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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:44 am on 14 March 2023.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 9:44, 14 March 2023

I congratulate Bob Blackman on securing this debate and setting out the argument with great clarity and substance. Indeed, I think the argument is pretty well made, and I hope that, as he said, the Minister will be able to reply with a one-word answer to the ask from ZSL and the zoo.

Zoos have not always had the best press—certainly, a couple of decades ago, we had examples where the treatment of animals in zoos was very much called into question—but there are outstanding zoos, and ZSL and London Zoo are of course part of that. They have shown, over a great many years, the critical role that a well-managed zoo can play in animal conservation and education.

Over many years, I have been pleased to be able to go to the zoo, both individually and as a parent—as the hon. Member said, it is wonderful to see the joy and delight that children take from the zoo—and also to see some of the projects that ZSL has run, which illustrate exactly the case the hon. Member has made. It has done marvellous, pioneering work in conservation and education, and recently I have twice been able to go to projects run from the penguin pools, which have been an example of ZSL’s groundbreaking work on marine conservation. One of the penguins still has a set of my headphones—one of the lessons I would encourage people to learn is to never trust a penguin with anything loose and dangling.

I have no doubt that the work ZSL does has been part of the groundbreaking work on ocean protection we saw brought to a conclusion only a couple of weeks ago. Those things do not come out of nowhere; they come out of the work done by scientists and leading establishments to raise awareness and increase public pressure for change in the area of conservation. London Zoo itself sees 80,000 children a year come through its doors, which is an illustration of just how superb that work is.

We have already heard that the zoo’s income is primarily from ticket sales, so supporting the work we want to see—on animal welfare, conservation and education—requires the site to constantly readapt itself for the modern world. That, in turn, requires investment and the refresh and reimagining that we have heard about and that has been set out in the zoo’s case. Without the opportunity to improve its facilities in line with changing user expectations—and, indeed, changing expectations as regards standards of animal care and protection—its business model will fail.

The zoo has made the case that some of its buildings are substandard, for both those working in them and visitors, and they were severely affected, for example, in the catastrophic 2021 floods, which caused so much damage across north-west London. That situation is not something that can be maintained if the zoo is seeking to have a million visitors a year through its doors. Of course, its buildings need to be brought up to fine standards but, in addition, it needs to look constantly at new ways in which it can maintain the expectation of a quality experience for visitors.

We know how important investment is for the animals themselves and for animal welfare and education, but London Zoo also has a vital role in London’s tourist economy. The hon. Member for Harrow East spelled some of this out, but London’s economy is still recovering from the pandemic, and it is critical that we continue to support our fine cultural institutions. We had a debate here a few weeks ago about arts venues in London and the need to ensure that they continue to receive the investment they require. People come to London for a first-class cultural experience, and that includes visiting London Zoo. They rightly expect that that experience will be a quality one in a quality and modern environment.

I strongly support London Zoo’s pitch for a lease extension. It is a necessary, sensible and pragmatic approach to securing long-term investment. As we have heard, the request by ZSL will merely bring it into line with other leases of Crown Estate land, as well as comparable organisations such as Kew. Legal adjustments of this kind, while minor in the great scheme of things, often seem to fly beneath Government’s radar. They are local and specific, and Governments do not like to find time for this kind of thing. But we also know that the private Member’s Bill route is arbitrary—it depends on who wins a place in the ballot and on whether a vulnerable private Member’s Bill manages to get through the process—so we need the Government to act.

The proposal from London Zoo is modest and specific, yet extremely valuable. I strongly commend it, and I hope the Minister will be able to take it forward without further delay.