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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:50 am on 14 March 2023.

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Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 9:50, 14 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I commend my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for bringing today’s debate on extending the lease of London Zoo under the Crown Estate Act.

As many hon. Members will know, London Zoo will come under my new constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. I am sure my friend and colleague, Ms Buck, will be devastated to lose it in the boundary changes. I am delighted to hear of the so many great experiences she has had there, personally and as its Member of Parliament.

I know well of the incredible work that ZSL does in the local community, and in its efforts for scientific animal conservation. Personally, I have visited London Zoo over many years. My family and I were members of London Zoo. We had so many visits when my children were young. I particularly remember the gorillas, which my children were always fascinated by. In my time as a local councillor, I also had the good fortune to visit London Zoo on several occasions. In fact, my first ever official visit as cabinet member for public protection and licensing was to the zoo, to visit the tigers. They did not have much to say to me, but it was fascinating to see the work behind the scenes. No matter the debate about zoos, it is clear that the conservation work that London Zoo and zoos across the country do is so important for global animal conservation.

I also saw how important the zoo’s work was in educating children about the work on conservation of animals, in this country and with global partners. I am also aware of the important role that Regent’s Park and London Zoo play in the central London tourist offer; the hon. Member for Westminster North also made that point. We know that the covid pandemic made a huge dent in London’s tourism. It is slowly building back up, and we need to have the offer for families and individuals to come to London and enjoy the west end, the restaurants, other tourist attractions, and also London Zoo.

As we know, the zoo opened in 1828 and is the oldest scientific zoo in the world, something we should be proud of. Over the past nearly 200 years, much has changed in the surrounding area and within the zoo itself, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East pointed out. It is home to nearly 700 species of animals, from lions and tigers to penguins, meerkats and, obviously, the gorillas.

Since its conception, London Zoo has never compromised on being the best for conservation and research, as well as for visitors and everyday tourists. The incredibly important scientific research that ZSL continues to undertake helps to support conservation and ensures that endangered species, from Sumatran tigers to the rare Indian purple frog, are protected in the wild.

Contrary to common belief, the zoo and the conservation work done in the wild go hand in hand; they are mutually reliant. It is an absolutely key point to note that London Zoo offers a sanctuary to endangered species and, importantly, provides training for the next generation of conservationists.

I was really impressed to learn about the zoo’s outstanding community access scheme that it set up in 2019, which initially set out to offer more than 100,000 subsidised tickets to low-income, elderly and disabled people so that they too could experience the zoo’s offer at a little more than a tenth of the price of a regular ticket. Again, that is an example of London Zoo’s opening itself out to the local community.

As I said, it is so important that we continue to support London Zoo as a nation, which is why it is so important that we support the quest of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East to secure an extension to its lease, because we must make sure that it can continue to thrive as it reaches its 200th anniversary. I therefore support my hon. Friend’s campaign to persuade the Government, and I hope the Minister will provide us with a positive response—if not today, perhaps on Second Reading of my hon. Friend’s Zoological Society of London (Leases) Bill, which I think is on 24 March. It is important that we succeed in amending the Crown Estate Act so that we can extend the zoo’s lease by 150 years. The current 60 years is ridiculous. As we have heard today, if we do not extend it, there will be implications for the zoo’s ability to raise more money to continue its work, and to encourage investment from global partners. Without that investment, we will not be able to continue its outstanding conservation work.

I will end by saying that I wholeheartedly support extending London Zoo’s lease in Regent’s Park for as long as possible, but I think we can live with 150 years at the start. I believe it is imperative that we give this great institution the protection it needs to be able to support generations of conservationists in the coming years.