Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:03 pm on 16th July 2020.

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Second Reading

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:07 pm, 16th July 2020

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities and the economy. Ensuring access to public toilets and handwashing facilities is critical in maintaining a high level of public hygiene as the lockdown continues to ease across the country. More generally, our ability to work or to enjoy leisure time often depends on the availability of appropriate toilet facilities. This is especially important for essential workers such as taxi or delivery drivers who do not work in fixed locations and who often rely on public facilities, and it will be important for all of us as more and more people begin making use of our public spaces again as lockdown eases.

Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been significant public concern about the potential reduction in available lavatories. Members of this House have also raised valid concerns about the provision of toilet facilities in their own constituencies. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public and committed to introduce a business rates relief for public lavatories. This Bill delivers on that commitment, providing support for those who provide public lavatories, both publicly and privately run, by reducing one of the most significant running costs for toilets and making it easier for them to be kept open.

Today also marks an opportunity to thank colleagues in this House who have campaigned long and hard for the Bill’s introduction, including my hon. Friend Scott Mann, my hon. Friend Steve Double, who is in his place, and my hon. Friend Mr Holden, as well as a number of others. Furthermore, I thank the National Association of Local Councils for providing its support for this Bill. I am pleased to say that, in line with the announcement at Budget 2020 by the Chancellor, this Bill will, subject to Royal Assent, apply retrospectively from April 2020. That will mean that, for eligible properties, the relief will be backdated to the start of this financial year.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. Does he share with me the relief felt by key workers across my constituency, such as ambulance drivers and the police, who, in rural areas, often conduct very long shifts and, as a result of the efficiency of putting those workers on the frontline, no longer benefit from physical facilities themselves?

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a well made point. It is precisely because so many people rely on these facilities that it is important that we do this. Although it is not necessarily the kind of legislation that people will talk about in 100 years’ time, it is of real, practical value.

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

As the hon. Lady says, they should—because this legislation does something of lasting benefit. I agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith, and I also commend the hard work of our emergency services throughout the current crisis.

I am aware that, as we emerge from lockdown restrictions, there has been concern about the reopening of public toilet facilities that may have been closed because of covid-19. Although decisions on reopening public lavatories are rightly for councils, the Government have been clear that we encourage them to open wherever possible. Indeed, I wrote to councils in June to say just this and to refer them to the Government’s advice on measures that can be taken to open toilets safely. I am grateful to councils for their efforts in reopening these facilities and hope that today’s Bill will come as welcome news.

I extend my general gratitude to the local authorities, town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas and to keep them open. I also pay tribute to the councils, associations and businesses that have launched innovative local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public—for example, the community toilet scheme devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames that is now used by local authorities across the country. This enables local businesses to work together with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use their facilities without making a purchase. I recognise that that may be more challenging in current circumstances, but it is an innovative and helpful approach that I commend, and which will become important as more and more businesses reopen.

I highlight the excellent work of the British Toilet Association and its national campaign—imaginatively called “Use Our Loos”—which encourages businesses to join these community schemes and open their toilets to the public. Participating lavatories are shown on a map called the Great British public toilet map, so that visitors to an area always know the location of available facilities.

For some people, medical or other conditions may mean that they are particularly likely to need access to toilet facilities at short notice, so I very much welcome the introduction of the “Can’t Wait” card, which is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in commending such initiatives, which are already making a huge difference to people’s lives.

For people with special access requirements, it is about not just having any facilities available, but having the right facilities. That is why there has been a strong cross-Government drive to provide more Changing Places lavatories to help maintain the dignity of people with special lavatory requirements when they are away from home. The Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy includes £2 million to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, and the Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England.

In May 2019, we launched a consultation on proposals for the increased provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. Following that consultation, the Government have committed to change building regulations guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets in new public buildings. At Budget 2020, the Chancellor confirmed that the Government will launch a £30 million Changing Places fund. This will allow the Government to work with the Changing Places Consortium and others to identify the sectors where we most need to accelerate the provision of such facilities in existing buildings.

Although the focus of today’s Bill and this debate is public toilets, I recognise that this Bill comes at a time of unprecedented challenges for business, when business rates may be at the forefront of concerns for those who occupy non-domestic properties. That is why the Government are taking unprecedented steps to help businesses that are most affected. As a result of the Government’s expanded retail, hospitality and leisure relief, eligible businesses are expected to receive almost £10 billion in business rates relief as part of the Government’s wider support for the economy during the pandemic. Combined with existing measures, this means that a total of 1.1 million ratepayers—over half of all ratepayers—will pay no business rates at all in 2020-21. Our economic response is one of the most generous globally, and the Government are working urgently to deliver vital schemes such as the expanded retail discount as quickly as possible. I would like to use today’s debate to pay tribute to local authorities for working hard to implement these measures right across the country.

The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that is important to reduce running costs and help keep these vital public facilities open. The Government have been listening to and addressing issues surrounding the provision of public toilets for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was included as part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017, and concerns were raised that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central Government would not be widely used. The Government have listened. This Bill will provide 100% mandatory relief. Specifically, the Bill provides 100% mandatory business rates relief to properties in England and Wales that are used wholly or mainly as public lavatories. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing the relief and will be fully compensated by central Government for any loss of local income resulting from the measure. Subject to the safe passage of the Bill, it will have retrospective effect from 1 April just gone, in line with the Chancellor’s commitment at Budget.

The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. That will help the Welsh Government to deliver their commitment to provide access to public toilets for public use under part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.

A business rates relief for public toilets has been called for by councils and health and disability charities for some time and has wide-ranging public support. The Government have responded. This small but important Bill will make a real difference to many people’s lives, including essential workers, as lockdown eases. The savings will assist councils. Removing the additional costs of business rates could make the difference in helping to keep these vital facilities open, while supporting high standards of public hygiene as we emerge from the virus. I hope that Members across the House will agree that this is a positive step and support the Bill’s passage. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Housing 1:17 pm, 16th July 2020

I do not know where to start—after so many weeks away from this place, it is extraordinary to come back to this Bill, which is incredibly important.

On the east coast of India, in a town called Pondicherry, on the seafront, beside a broad walkway, underneath coconut trees and opposite a massive statue of Gandhi, there is a large public sign. It has a map of the town on it, and all public lavatories are clearly marked. There are pictures and diagrams clearly illustrating activities that may be carried out in them, and importantly, there are also pictures and diagrams illustrating equally clearly where those activities should not be carried out. There is information about the public health consequences of carrying out these exercises other than in lavatories. It requires no app and no internet. The sign is replicated in other public meeting spots around the town, and I love it—I love it so much that I have a picture of it on my phone. I have followed the toilet trail around the town, and I can vouch for every one.

On a serious note, the message from the sign is clear, and it is one that we need to reflect on as we consider this Bill. Across the whole globe, public health requires that there are public toilets and that people can use them with confidence, know where they are and trust that they will be available, safe and clean for use. I salute that wonderful town and all the others across the world who understand the need to promote public lavatories and, importantly, to break down taboos about talking about them, because we definitely need to do that.

It is absurd to think that people will leave their homes for leisure, pleasure or the many jobs that take us out and about and suspend their need for a lavatory. Urination, defecation, menstruation and changing babies’ nappies are all natural bodily functions, even if we do not enjoy talking about them, and they all require toilets. The absence of toilets does not remove those bodily functions. Instead, it removes people’s freedom to enjoy public space. It affects their health or, unfortunately, prompts the unsavoury use of public space as a lavatory. The Bill recognises that, in part, and we will be supporting it. Since it helps to address some of the problems of financing the upkeep of a public lavatory, we will not stand in its way.

I want to place on record my appreciation of the House of Commons Library research staff, who turned around a briefing for my hon. Friend Kate Hollern and I in quick time to help us to prepare for this debate, and of the Royal Society for Public Health and the British Toilet Association. Their contributions inform our scrutiny and will help us to make suggestions for improvements, which I hope Ministers will consider in the autumn. I also thank the Clerks in advance for their help.

We will support the Bill, but we have concerns. First, there is the lack of help with lavatories in other public buildings, such as a library or a community hall. Secondly, the Bill does not redress the overall damage done by the past 10 years of cuts to local authority funding, which have resulted in councils’ unwillingly taking difficult decisions to remove loos or restrict their use. I am concerned that the funding that the Bill provides, though welcome, will not be sufficient to remedy the gaps, and I want to ensure that the Government are aware of the strain that local authorities are under at the moment in any case.

Thirdly, there is no recognition of the consequent inequality of access to public space, particularly for elderly, sick or disabled people, parents of young children and women and girls. Nor does the Bill recognise the consequences for all of us when some people end up using the public space. Fourthly—I know the Bill was originally planned before covid, as the Minister also mentioned, but here we are—there is nothing that I can see that would help struggling local councils to restore and to provide additional cleaning and staffing during this crisis, at a time when we all want to encourage people to feel confident about going out and about. The Minister mentioned the covid importance, but I have not yet seen anything that deals with those increased costs, and I hope we can return to that at a later date.

I would like each hon. Member here to imagine the loo map of their own constituency. They have probably all checked, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I hope you have too. It is a fascinating subject. Has the map been made public? Is it in plain view? Can it be found in a place that people naturally head to for information? Can someone who does not have a smartphone easily find out where the loo is while they are out and about? Will it be close, open, safe and—ideally—free?

To anyone listening to our debate who says they never use public loos—I do, by the way—I encourage them to consider what it is like to have a bladder infection, to be in that early stage of pregnancy where the baby is causing urgent needs, to be elderly and not able to sprint to a lav, or not to have the confidence to go into a café and say, “I have a medical condition and I need to use your loo.”

Many councils, towns and cities, including Bristol, do have the schemes that the Minister has mentioned to use loos in private property, but many people do not know about those schemes. That includes the Can’t Wait card; the Minister quite rightly commended businesses for that, but I fear that many people still do not know about it or do not have the confidence to use it, and of course at the moment many businesses are shut.

If there are not sufficient facilities, we all suffer. There are the social and economic consequences, and there are consequences for us all, with the smells, health and hygiene problems, if people choose to or feel forced to urinate or defecate in public. The Royal Society for Public Health recently published a fantastic report called “Taking the P***”—one can fill in the asterisks for oneself, Mr Deputy Speaker. The subtitle, and the subject, is “The decline of the great British toilet”. It is a most educational report, and I urge everyone who has a problem discussing the subject of loos to take a read and consider what life would be like if we did not have public toilets, and what it is already like when there are not enough.

More than half of the public apparently restrict their intake of fluids before and during a trip out, at the risk of dehydration and other health consequences. One in five operate on a toilet leash, not allowing themselves to go further than they can nip back home from to use the loo; that number rises to more than two in five for those who have medical conditions. That has economic as well as social consequences.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am sure the Minister will be greatly relieved that there is a general consensus on this public lavatories Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while there should be adequate provision in council budgets and they should be supported in the provision of public lavatories, those lavatories must also be accessible, and that it is not good enough for us to allocate space for public toilets if they are not accessible, especially to those with special needs?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Housing

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is as if he has read my speech, which says that the lack of public toilets disproportionately affects people with ill health or disability, the elderly, and also women—I mentioned menstruation—outdoor workers and homeless people.

Health conditions that require frequent trips and often privacy that a cubicle alone can provide include bowel cancer; stroke; multiple sclerosis; use of a stoma; urinary incontinence, which can happen for all sorts of reasons, including family history, and at all ages; inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis; and conditions that damage the nerves that control the bowels or bottom, which can include stroke, spina bifida, recent surgery and childbirth. One in 637 people has Crohn’s; one in 417 has ulcerative colitis; one in 500 people lives with a stoma; and one in 526 has multiple sclerosis. Every single right hon. and hon. Member in this House will have constituents who are thus affected.

Women need the loo more often when pregnant, menstruating or out with small children, or after childbirth. Differences in clothing and anatomy mean that it takes longer for women, which results in queues and waits, which in turn causes problems for women’s health. People’s whose job keeps them out and about have real problems if they cannot find a loo. I am sure that the Minister is aware of this, but I wish to add to his list of concerns rough sleepers and other homeless people: even if they have accommodation in a night shelter, they still need somewhere to go by day. We cannot expect them simply to stop functioning, and they may struggle to use options such as shopping centres or cafés. That is a lot of people I have listed.

The “Taking the P***” report rightly points out that we have a taboo about talking about natural bodily functions and, as a result, public loos and their role in assisting with hygiene, hydration, exercise and participation in public life are not recognised sufficiently as the public health resource that they truly are—I think I have become somewhat passionate about the subject of public loos. The British Toilet Association raised with me problems of public fouling, which has consequences for health, hygiene and enjoyment of public space. There is also a risk of covid transmission through human faeces. Fouling in parks and on beaches has particular risks for children, and that has been compounded during the crisis by the closure of many public loos.

The British Toilet Association also raised the fact that access to a public toilet is a human right under the UN sustainable development goals, and in particular that women and girls need somewhere private to change sanitary products. Closing public loos does not stop people needing them; it just stops some people going about their daily lives and causes others to do things that have health consequences for us all.

The Bill helps only the finances of buildings that are solely or mainly loos—so far so good—but it will do nothing to reverse the decline in numbers and will not help with the running costs of loos in other buildings. The Royal Society for Public Health estimates that the running costs of public toilets vary between £15,000 and £60,000 per year, depending on size and staffing. In 2018, the BBC’s “Reality Check” used freedom of information requests to obtain information from most councils, and concluded that at least 673 public toilets had closed between 2010 and 2018. By my calculations—the Minister may have a better calculator than me—that means that it will cost between £10 million, give or take, and £40 million, give or take, to replace those lost lavs. Given the consequences of those reductions in numbers for public health and people’s lives, will the Government at least check my workings and use their good offices to come to a more accurate figure that we can at least debate when we come to the next stages of the Bill?

As I said, we will not oppose the Bill, but we will seek to amend it at later stages. As a favour to the Minister, I shall outline the ways in which we might do that. Will the Government assess the number of public lavatories in buildings that would not qualify for the provisions in the Bill, and the opportunity cost of not giving them that same support, as well as the actual financial cost? We can then debate on a more informed basis whether we need to increase the Bill’s reach to include those lavatories. Will the Government assess the cost of replacing them all? Will they assess the need for increased capacity to meet the specific needs of parents with young children, people with relevant illnesses or disabilities, women and girls, and older people? That would mean an equality impact assessment. Will they use the Bill to create provisions for emergency temporary additional financial support for local councils to help with the costs of operating, cleaning and staffing public toilets during the continuing covid crisis?

I hope that by now the House will have heard my enthusiasm for reforming the provision of public loos, my urging of the Government to push the Bill further, and my utter lack of toilet puns, which frankly I need to be commended for—there may have been accidental ones, but I promise that I did not intend them—but I cannot close my speech without remarking that although this is a chronic and serious problem, it does not have the urgency of other issues under the purview of the Department for which it could, and arguably should, have used this parliamentary time before recess. Those issues include the renters’ rights Bill promised in the Queen’s Speech and the building safety Bill—legislation that covers urgent needs that are going to become apparent over the summer, as is particularly true of the renters’ rights Bill, what with the temporary ban on evictions set to end in August.

We would have helped the Government to get emergency temporary legislation across the line in time for the temporary evictions ban to make sure there was provision for those who felt the need to be protected by the Secretary of State’s good words back in March, when he said that nobody should be made homeless because of coronavirus, of which there is a real risk. That time has now gone. I am also concerned about the buildings safety Bill. It is obviously around—whispers have come to my ears—but we have not yet seen it, and three years on from Grenfell, people have spent the lockdown living in unsafe buildings and often paying for the cost of the waking watch.

All in all, the Bill is needed, though a curious priority compared with other urgent needs. Given that it is before us, however, we are disappointed that the Government have failed to seize the opportunity to restore public loos, help millions of people to enjoy daily life and redress the damage done over the last 10 years, but we will return to all of this in September, when the Bill returns for its remaining Commons stages.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 1:30 pm, 16th July 2020

I am sure that the Bill, with its title, “Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill”, is not, for most people, the most exciting or inspiring Bill that will come before the House, but for me it marks the culmination of an eight-year personal mission. In 2012, I was the cabinet member for Cornwall Council with responsibility for public lavatories. At that point, this newly formed unitary council was running—if I remember correctly—272 sets of public lavatories across the whole of Cornwall and had made the sensible decision that this was not something that a unitary authority covering the whole of Cornwall should have responsibility for and devolved it, wherever possible, to town and parish councils.

I spent the summer of 2012 touring the public lavatories of Cornwall, from Bude to St Keverne, from Torpoint to Penzance, and many places in between, and consulting the local parish councils about whether they would take on their running. In many cases, I found they were keen to do so, and rightly so, because these facilities can be run much more effectively and efficiently locally, where they can be managed to meet the particular needs of the local community, rather than centrally.

One of the biggest barriers, however, to small parish councils taking on these facilities was the cost of the business rates. I was shocked that public lavatories were even liable for business rates. It seemed nonsensical. I wrote to the then Secretary of State, now the right hon. Lord Pickles, and suggested that public lavatories be exempted from non-domestic rates. He wrote back saying he thought it was a very good idea and he would look into it. Three years later, I was elected to this place.

Coincidentally—I checked my diary—it was five years ago this very day that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, came to Cornwall. My hon. Friend Scott Mann and I had dinner with him that evening and put to him the case that public toilets should be exempted from business rates. He was equally shocked that they were even liable for business rates, and he agreed with us and said that the Government would do something about it. Well, it has taken five years to get from the then Prime Minister agreeing to do this to the Bill at last coming before the House. For me, then, this is a very important day and, as I said, the culmination of an eight-year mission.

I want to place on the record my thanks to those who have helped get us to this point: to the Minister today, who has at last brought the Bill before us, after many years of frustration for me, to previous local government Ministers, including my hon. Friend Mr Jones, and the current Chancellor when he was a local government Minister and worked with me to get this through, and to the previous Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who first committed the Government to doing this in the 2018 Budget. It has been a team effort. I should also pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, who has worked with me since those days in 2012 to get to this point.

Public toilets are essential, especially in rural and coastal areas, where people can find themselves many miles from other facilities. They are essential in supporting our tourist industry. As has rightly been pointed out by the Minister and the shadow Minister, they are very important for the elderly and for people with health conditions that mean they need the lavatory more often and, as has also been pointed out, to many workers, delivery drivers and some of our other key workers who need to use the toilet during the day. It is important that everything possible is done to maintain the facility that public lavatories provide, particularly in rural areas.

Let me place on the record my thanks to the many town and parish councils across Cornwall that I worked with back then, and particularly now in the constituency I represent. They have not only taken on the running of public lavatories, but over the past few weeks they have worked incredibly hard to reopen them, despite the challenges they currently face. At the risk of leaving some out, I will name a few: Newquay Town Council has worked particularly hard, as has St Austell Town Council, Mevagissey Parish Council, Gorran Haven Parish Council, and many others I am sure, who have gone out of their way to ensure that public lavatories stay open during this pandemic.

I believe the total cost of these measures to the Treasury is around £8 million, which in the current scheme of things, and given all the costs we are facing, does not seem a huge amount of money. To small parish councils, however, whose total precept may be only £20,000, that can represent a significant sum in reducing the costs that they incur in running public toilets. This Bill is important in the overall scheme of things to many parish councils.

Many parish councils currently face huge pressures. Many have lost income, perhaps because they run car parks, and they face additional costs. Many have gone out of their way to provide incredible support to communities, and to ensure that elderly and vulnerable people are looked after during the pandemic. The fact that this measure will be backdated to April will be of significant help to many parish councils in reducing costs this year, and helping them with the pressures they face. What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that those parish councils that might already have started to pay business rates on these facilities get a rebate in a timely manner? If they have paid out and are due a rebate, it is important that that happens as quickly as possible.

Although the Government have made funding available to primary authorities—in our case Cornwall County Council—to support small town and parish councils, the council has not as yet passed on that support. It has refused to do that, which is concerning because many of our parish councils are currently struggling. Even though the Government have made funding available to Cornwall County Council, it has declined or refused to pass that funding on. What more can the Government do to ensure that where funding has been made available through primary councils to support our town and parish councils, the money gets to where it should go? Parish councils are doing an incredible job in supporting their communities, and where the Government have made funding available, it is important that that money gets to them.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about Changing Places toilets and the work that the Government are doing—another issue that I have pushed for over a number of years. It is increasingly important in our communities for Changing Places toilets to be widely available, and I applaud the Government for the steps they are taking to ensure that happens. I welcome the Bill. In the overall scheme of everything that we as a country currently have to face it may not seem like big a deal, but for someone like me who has been waiting a long time for this Bill to come before the House, it is incredibly welcome. The Government are taking an important and sensible step, and I am pleased to give them my support.

Photo of Robert Largan Robert Largan Conservative, High Peak 1:39 pm, 16th July 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Steve Double, who made an excellent speech and who has done so much to make this change happen. It was also a pleasure to listen to the enthusiastic speech of Thangam Debbonaire; I really enjoyed listening to it. She made some brilliant points, particularly on maps and public information about where toilet facilities are, which is often overlooked.

This is an incredibly welcome Bill that I have long campaigned for. As has been said by other hon. Members, it is not the most exciting or glamorous piece of legislation, but it will make a real, tangible difference to people’s lives. When I first started talking about the need to improve public toilet facilities in Buxton a couple of years ago, it was a source of amusement to many people locally. A particularly charming Labour activist gave me the new nickname Mr Toilet Flusher—not the most amusing of the nicknames that they have given me over the years. Although that might have been quite funny to the High Peak Labour party, public toilet facilities are no laughing matter to many people with hidden disabilities and medical conditions, pregnant women, the elderly and those suffering from conditions such as prostate cancer, so the Bill is an important step forward.

Even before the global pandemic, high streets were struggling badly. We need to do more to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to come and shop in our town centres and support our fantastic local businesses, which involves making it easier to park and get in by public transport or by cycling. It is also important to maintain the things that make our high streets unique and such enjoyable places to come to. At the same time, it means making sure that there are proper public toilet facilities.

The Bill is a small step, but giving 100% business rate relief to public toilets will make a huge difference, as has already been said, particularly to local councils, and will make it that bit easier to provide public toilet facilities. It is a positive move that will be a boost for high streets across High Peak in places such as Buxton, New Mills, Whaley Bridge, Glossop and Chapel-en-le-Frith.

I very much welcome the Bill, but it should not be the end of the conversation. We need to talk an awful lot more about the issue, we need to end the taboos around public toilet facilities, and we need to do more to help our high streets, particularly when it comes to supporting future high street fund bids—an excellent one has been submitted for Buxton.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 1:41 pm, 16th July 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Largan on a subject close to my heart, as an MP who has worked closely with local towns and parishes since becoming elected, as a former Cornwall councillor and as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on local democracy. I am pleased that the whole House welcomes the Bill today and I thank Ministers for bringing it forward.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for championing the cause in Cornwall and bringing the issue to the House. The Bill was thwarted last year by the tumultuous parliamentary timetable and again earlier this year by covid, but I am pleased to see it here today. It shows the Government’s commitment to the issue.

If ever there was a time to provide much-needed assistance to our towns, local councils and parish councils in Cornwall and across the country, it is now. Those hard-working, lower-tier councils have been the backbone of our communities during the pandemic and were the frontline of the volunteer response. I cannot thank them enough.

Because of the pandemic, those lower-tier councils are now facing real financial issues. In Cornwall, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned, they have not received any direct funding from the Government. If the Minister can have further discussions with me on that, I would very much welcome it. I do not believe that means dishing out yet more money, but perhaps rethinking how it is distributed in Cornwall.

Public toilets are a public service, not a business. As has already been mentioned, Cornwall Council transferred the ownership and management of more than 200 public toilets throughout Cornwall to towns and villages across the county, including the beautiful waterside village of—wait for it—Flushing in my constituency.

Public toilets are vital to our coastal communities in Cornwall. It is one thing to have a small child who is desperate for the loo, but what does a distressed elderly lady who cannot find the right facilities open do? It does not seem right that our lower-tier councils are burdened with significant business rate fees on a public service that they provide to the benefit of the local community and tourists alike. They are often cleaned by volunteers just to keep them open and usable.

In my constituency, the two town councils between them spend just shy of £30,000 a year on business rates to run the public toilets in Truro and Falmouth. For a local council, that is a substantial amount of money. Often at the back-end of devolution deals, we should do everything we can to support local communities and I am pleased that the Bill does that.

It is this Government who introduced the Bill, and this compassionate Conservative party that wants to empower local communities, let them have the money to improve their local areas and allow precept payers to see the improvements on the ground in their towns and parishes. That can only be good news. To that end, I welcome this long overdue Bill and I am sure that town and parish councils in my constituency will also welcome it.

The Bill represents good progress and could open up a wider debate about business rates on other community facilities in our high streets. I have libraries particularly in mind. I would welcome an opportunity to talk to the Minister about how that might work. Often, public-run facilities are the only ones on the high street that do not run as a business but do not benefit from any business rate relief. That should be looked at and I hope we can do that in future.

I welcome the Bill and the debate and I look forward to the money being put back in the pockets of hard-working local councils so that we can keep the loos open for locals and tourists throughout Cornwall.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 1:45 pm, 16th July 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on their good work in bringing about the Bill.

I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Bill, which sees the Government recognising the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities. Town centres, visitor attractions and local hubs rely on good access to those facilities. My constituency relies heavily on tourism and attracts people from wide and far. Whether they come to visit the beautiful spa town of Ilkley or the home of the Brontë sisters in Haworth, or to take a ride on our famous heritage railway line, the Keighley and Worth Valley railway, access to public toilets is vital. It is a must.

People’s ability to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time depends on appropriate toilet facilities being available. Of course, such access is important for those with particular health needs, as well as individuals who work in emergency services, refuse collectors and taxi and delivery drivers, who all work from no fixed location. Public toilets are a necessity and more widely, adequate lavatory provision helps with public health and improves the local environment, particularly through street cleanliness and disease control.

Given how vital those facilities are, it is understandable that there has been public concern for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, that many of them have unfortunately closed. Closures have happened across my constituency, and I am sure that applies to other Members’ constituencies too. It is understandable when the facilities are no longer suitable or required, but reduction in overall coverage is undoubtedly an inconvenience to the public.

The Bill is therefore welcome and I am pleased that this Conservative Government are taking action to reduce the overhead costs of public toilets, which will make it easier to keep them open and help guarantee their future for much longer. A review of the whole business rate structure is long overdue, but for these vital facilities, I am glad that the Bill is working its way through the House. It is a small but vital measure.

The Bill is a significant step, which introduces 100% relief for our public lavatories—important financial assistance from central Government to those that provide the facilities, such as Bradford Council or the many parish councils across my constituency. I want our public toilets in Keighley and Ilkley to remain open and I would love to see more open across my patch so that visitors, residents and those working in my constituency from no fixed location can still have access to those facilities. The Bill provides that support and helps ensure that much-needed facilities can remain in place.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 1:49 pm, 16th July 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robbie Moore. The pandemic has thrust the importance of public toilets forward in so many unexpected ways. I had not anticipated spending so much of my first few months as an MP discussing toilets with my local councils, colleagues and constituents alike. We are working to level up the country and, indeed, toilets are a great leveller. Their necessity is hopefully something that all in the House can agree on.

In tourist-dependent hotspots, such as my beautiful North Devon constituency, people can be miles from any facilities, and public toilets are invaluable. How can someone enjoy a day on the beach or a hike across the moors without being able to visit a toilet at least once? The alternative on occasions has created its own public health issues in tourist destinations as we have emerged from lockdown.

Pre-pandemic, the cost of running public toilets in North Devon alone was approaching half a million pounds. With pubs, restaurants and shops closed and their facilities unavailable, we have had to rely upon public lavatories. Indeed, it is an immense inconvenience when one cannot find a public convenience.

Getting public toilets reopened rapidly was a big challenge for small councils and, indeed, a great expense. It is currently costing an additional £1,500 a week in North Devon for the extra cleaning of toilets. That is a 50% increase. While that extra cost is currently being covered by the covid-19 funding, the manner in which that funding is withdrawn is important if this vital public service is to be retained and cleaned in the manner now considered important to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The absurdity of local councils paying business rates for public facilities that they realistically gain no revenue from has been raised by councillors across North Devon and by colleagues here, particularly my hon. Friend Steve Double, for many years. The Bill is warmly welcomed by councils in North Devon, where small parish, town and district councils have been paying business rates totalling almost £40,000. That may not sound much, but it is a lot of pennies to pay just to spend a penny. The Bill will save my parish and town councils approaching £15,000, which in turn becomes lost revenue for my district council, which itself on balance will ultimately save by not paying rates on the toilets it is responsible for. That highlights how over-complex and multi-layered local government is back home in Devon.

Our councils have been passing around their toileting responsibilities for years, trying to find the most efficient way to maintain public toilets or, on occasion, washing their hands of them and closing them down. Indeed, our district council only passed responsibility for toilets to our parish and town councils because it could not afford to pay the business rates itself. The reassurances within the Bill that councils will not be out of pocket will hopefully mean that these vital public facilities will remain open and free to use. I take this opportunity to thank my local councils in North Devon for the work they have done to safely reopen our public conveniences and thank the Department for ensuring that we do not lose our public loos.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 1:52 pm, 16th July 2020

I declare an interest as the co-chair, along with my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory, of the all-party parliamentary group on local democracy, which has been behind a lot of the campaigning on this matter.

Just to reassure those on the Government Front Bench, who seem fearful that this might not be a piece of legislation that is talked about in 100 years’ time, when I questioned the Leader of the House about it last week and asked when the decision was coming forward, he mentioned that the taxation of toilets had been introduced by the Emperor Vespasian 2,000 years ago, so I think those on the Front Bench today are making a mark in history.

I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who brought this matter to the public’s attention many years ago and have been campaigning on it ever since. I am particularly delighted, as I think the Bill will be welcome news to Justin and the team at the National Association of Local Councils, who have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. I particularly welcome the Government’s announcement that the relief will be backdated to April this year.

In a recent conversation with town and parish councils, including St Austell Town Council, they mentioned the extra costs they have had during the covid crisis, providing support for their communities, of about £50 million. So the fact that £8 million a year will be going to help those councils and will be backdated will be really helpful.

Members from all parts of the House have already made clear the points that I would like to make about how the Bill helps people with hidden disabilities and particularly helps women and girls and those with children. If someone is trying to find somewhere to change them or something like that, toilets are useful facilities to have at hand.

It is a real benefit to our local authorities. Wolsingham, in my constituency, spends between 1% and 2% of its annual budget just on rates for public loos. I know how important the issue is for that local authority and for those in other tourist areas, and I know just how vital it is for the Cornish MPs who have been campaigning on it as well. To flag up the comments made by my hon. Friend Robbie Moore, the financial impact of the Bill will really benefit local authorities. This issue has been a burden on them for far too long, and it is right that we are now making that change.

I also flag up the importance of regional news. My local regional broadcaster in the north-east, Richard Moss, who is from the political team there, came out and did an interview with me on this very subject when I became co-chairman with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth. I give another shout out to that team, who are under threat at the moment from the BBC centrally. Campaigning local MPs can make a difference, and those regional news channels are very important in order for us to highlight the campaigns that we are pushing.

I thank Front Benchers very much for introducing the Bill. I know that it is just before the summer, but it is a great thing to get over the line now. I really hope that by reducing the cost of public toilets we will be able to see more open across the country in the years ahead.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:56 pm, 16th July 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire for her in-depth research and the passion with which she spoke about public loos. I am very pleased that the Minister recognises the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities, our town centres, our parks and our community centres. People’s ability to work, shop or enjoy their leisure time depends on appropriate toilet facilities. That can be especially important for those with health needs. More widely, adequate provision contributes to public health and improves the local environment, particularly in terms of street cleanliness and disease control.

Given how vital such facilities are, it is understandable, as the Minister accepts, that there is real public concern about the reduction in available public lavatories. More than 50% have closed in the past decade, and virtually every council has had to close some of its public loos. Of course, a reduction in the overall coverage of public conveniences is an inconvenience to the public, and to people with special access requirements. It is not just about having any facilities available; it is about having the right facilities.

The lack of provision of public toilets is a major but largely ignored issue that significantly restricts lives. It therefore deserves even greater exposure than the narrow focus of the Bill. The Government’s proposal in the Bill to provide 100% business rate relief for stand-alone public loos is most welcome, but is the Minister aware that business rates currently payable on such premises are a small part compared with the running costs of staffing, security and cleaning?

As I said earlier, some councils now run no public loos at all. In those parts the closure of all public loos means just that: there may be nowhere to go, no matter how inconvenient. The Bill does nothing to address the lack of those facilities. The Bill gives welcome relief to local authorities, but if the Government are serious about extending and improving access to public toilets, including, as one Government Member highlighted, the need for ambulance drivers and police in rural areas, we need to look at extending it to other publicly funded buildings.

My concern is whether giving this mandatory relief will achieve the desired effect, and whether councils can start opening public toilets and at least trying to get back to the levels of 2010.

Like Robbie Moore, I would like to see more public toilets, which are more accessible. This measure is a small step in the right direction and I would like to see it extended. For example, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council has to pay £170,000 in business rates for its libraries and museums. That money could be spent on making our toilets more accessible. If the Government can apply rate relief to pubs, private hospitals and private schools, why can they not do it for libraries, museums and community centres? I am happy to support the Bill, but it does not go far enough and this House needs to further explore how the Bill can improved. I look forward to working with the Minister to make these improvements, for the benefit of the public.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:00 pm, 16th July 2020

May I start by thanking the Opposition Front-Bench team for the constructive tone with which they approached this important debate? This is a vital Bill and we have heard excellent contributions from Members from across the House about the importance of this issue. I completely agree with those who said that we should be talking about this issue more and not be afraid of talking about the importance of public toilets to people in our community. The Bill recognises that importance, and when the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Clarke, opened this debate he made the point that when we emerge from the lockdown it is going to be more crucial than ever that people have access to appropriate toilet and hand washing facilities. Members from across the House will know from discussions with their own constituents that the provision of appropriate facilities is vital and can make a huge difference to people’s ability to leave their home to go out to see friends and family and to do shopping. That makes a huge difference to people’s quality of life and their mental health, which is a huge part of why this Bill is so important. We have been hugely grateful for the contributions today.

I thank my hon. Friend Steve Double for his tireless work in championing this change. He talked powerfully about the fact that he has been campaigning for it for eight years since he was made the cabinet member at Cornwall Council and that he has taken this to Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers to secure agreement. It has taken his drive, and that of other hon. Members, to push this forward. I also thank him for the points he made about the importance of public toilets to rural and coastal communities, and the tourism industry—he is right to highlight that. Let me also take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the town and parish councils in Cornwall that he mentioned, because of course we recognise the point he made about the significant costs placed on such councils. He also made an interesting and important point about what more we can do to make sure that money is reaching the right places in town and parish councils. That is exactly why my hon. Friend the Minister of State has made it clear in his communications that money should be being passed down to those councils to manage these important facilities. We are happy to keep speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay as this Bill progresses to see what more can be done to make sure that money is getting to the right places. We have stressed the importance of that time and again, but he is right to raise it in the House again today.

Thangam Debbonaire, a west of England neighbour of mine, rightly gave a passionate speech about this issue. I have lived in Bristol, and I know we are both aware of the issues associated with the occasional lack of availability, so she is right to address them in the way she has. She made important points about the additional cleaning and covid pressures that can come with running these sorts of public facilities. She asked a number of questions which I hope to address throughout my remarks. She asked whether there was something we could do during the passage of this Bill to check her calculations and work with her to make sure we are bringing forward appropriate information to inform the debate. My colleagues will be happy to work with her to make that happen and look at that throughout the Bill’s passage. We are happy to work with her on that issue.

My hon. Friend Robert Largan rightly and powerfully talked about the importance of toilets and public facilities needing to be available for all. A number of Members talked about the importance of making sure that toilets are available for all, including those with special access requirements. It is important to note that the Bill will help with that. The 100% relief applies equally to all facilities, including accessible facilities. But of course we want to go further to support increased provision, in particular Changing Places toilets that are fully accessible for those with the most significant needs who may need assistance to use the toilet. Following our consultation last year, we have committed to change building regulations guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets in new public buildings. We expect that this provision will come into effect in early 2021.

Additionally, at Budget this year, we confirmed that we would be launching a £30 million Changing Places fund, and would be working closely with the Changing Places Consortium, stakeholders and Members of this House to help to accelerate the provision of accessible facilities in existing buildings. My ministerial colleague mentioned the important £2 million investment from the Department for Transport in its inclusive transport strategy and the £2 million made available by the Department of Health and Social Care in order to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England. These measures will make a real difference in maintaining the dignity of people with special access requirements when they are away from home.

We also heard points made about the safe reopening of toilets as we come out of lockdown. That is of the utmost importance as we ensure that access to public toilets can happen in a safe way. It is for councils to decide to reopen their facilities as we come out of lockdown, but we have been strongly encouraging them to open public lavatories wherever possible, as has been noted a number of times in the debate. We wrote to local authorities to encourage them to do that. We thank them for their work in making sure that public lavatories can now open in a safe and timely way. We are sincerely grateful for all their work to help to make that happen.

The Opposition asked what extra support is going to be available for public lavatories during covid. I would put on record the extra £3.7 billion that we have supported councils with over the past few months as they deal with a very difficult set of circumstances—reduced income and increasing costs—throughout the course of this pandemic. That was on top of a good local government finance settlement this year, with a 4.4% real-terms rise in core spending power—another £2.9 billion.

The Opposition also highlighted a concern about toilets in other public buildings. They are right to raise that issue. We want to be clear that the relief will apply to properties that are wholly or mainly used as public toilets. In general, it will not apply to toilets within shopping centres, for instance, as was highlighted, or public libraries. We have wanted to target the relief to best support the provision of public lavatories. In particular, we want to support facilities that exist where there are unlikely to be other publicly available toilets or where removing the additional costs of business rates could make a real difference to their ability to stay open. Of course, we are happy to work with the Opposition throughout the course of the Bill’s passage.

This Bill will benefit the public and reduce costs for councils and others that are seeking to ensure facilities can stay open. It has wide-ranging support in this House, and we look forward to working with colleagues as it progresses. I want to put on record my thanks to the businesses, charities and local authorities who have been so important in the management of these facilities. The Bill will support the provision of facilities for those individuals for whom access to toilets is particularly important, whether for health reasons or because of the nature of their work. It complements our wider efforts around the provision of more Changing Places toilets. We are very grateful for all the thoughtful contributions from Members across the House as we look to deliver this vital change for our local authorities. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.