Discretionary relief for public toilets

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 9th February 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I get all the crap jobs. I have been told that I am not allowed to use foul language, so I am afraid most of the puns have been wiped out.

This is a straightforward clause, which hopefully addresses a long-standing request from a number of local authorities for the facility of public toilets to be recognised as important not just in areas with high levels of tourism but in urban settings. We need to look back on the history of public toilets—not too far; I will go back only to the Romans—and on the establishment of the need for public conveniences.

When people are away from their home setting and need to use a convenience, it makes sense that conveniences are provided in convenient places, which they can get to easily. The truth is, in recent years, we have seen the number of public conveniences reduce significantly. In real terms, in 2010, the spend on public toilets by local authorities was £85 million and, last year, it was only £54 million. We have seen a lot of money taken away from public conveniences, which has had a real impact, with more than 1,700 public toilets having closed down. We know what the impact of that is.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

Are those figures just for county and district councils or do they include parish councils? Many parish councils, particularly those in places such as Cornwall, have taken over the running of public toilets.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The figures come from a BBC freedom of information request last year, which went to all main local authorities. The question was not how many toilets they maintained but how many were in their areas of responsibility, so perhaps that includes toilets run by other authorities such as parish, community and town councils. I cannot confirm that from the article.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

As I understand it, if the parish council or whatever is a billing authority, it will benefit from the clause.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The parish council will benefit from the clause. The question was whether the data on the number of public toilets included parish councils and I cannot confirm that. Notwithstanding that, it is hard to believe that all 1,700 toilets have been handed over to parish councils. I think we can assume that, given £31 million has been taken out of their provision, a significant number of public conveniences have been taken away.

Some local authorities have recognised the impact that has had on their communities and, although they have faced difficult budget restrictions, they have tried to step up and bring the community together to try to find local solutions. For instance, we know that a number of pubs, cafés, bars and restaurants acting as community toilet providers have been recognised with a small payment from their local authority. That is one way in which there has been some impact, particularly in areas of high footfall such as tourist areas, and my own local authority does that to a good standard. However, there is a world of difference between being able to spot a little sticker displayed in the window of a community toilet provider and the community knowing where to find established facilities.

The other thing is that a number of the conveniences were in isolated locations, such as country parks, and a number of those have closed, too. At the moment, 10 areas have no public toilets, including Newcastle, Merthyr Tydfil and Wandsworth. Given the coming budget cuts, I imagine that councils will have to reflect on whether they look after children who need safeguarding protection, take care of elderly people who need social care, or maintain their toilets. Even if local authorities have a rate reduction, those toilets still have maintenance, staffing and cleaning costs, and I suspect that a number of them will fall foul of the cuts. Although this is a step in the right direction, it does not feel like a holistic strategy for providing that public infrastructure in many areas.

Campaigning organisations have taken this issue on. The British Toilet Association does a lot of work on it. We sometimes dismiss this issue, and people laugh it off because it attracts a sense of humour, but the British Toilet Association makes the case for why these facilities are important. This is about not just the number of toilets, but the quality of provision. The association is leading the way in ensuring that there is a quality standard so that people who use public toilets are not put off by poor cleanliness, antisocial behaviour or poor maintenance—for example, lights that are out. It recognises good practice through its annual awards, which it hopes will drive up standards in the industry.

I ask the Government to at least have a conversation with the British Toilet Association to find out what more can be done to come up with a holistic strategy to deal with this issue and to ensure that we do not lose any more public conveniences. Worse, in a bid to try to retain them but save money, maintenance may be reduced to such an extent that they are not welcoming and people do not feel safe in them. As a result, they may become a venue for antisocial behaviour, and none of us wants to see that.

When talking about money and numbers, at times we miss the human cost. I could have spent 20 minutes making jokes, but we have to be serious about what these public services are there for. I want to reflect on a story from a part of Manchester that my mum lives in, which used to have public toilets and now no longer does. A man called Brian Dean, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, went out with his wife, Joan, and needed to use the toilet. The toilet they thought would be there was not—it had closed—and they could not find anywhere else to go, so unfortunately he wet himself. For that to happen to an adult who was ill was absolutely distressing for him and his wife, who was proud of her husband and had a sense of responsibility for getting him around. They said that it left them with a feeling of humiliation. We can talk about numbers and finance, and we can crack jokes, but there is a human cost. There is a reason why these conveniences are there in the first place. We have to think about how much we value this type of public service.

I am pleased to see this measure, but I think it exposes a wider issue about how local authority premises are treated in the ratings criteria. Education facilities such as an independent school, an academy or a free school outside the local authority attract the 80% mandatory business rates relief, but local authority schools do not. We see the same thing in the health service: health providers outside the public sector can attract the 80% mandatory relief, but Government health providers cannot.

We have seen this before. Even before this Bill was introduced, because of the rateable values involved, privately operated public conveniences were under the rateable value threshold and could claim exemption, but council-run facilities could not. There is a broader issue here about how the ratings assessment treats public and Government-owned buildings. We should ensure that there is a level playing field. We have debated that in relation to education facilities, health facilities and other public buildings. It strikes me that the Government have reflected and feel that these important public buildings need to be recognised in the legislation, and I am pleased. It has been a while coming; local authorities have been asking for this for some time, but it has not happened. A request was made, for instance, during the sustainable communities process, and it was not taken on board.

I recognise that we have a great deal of business to get through, so I will leave my remarks there. However, I did not want to let the issue pass without making it clear that however funny this may appear on the surface, it is actually quite important.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 3:00 pm, 9th February 2017

I want to make a few comments as someone with a fair amount of experience on this matter. I was the Cornwall Council cabinet member responsible for public toilets when a major review of public toilet provision was undertaken to look at—from the unitary authority’s point of view—the best way to deliver this vital service to the public. As the hon. Gentleman said, this service is important to many people. In Cornwall, it supports not only the tourist industry on our beaches and in our parks, but local people, including the elderly, people with medical conditions and people with young families, who often need to use these facilities.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Given that the hon. Gentleman is likely to have slightly better access to the Minister’s thinking than the Opposition are, will he say why he thinks Ministers are only giving discretionary relief, as opposed simply to exempting public toilets fully from business rates?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful for that intervention. I was going to say that I feel partly responsible for the clause. Along with my colleagues in Cornwall, I lobbied the former Prime Minister and Chancellor hard on this issue, because our experience in Cornwall was that this was a particular barrier for maintaining the provision of public toilets. From my point of view—I cannot speak for the Minister—there is not a one-size-fits-all solution across the country. In different areas, there are different challenges in maintaining public toilet provision. The discretion allows local authorities to set out whether it is a priority in their area.

Let me explain why the measure is so welcome. In Cornwall, which has a large unitary authority covering a very large geographical area, having all those toilets run and maintained by the unitary authority is not the most efficient way to do it. It is far better to devolve the provision and maintenance of those facilities down to local parish councils, town councils or other groups that are better placed to maintain them and keep them open at the hours that the community needs them—that may not be all year round, or all day. Those organisations will be better and more efficient at keeping the facilities clean and well maintained, because people can do it locally, rather than there being a centralised process like the one that Cornwall Council had, with people driving all over the county just to maintain the facilities. Devolving down the running of the facilities to local groups and councils is much more efficient and effective.

In my experience as a cabinet member, one of the biggest barriers to parish councils taking over the running of the facilities was business rates. Often, a fairly small parish council whose precept was only a few thousand pounds a year would consider taking on the cost of maintaining the public toilets, but they would find that the business rate alone on the toilets was more than their whole precept. Deciding whether it was feasible and affordable to take on the facilities was a significant challenge, even if the council recognised that taking them on would be very beneficial to the community. Putting discretion in the hands of the senior authority is sensible, because in the case of Cornwall Council, it can then decide that it sees the value of these facilities across the county. It may want to play its part in helping to maintain them and keep them open, but it may not want responsibility for their day-to-day maintenance and running. It can make the decision to grant that discretion. That would help parish councils with the cost of taking on these facilities, and perhaps enable them to afford to do so. This is a sensible and welcome move, and it has my full support.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Certain houses of repute with cultural artefacts get a tax break for opening at certain times of the year to the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton did not have time to mention that the redoubtable Brian Dean, the gentleman with Parkinson’s, tried every shop in a row of shops, asking if he could use their toilet, and was refused, as is their right. Having desperately tried to avoid it, it was only at that point that he had to soil himself. That is a sad reflection on those shops, but I understand it. I would like the Minister to give some thought to whether it might be possible to structure a business rate relief for private premises, such as a coffee shop in Allerdale, that allow the public access to their toilets, in the way that we allow tax reliefs for certain houses with cultural artefacts. We put something in; there are certain things that they provide; and they get a tax break for providing that service.

As we all know, with our ageing population, it is statistically likely that there will be a rise of near incontinence and urgency. The need for access to toilet facilities among the population as a whole, and the need for those facilities to be fairly readily available, will increase. I say that as one of the patrons of Wolverhampton Mencap. Many adults with learning difficulties get a sense of urgency and need to get to a toilet very quickly. I would ask the Minister to look at a system in which private premises that were not “wholly or mainly” a public lavatory facility, as in the clause, but that had a toilet—perhaps a coffee shop—and made it available to the public for a specified number of hours or whatever got some business rate relief for providing that public service.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I rise to make two points. It was interesting to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay on how he thought we got to this point. I commend him on his successful lobbying, but I wonder why Ministers could not have gone a bit further. There are already business rates exemptions for agricultural land, presumably because of its importance to rural communities and to the countryside that we all value. Given the growing concern about the long-term financing of public toilets, one wonders whether it is time to dwell on the question of whether public toilets should be given full business rates relief. I have to be honest; I have not looked into the issue in detail yet, but it is a question worth posing to Ministers.

I come back to the example of the Threlkeld village hall coffee shop, which I spoke about before, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West tempted me to flag up on this issue. It has toilets that are used by members of the public, predominantly when they come in to use the coffee shop, but it is the only place in the community other than the pub where they might do so. The village hall is a social enterprise. Would business rates relief be on offer to that part of the premises that has toilets, if members of the public can use them?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point in a moment. First, public toilets contribute to high-quality public spaces, and are an important amenity for our communities, as has been said in this debate. They help people, particularly older people, to enjoy what our country has to offer, and to continue to live an active life. That is why we are introducing a measure through clause 9 that will allow local authorities to use their discretionary powers over business rate relief on publicly owned toilets. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, Conservative MPs, particularly in Cornwall, lobbied the Government significantly on this issue. I am sure that he is delighted that the measure is being put into legislation.

Under current legislation, a billing authority cannot grant discretionary relief to properties occupied by a local authority. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West, local authorities can grant rate relief to places where owners of private property allow the public to use their conveniences. I hope that that reassures him.

Clause 9 will amend billing authorities’ discretionary relief powers, which are set out in section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, and will give them the power to grant discretionary relief to publicly owned toilets. The clause will help councils to keep toilets open, and importantly, it will pave the way for savings by parish and town councils, which often bear the burden of maintaining such facilities. Where a billing authority decides to grant discretionary leave, the relevant business rate liability will be reduced or removed altogether.

I will pick up on a couple of points made. I did not catch the name—

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to assist me. That sounds to me like it might be a charitable organisation. If that is the case and the property is used wholly for charitable purposes, there is a fair chance that it would qualify for charitable relief, which would reduce the rating liability by 80%. It might be worth him looking into whether that is the case.

I will not go into what the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said about the principle of whether NHS hospitals and so on should be subject to business rates. We will debate that fully when we deliberate on a new clause. I certainly took on board what he said about the challenges in some places where there are no public toilets at all; that is a fair point. One of the places that he mentioned was Merthyr Tydfil, which he will know does not come within the remit of the Bill, as it is under Welsh jurisdiction. He will be interested to know that it is my understanding that Wales does not have such a rate relief scheme for public toilets. Perhaps the Labour Administration in Wales might want to take a leaf out of this Parliament’s book and consider implementing a similar scheme.

This is a highly beneficial clause that will support local authorities in keeping valuable public toilets open by reducing the cost of maintaining them, thus preserving important amenities not just for local people but, in many areas, for tourists and visitors. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10