Tuesday 14th March 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the lease for London Zoo.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dame Caroline, in this debate on extending the lease for London Zoo. I am pleased to see colleagues, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—no doubt to talk about Londonderry’s zoo, but unfortunately it is London Zoo that we will be talking about—and the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), both of whom have a direct interest. I am also pleased to see the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), speaking for the Opposition, and my hon. Friend the Minister. I look forward to hearing their contributions.

London Zoo has been a staple tourist attraction since it opened to the general public in 1847—of course, none of us was around at the time. For centuries, tourists have flocked to the 36-acre site in Regent’s Park to get a closer look at some of the world’s most exotic creatures in the oldest scientific zoo in the world. Today, 176 years later, London Zoo continues to be one of London’s most popular attractions, despite covid, welcoming more than 1 million visitors a year, including 80,000 schoolchildren. For many, such a visit provides a unique experience and a unique opportunity to see up close some of the 20,000 animals to which London Zoo is home and to learn more about unique species and species at risk of extinction in the wild.

I am sure Members here today would agree that London Zoo is a childhood memory for many of us, and I vividly remember my first visit—the excitement of seeing in the flesh those huge animals that had previously been confined to the television, which in my case was a black and white. Additionally, over the years, some of London Zoo’s most notable residents are said to have further influenced our childhoods: the likes of Winnie-the-Pooh and Dumbo the elephant originated from the animals of London Zoo.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be welcomed back to London Zoo by Matthew Gould, Vicky Godwin and the team, and I am pleased they are here for today’s debate. Whatever someone’s age, London Zoo is a fantastic day out, and even on a cold January morning, the array of diverse species and educational areas provides a fantastic outing.

London Zoo is run by ZSL—the Zoological Society of London—which is an international conservation society established under royal charter in 1826. The charity is driven by science, and there are 140 scientists working on site to protect species, restore ecosystems, collaborate with communities around the world and inspire positive change for biodiversity. The work they carry out across the globe is led by evidence, and they produce the hugely beneficial data for the Living Planet Index, which is the world’s leading dataset on global wildlife.

London Zoo provides a huge number of benefits, both for local communities and for the animal kingdom at large. Each year, tourists from London, the wider United Kingdom and across the globe visit the zoo. That contributes to the funding for the zoo, but also to the wider United Kingdom economy, as visitors are much more likely to spend money in the surrounding areas, particularly as the zoo is only a stone’s throw from some of London’s many cultural hotspots. Each year, the zoo is responsible for contributing a huge sum—more than £24 million—to the local economy.

Community outreach projects are instrumental within the philosophy of the zoo. On my recent visit, I was impressed by the new garden area, where volunteers with complex needs can spend the day gardening and visiting the animals for much-needed respite and wellbeing. I know that you, Dame Caroline, take a particular interest in that area.

The zoo has also recently implemented a community access scheme to enable those on income support and other benefits to visit for as little as £3. During February half-term alone, more than 50,000 visits were facilitated through that operation. It is essential that everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to nature and outdoor space. I am pleased, therefore, that ZSL is committed to providing access for those who need the extra help, so that no one is left out.

Further, the educational offerings provide a critical supplement to classroom working for many children. Workshops are tailored to cater for all age groups and learning needs, educating children on hugely important topics, including wildlife, conservation, climate change and the impacts of pollution.

The zoo’s research has perhaps benefited animals the most, shaping the future of many previously endangered species. Many animals at risk of extinction have participated in the zoo’s breeding programmes, to ensure that they are saved for future generations. In 2021-22 alone, more than £17.4 million was spent on conservation science and field conservation programmes, with £38.5 million spent on conservation animal care, breeding programmes and conservation translocations. I am pleased that the zoo will, in the coming months, be returning the previously endangered Guam kingfisher into the wild.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. It is entitled “London Zoo Lease”, but we have Belfast Zoo in Northern Ireland, which is doing similar work, with conservation of endangered species at the forefront. It is important that all zoos across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland work together, whether that be London, Belfast or other zoos.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, to ensure that zoos are safe and enable animals to have a good quality of life—today’s zoos are different today from those we had when I was a wee boy, which was not yesterday—improvements must be made regularly, and that needs investment. That is easier to secure when there is long-term potential, rather than an uncertain future. Having the longer lease and the opportunity to expand will be to the advantage of London Zoo, but I believe it will also be to the advantage of all zoos across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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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 the Member for North Herefordshire (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.”

Karen Buck Portrait Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (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.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (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, the hon. Member for Westminster North (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.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (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 the Member for Westminster North (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 the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (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.

Julia Lopez Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Julia Lopez)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (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 the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (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.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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The Minister is making an excellent speech, and I agree with the direction of travel today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing forward this excellent debate and his Bill. I have a strange intervention to make. My grandfather worked for many years at London Zoo. When he retired, there was a policy in force where the next animal to be born in situ after retirement would be named after that individual. I am proud to report that my grandfather was followed by a giraffe called Robbie—my grandfather was Albert Roberts. I would be interested to understand if that scheme still exists today; could the Minister find out and report back? It would be great to know where Robbie is, if he is still around and if he is in good health.

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I think that is the most tremendous intervention I will ever take. While I cannot confirm or deny Robbie’s continued existence, I suspect he has sired many children, and there are many giraffe babies with Robbie’s genes. I am sure that somebody from ZSL will be able to answer that question for my hon. Friend. If he needs any help, I would be happy to make inquiries.

The zoo itself is the capital’s 10th most visited attraction, and contributes £24 million to the economy each year locally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said. In 2022, London Zoo saw 1.8 million visitors, inspiring adults and children alike with a much greater appreciation for wildlife and nature. To build on that success, and open up the zoo to an even wider audience, this year ZSL has introduced a wonderful community access scheme to help families with lower incomes access the zoo for only £3 a ticket. That scheme is part funded by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. I was interested to hear about the experiences of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) with the education facilities as the local MP. The queues for the zoo during the recent half-term are testament to how well that kind of scheme is received. I understand that the scheme saw 50,000 people on income support visit the zoo during half term. London Zoo is therefore considering how to build on that scheme, taking it forward in the long term so that everybody can access its inspiring zoos.

The commitment to accessibility does not stop there. The zoo also runs audio-described tours, sign language tours and early morning openings aimed at autistic and neurodiverse visitors. Over 80,000 school students visit London Zoo each year, learning about wildlife and conservation and taking part in workshops, on subjects including climate change and plastic pollution. All of those initiatives serve to improve access for everybody, across society, to visit and learn more about the natural world.

Looking forward, in 2028 London Zoo will celebrate 200 years of being open, and I am sure I am not alone in wishing it success in the next 200 years. There are ambitious plans to modernise the zoo by redeveloping its animal spaces to create naturalistic, multi-species zones; I am sure the way in which the zoo is approaching the important issue of conservation means that its future is secure.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for bringing the House’s attention to the issue of the lease. We firmly believe that London Zoo is an asset that is worth protecting and championing. As I said, Lord Parkinson leads on policy in this area and I am sure he will be happy to meet in order to discuss the specific issue of the lease, as well as the question of a legislative vehicle through which the extension of that lease might be delivered. I thank everybody for contributing to the debate.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place—I have managed to silence the hon. Gentleman, which must be a unique achievement. I also thank the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), and the Minister for contributing to the debate.

It is quite clear, from my speech and the other speeches we heard, that in the view of the House the lease should be extended to a minimum of 150 years, so that ZSL can continue the wonderful work it does. As there is all-party support and we have debated the concept, that means there is no need for a debate on Second Reading of my private Member’s Bill. The Government have said the extension is a good thing to do and the Opposition agree, so there is no reason for anyone to block the Bill on 24 March. I look forward to intense discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister and her ministerial colleague in the other place, ensuring that we can get my private Member’s Bill on the statute book without delay, so that ZSL can continue the wonderful work it does.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the lease for London Zoo.

Sitting suspended.