Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:49 pm on 16th July 2020.

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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 While that extra cost is currently being covered by the covid-19 funding, the manner in which that funding is withdrawn is important if this vital public service is to be retained and cleaned in the manner now considered important to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.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.