Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:00 pm on 16th July 2020.

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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.