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.