Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 16th July 2020.

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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.