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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 14 March 2023.

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Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 9:57, 14 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I congratulate Bob Blackman on leading and securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

As we have heard today, London Zoo is a treasured British attraction. It plays a vital role in drawing tourists to London and contributes to both the local economy and the country more widely. It also does vital work on wildlife conservation, educates school groups and young people, and provides heavily discounted tickets for those on lower incomes, as my hon. Friend Ms Buck outlined as the local MP. Given that it has been through such a difficult time with the pandemic, and now with the challenges of the cost of living crisis, we want to support London Zoo to thrive, along with the other attractions up and down the country that help make up Britain’s unique tourist offer.

London Zoo is the world’s oldest scientific zoo. It hosts 1 million visitors every year and was the UK’s seventh most popular paid-entry tourism attraction in 2021. It contributes more than £24 million a year to the local economy, and its annual visitors include over 80,000 schoolchildren, who participate in lessons and workshops. Through the zoo’s community access scheme, more than 100,000 visitors on low-income support and other benefits have been able to visit the zoo each year for just £3.

In 2021-22, London Zoo’s parent charity, the Zoological Society of London, spent £17.4 million on conservation science and field conservation programmes. It also spent £38.5 million on caring for animals in conservation zoos. More than 100 of the species cared for at London Zoo are endangered, and the zoo plays an active role in breeding programmes for those species to try to make their populations viable for the future. Between the ZSL and Whipsnade Zoo, 16 extinct-in-the-wild species are being cared for, so London Zoo carries out really important work, as Nickie Aiken spoke about.

London Zoo is important in its own right and essential to the UK’s visitor economy. Today’s debate is on the specific matter of the zoo’s lease, which is governed by the Crown Estate Act 1961. Under the current law, London Zoo’s lease is capped at a maximum of 60 years. Although that might have been appropriate when ZSL was founded in 1826, 60 years is no longer suitable when it comes to tackling the long-term, complex challenges facing wildlife. The zoo says the lease limits its ability to fundraise, to create new partnerships to expand its support programmes for the community and to invest the funds required to retrofit and regenerate the London Zoo site. The zoo is home to many listed and historic buildings, which are no longer fit for purpose as animal houses and in need of maintenance and restoration. A longer lease will help the zoo give those buildings a new lease of life and make them environmentally sustainable, preserving its unique heritage.

The zoo seeks an amendment to the Crown Estate Act, which would extend its lease to a maximum of 150 years, in line with other lease agreements regulated under the Act and the Crown Estate’s lease for equivalent organisations, such as Kew Gardens. It is a common-sense change that would improve the zoo’s capacity to bring in investment and carry on its important work. Zoos are still recovering from periods of closure and restrictions during the pandemic, when they continued expertly caring for animals while closed to the public. They also have to deal with pressures of massive increases to energy bills, staff costs, food for the animals and other inflationary price rises through the supply chain, plus the impact of the cost of living crisis on households’ ability to afford tickets to attractions such as the zoo. It therefore makes sense to give zoos all the help we can.

The lease change would be at no extra cost to the public purse but would make a real difference to London Zoo. I understand that the hon. Member for Harrow East has tabled a private Member’s Bill aiming to make that change, which is due to have its Second Reading next week. Does the Minister intend to support it and make time for its passage through the House? If not, will they find another way to make the necessary legislative amendment to London Zoo’s lease, extending it to 150 years? We think this is a reasonable ask and look forward to hearing from the Minister.