All 2 Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe contributions to the Kew Gardens (Leases) Act 2019

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Tue 7th May 2019
Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 21st May 2019
Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [HL]

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 7th May 2019

(5 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, some time ago I had the privilege of visiting Kew under the auspices of the all-party parliamentary group. We heard from some of Kew’s senior team and scientists about the amazing work they do by using plant and fungi knowledge to help to solve some of the most critical challenges facing humanity. As well as meeting the scientists, we reviewed their extraordinary and beautiful book collection. I had not realised just how substantial and influential the work at Kew has become, with more than 350 scientists working across six research departments. They draw in the best scholars in their fields from around the world as well as from the UK. Kew’s corporate strategy, Unlocking Why Plants and Fungi Matter, sets out some really exciting plans for the future. For example, I was delighted to hear about its collaboration with Queen Mary University of London on an MSc course. In 2017, Kew won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show for its “State of the World’s Plants” exhibit, bringing its science to new audiences. It is not at all surprising that Kew was awarded UNESCO world heritage site status in 2003. I certainly felt that this was a jewel in the crown of the UK’s scientific excellence to be nurtured and celebrated.

I was therefore very concerned when the then coalition Government planned to cut the state grant in 2016-17, with a potential consequence being the loss of 125 scientific staff. Kew’s funding relies heavily on state grant, although it has been increasingly successful in raising external funds. At the time there was a major public outcry. An inquiry held by the Science and Technology Committee in another place reported that the Government’s management of funding had exacerbated budget reductions and,

“forced a more rapid change in scientific personnel than may otherwise have been necessary”.

In response, the then Deputy Prime Minister accepted that damage would be done if grant was withheld or reduced. Fortunately, the Government announced measures aimed at easing Kew’s difficult position and 2017 saw the start of a positive and very welcome four-year funding settlement from Defra and a capital funding package.

Kew is not the only research establishment to experience the uncertainty and dangers inherent in having to rely substantially on government funding, which can be subject to numerous political uncertainties and changes in policy. Expanding flexibility of resourcing goes some way to protecting major centres of excellence in science such as Kew. Alternative sources of funding will help to ensure that its reputation as a leading research institution can be maintained. That is why I want to support the Bill and wish it a fair wind through this House.

The proposals in the Bill have been in limbo since 2017, which must have been frustrating for all concerned. The Bill’s aim seems quite modest in that it extends the leases already available to Kew for residential and commercial use—thus generating income—from a very limiting 31 years to an expanded 150 years. But although modest, as the Minister said, its effect could have a substantial beneficial impact on the income Kew can generate over time through having longer leases to offer and including, importantly, a reduction in maintenance costs.

I have not said anything about how marvellous Kew is as a garden and special leisure space that we all know and love to visit. I cannot tell your Lordships just what a pleasure it was to be one of the first visitors to the newly renovated Temperate House last year. Anyone who has visited the Hive cannot fail to be impressed. It is a 14 metre-high cube, raised on columns, providing an immersive experience connecting you to real bees. Bees communicate through vibrations, and these vibrations are picked up by a sensor called an accelerometer. The bees’ vibrations are sent in real time to the Hive. Adults as well as children are transfixed. I was thrilled to discover that this amazing experience was made possible through the work of physicist Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University, and I must declare an interest as a board member at Nottingham Trent. It is a great example of how Kew harnesses university science and art together to create awareness of the natural world.

Your Lordships will gather that I am a great fan of Kew, but today I want to focus very specifically on Kew’s world excellence in the fields of science. Without that science, the garden at Kew would lose one of its key purposes, which is to engage the visitor in learning about the natural world and to develop, particularly for children, imaginative ways of understanding why plants and fungi matter.

In proposing the Bill, the Government have said that their aim is to help Kew support its scientific research, as well as to retain its UNESCO world heritage status. I of course support that, but my one anxiety is that the Government will see this as possible substitute funding and use it as a mask for reducing government grant in the future. I hope that in replying the Minister will reassure the House and commit to this additional resource being indeed additional, which will enable Kew to reinforce even further its reputation as a world centre of excellence in sciences.

Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [HL]

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 21st May 2019

(5 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Kew Gardens (Leases) Act 2019 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 174-I Marshalled list for Committee (PDF) - (17 May 2019)
Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer
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My Lords, perhaps I may suggest to the Minister a fairly straightforward way out of this. If I understand the House correctly—of course, I may not—and look at my own view, I do not think anyone has a problem with granting 150-year leases to the seven properties on Kew Green. As the Minister said, six are listed; the seventh is still within a conservation area. No matter what its political colour, the local council will not allow any kind of abuse of those properties through its planning committees. I am sure that being able to lease them for a larger sum of money to ensure that they are restored—I think some are close to falling on someone—would not be opposed by this House. The problem is that the Bill uses a much wider sweep to cover, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, a great deal more property than those seven houses.

Personally, I do not think the part of the botanic gardens that is so clearly the botanic gardens will be at risk but I want to raise the issue of the parking area. Probably just a few of us here are so familiar with the gardens that we understand the parking area; for those who do not, that area is quite peculiar. It is right on the river, so that some of the best river views in probably all the country are enjoyed by the cars. Part of the parking area is a sort of casual gravel and the rest is a mix of grass and trees, with people trying to park their cars between the trees. There are just a couple of parking meters. I cannot remember what one puts in now—I think it is around £7—but whether you park for five minutes or the whole day, that is it. It is not even supervised.

I know developers have looked at that site and cannot believe that it is put to such a use. The obvious answer for them is to make an offer to Kew to provide some form of alternate parking—there is great pressure not to allow people to bring cars to Kew at all—and use the site for some form of luxury housing. Your Lordships can see why that would be desirable. I think the community would have huge concerns about all this. It would be different if the property was developed to create new buildings for science and the core work—the collection and activities at Kew. But the fear that it could be used for housing or a couple of cafes, or whatever else, comes to mind when you know the area well.

Because that is a completely separate discussion, I suggest to the Minister that since Kew Gardens needs to be able to deal with those seven properties on Kew Green, why not narrow the Bill? Frankly, we could name the seven properties since there is only that small number of them. I am sure this House would then be able to deal with that legislation directly. Meanwhile, the constraint of a 31-year lease continues to apply, which means that if new development of the kind I have just described is to be explored, the Government would have to come back to the House and raise the question around the specific character of that development.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, as this debate has gone on I have become more and more concerned. When I supported the Bill at Second Reading, it was very much on the basis of emphasising Kew’s world excellence in its particular fields of science. The emphasis on raising the extra money from new sources of private income was entirely based on an understanding that this was what the additional resource might be used for, so I am really anxious.

While I do not want to repeat all the arguments made so far, it seems that unless we specifically indicate or reinforce the original objectives of Kew in the Bill and establish why this change is being introduced, as my noble friends Lord Whitty and Lady Jones seek to do here, there is clear potential for reputational damage to Kew. It is not just among the public that there would be huge reputational impact; it would have an impact on Kew’s ability to raise further funds subsequently because its reputation will have been harmed. Even if the form of words is not right, given the aim of reasserting Kew’s main objectives—I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, for reinforcing the point that the scientific excellence of Kew and its scientific interrogations are its prime focus—I hope the Minister will reconsider.

Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours
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My Lords, I shall intervene only briefly. I sense that the Minister has difficulty in mouthing the words that residential property development could be considered on that site, not now but perhaps in 20 or 30 years’ time when there is a lot of pressure. I understand that, under residential development for flats, that land would probably fetch in the region of £1,500 per square foot. That provides some fairly expensive property. There will be people who, under pressure and needing funds, might take a chance and put in for a development, perhaps on the car park that was just referred to. I support the amendment suggested by my noble friend. In the event that it is rejected at this stage, I might come back at a later stage to see how the legislation, whose subtext is residential development in the long term, can be interfered with and greater restraints than currently exist introduced.