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.