise. ZSL and Whipsnade Zoo bring animals into the wild in a much more open setting, for them to run free and enjoy the benefits of a much larger area. He is right that zoos in this day and age do not confine animals to small cages, and there is the opportunity for animals to have a much wider spread. It is so important to get investment in zoos and to enable them to operate in such a fashion.

I called this debate because the Crown Estate Act 1961, which we have all no doubt studied in great detail, currently governs the lease of ZSL’s Regent’s Park site. The Act caps the lease at a maximum of 60 years, presenting a number of difficulties, which I will come to shortly. Through this debate and a subsequent change in the law, we hope to extend that maximum lease tenure to 150 years—a 90-year increase. This is not a new ask. Fairly recently, in 2018, a similar Bill was introduced to extend the lease for Kew Gardens, and that is now on the statute books.

At present, with only 60 years on the leasehold, there is a significant impact on the zoo’s ability to raise funds, create new partnerships, expand support programmes for the local community and invest substantially in regeneration of the existing site. What needs to be understood is that many of the buildings on the site are listed. ZSL is not suggesting that it wants to remove those listed buildings; it wants to regenerate them and make them fit for purpose in the current, modern environment.

The zoo’s extremely high running costs, including rising energy bills, of which we are all aware, cannot be compromised on, because it has to sustain climates appropriate for the animals and birdlife in the zoo. Given the zoo’s stature as an organisation—it receives no Government grant aid at all—it is vital that it is able to secure as much funding as possible and to plan for the future. To continue with the 60-year lease would make the zoo financially impossible to sustain and would bring us to a crisis point. I strongly suggest that we should not get to that position.

In 1826, when the zoo was founded, the average life expectancy in this country peaked at about 40. Thus, a 60-year lease was significantly longer than the average life expectancy, and was therefore a reasonable and respectable length. Thankfully, with the advancements in modern science and a better understanding of health and evolution, our average life expectancy has soared, and is now more than double that in the Victorian times, at an average of about 80 years. That makes a 60-year lease redundant. Thus, to tackle 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, not only for visitors but for the scientists who do such a brilliant job in the zoo. More certainty on the lease length would enable ZSL to find global investment partners willing to fund the state-of-the-art laboratories and drastically improve the current buildings that act as the animals’ habitat.

There are 140 scientists currently working in dilapidated buildings, which is considerably inhibiting their research. Unsurprisingly, they want modern conditions in which to practise and do their research. Providing new, fully equipped areas where they can conduct those vital studies would benefit not only the public but the animals themselves and other institutions, through the Living Planet Index. Further, London Zoo currently houses 16 species that are extinct in the wild and more than 100 seriously endangered species. Expanding those numbers through space, research and developed understanding, brought about by the leasehold, would prevent us from losing any more of those wonderful creatures.

Normally, when I give speeches in this place, I have a long list of questions for the Minister, but my simple ask today is for her to enable the lease to be extended to 150 years, either by supporting my excellent private Member’s Bill on 24 March or by amending another piece of legislation. When she responds, if she wants to make a short speech and just say yes, that would shorten these proceedings quite considerably.

As I come to the end of my speech and allow other Members to take to the Floor with their insightful comments, I remind colleagues of the important contributions that London Zoo and ZSL have made over the past 200 years. The iconic naturalist, Charles Darwin, conducted many of his studies at the site. Thus, it can be assumed that, without London Zoo’s existence, we would not have a proper understanding of the theory of evolution. Another significant character to come out of the zoo, I am told, is my hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin. I am sure that, without his zoological background, his adept manner of dealing with some of the more animal-like behaviour in Parliament would have been very different. Of course, he is now the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, so he has to deal with us all appropriately.

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

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