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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:01 am on 14 March 2023.

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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) 10:01, 14 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I thank my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for securing the debate on the important topic of London Zoo and its lease. I should like to please him by ending this debate by saying yes. However, I can only say yes in principle, and I want to make sure the Government works with ZSL to that end. We are alive to its concerns and want to make sure that we can deliver on them. It is a matter of finding the right legislative vehicle, notwithstanding my hon. Friend’s upcoming private Member’s Bill.

As my hon. Friend notes, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport acts as the landlord for the site occupied by London Zoo in Regent’s Park on behalf of the Crown. While the policy area is led by my expert colleague Lord Parkinson and I answer on his behalf, as the newly minted Tourism Minister, I also have my own interest in seeing the zoo succeed. It was wonderful to hear how it contributes £24 million to the local economy every year.

The zoo’s current lease was recently renewed for another 60 years, taking it to 2081. I hope that gives hon. Members comfort. However, I understand that London Zoo is looking to extend the length of that lease to have a secure future for the long-term investment it seeks, and continue to develop and make the most of a historic and treasured site. The change, as other hon. Members have noted, would bring the zoo in line with other similar organisations that have leases on Crown Estate land, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We agree that increasing the length of the lease would have a significant impact on the zoo’s long-term sustainability and help it continue its tremendous work to educate and inspire zoo visitors and conduct vital conservation work for many years to come. I have enjoyed hearing hon. Members’ stories about their memories and experiences of London Zoo. It is a much-loved national institution and I am among many of my fellow citizens, having visited the zoo several times. I think about canal boat holidays where we moored on Regent’s canal next to the wonderful aviary, taking many day trips and being part of the keeper-for-a-day experience when I met Rocky, the rockhopper penguin. I want to make sure that my children have the same experiences and enjoyment for years to come.

I know that the question of the lease is especially relevant now because of the significant impact of the covid pandemic on the zoo, which relies on visitors for most of its income. Officials in my Department are in regular contact with ZSL and are committed to exploring ways in which we can amend the primary legislation to extend the maximum term of the lease in the very near future. We recognise the immense value to the nation of ensuring that future. London Zoo is an important and unique part of our capital’s culture and heritage offer. It is not only a significant tourist attraction for visitors from across the country and the world, but the world’s oldest scientific zoo and a world-leading force in wildlife conservation. We firmly believe that it is an asset worth protecting and championing.

As other Members have noted, it was opened in 1828 by the Zoological Society of London. When the zoo opened, it was purely for scientific research; eminent scientists of the day, including Charles Darwin, used it for study purposes. The zoo subsequently opened to the public in 1847. Since that opening, the zoo has achieved many world firsts, including the first reptile house, the first public aquarium, the first insect house and the first children’s zoo.

As well as being of historic significance due to the pioneering nature of the zoo, many of those assets are of notable architectural significance. The zoo’s grounds and its animal enclosure in Regent’s Park were originally laid out by architect Decimus Burton. Since then, many leading architects have contributed to the zoo’s built environment, creating a wonderful collection of buildings that includes two grade I, and eight grade II/II* listed structures. Because of advances in our understanding of animal welfare, many of those structures are no longer suitable or used for their original purposes. London Zoo is working very hard to reimagine those spaces, bringing them back to new life in innovative and sustainable ways.

One notable example is the magnificent Snowdon Aviary, which has been a feature of the north London skyline since 1965. It is a feat of engineering inspired by the movement of birds, and has recently been transformed into a state of the art walk-through enclosure for Colobus monkeys—nicknamed the high-flying monkeys because of their impressive leaps from treetop to treetop. That project was made possible with the help of over £4 million of funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

In addition to its unique built heritage, London Zoo is part of the Zoological Society of London, which is a global conservation charity that is home to nearly 20,000 animals. It undertakes crucial conservation work at London Zoo and its partner zoo in Whipsnade, as well as at over 70 locations across the world, caring for and breeding endangered species and promoting participation and knowledge of conservation to the wider public. Alongside that world-leading conservation work, the zoo, and the park in which it is based, are important and popular visitor destinations. My hon. Friend Nickie Aiken made a compelling case for not just London Zoo’s importance to tourism but the importance of all the wonderful attractions in her constituency.