Clause 1: Relief from non-domestic rates for public lavatories
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, after “day,” insert “the hereditament is a publicly-owned library or community centre or a local authority property that is free of charge to enter and contains a public lavatory that is free of charge for anyone to use, or”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would extend the rate relief to publicly-owned libraries and community centres, and local authority properties, which are free to enter and which contain public lavatories that are free to use.
My Lords, as this is my first contribution today, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Amendment 1 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, seeks to amend Clause 1(3) of the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to bring into the scope of the Bill those toilet facilities that are in community centres, libraries and other local authority buildings and are free of charge for use by members of the public.
There are clear and undeniable public health benefits to having toilets that are available for the public to use. This amendment seeks to increase that provision. I recognise that in some cases, libraries and other public buildings already make their toilet facilities available to the public. This amendment supports them for doing that, but goes further, as it provides a welcome encouragement for those facilities that do not have the same access provision to be made available to the public. There has been a noticeable decline in public facilities over recent years, and this amendment seeks to reverse that trend by providing rate relief as an encouragement either to continue with the access presently provided or to extend access to the public to take advantage of this rate relief.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has tabled Amendment 9, which I am very happy to support, and the noble Lord will explain the effect of his amendment when he speaks shortly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his support for my Amendment 9 in this group. I will speak to both my amendment and Amendment 1, which the noble Lord has just moved. I declare my interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council, which no longer has public lavatories but is the rating authority for those that exist. I thank the Government for scheduling this Committee fairly quickly after Second Reading so that we can progress this Bill; it gives us real hope that the Bill will manage to pass in this Session.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would follow up amendments moved in the Commons and comments made quite widely by people at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House. They pointed out that very many lavatories that people consider to be public lavatories and that operate as public lavatories are ancillary to other facilities provided by local authorities and other voluntary bodies, and so on. The problem is that, from a rating point of view, they are part of the same hereditament as the facility to which they are basically ancillary and therefore would not come under the provisions of this Bill as it stands. The Minister has kindly written to interested Members of the House putting forward the view that the Government put forward in the Commons that, to exempt these genuine public lavatories from business rates would be onerous—particularly on the Valuation Office Agency, which is responsible for doing all this— and that it would therefore not be practical to go ahead with it.
My Amendment 9 tackles some of the affected lavatories, which would probably not be a very large number. I believe that this could be done without any onerous burden being placed upon the VOA or anybody else. It reads that, for the purposes of subsection 4(I), which is what this is all about,
“a self-contained public lavatories facility which forms part of a larger hereditament and which may be accessed independently from outside that hereditament forms a separate hereditament.”
It is possible that it would have to be done technically in some other way: it might be that it could be done via secondary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has amendments later on, to which I am not going to speak, but at this stage I will just say that I strongly support them; they provide an opportunity for the Government to tackle the technical details, and there are huge technical details in all this, because it is about rating. They would allow the Government to pick up a lot of the points that we are making in these probing amendments at this stage.
It seems to me that, when a lavatory is part of a council-owned building in the middle of a small town or village—it might be a library, market hall or any other council-owned building—and has an outside door so that, even if there is also an inside door that could be locked when the main building is not open, people would be able to access that from outside, sorting out the separate valuation for a limited number of instances like this would not be a great burden, and it could, and should, be done. In practice, the VOA will have done it anyway when it assesses the rates on the whole building, because here is a separate use from the main building and it will have a look at it and say, “What is the amount that that contributes?” Somewhere in the depths of its records, it probably has the information anyway. Even if it does not have it, however, it is not an onerous task for it to do. The number is relatively small compared with the great majority of lavatories in libraries and so on. I hope the Government will accept the principle of this—I do not expect them to accept my amendment as it is today—and go away and have a look at it. I invite the Minister to say that he will do that.
My Lords, as I said at Second Reading, I welcome the Bill. That the Government have chosen to encourage the provision of public lavatories is a great public good, because adequate lavatory provision is a liberation for many millions of people, for whom the thought of not finding one when they go out is a significant restriction on their participation in society as a whole. There are said to be some 14 million people in this country with bowel or bladder problems. That is a very large proportion of the population who are worried about being able to access a public lavatory when they go out.
I really encourage the Government, perhaps not immediately but during the progress of the legislation, to look at opportunities to extend its reach. An obvious example is lavatories in stations, which everyone regards as public lavatories. Victoria station is very well used. It is only in a very peripheral way a part of any other hereditament. The same applies to lavatories in other public buildings, and to push in the direction which is being opened by Amendment 1 is thoroughly worth while.
There is no obvious need for a public lavatory to be a separate building. It seems, given the attractiveness of public lavatories, that having them in a building encourages other uses of that building too, and that their integration into public buildings should be encouraged. If we can find a way round it over the next few years, we should not be privileging just those public lavatories which are free standing.
As has been said, I really hope that the Government look on this as an opportunity, over time, to encourage facilities that are needed for the general public enjoyment of public facilities by extending the rather narrow rating release in the Bill to the many other deserving facilities that are provided at public expense and otherwise, and without which we will find ourselves rather too often caught short.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Lord Greaves and Lord Lucas, have said in support of these amendments. For some people, venturing into parts of our urban communities where they cannot be sure of access to a public lavatory is a risk that they dare not take. The physical conditions that create this problem can affect all ages. One thinks especially of the elderly, but there are also visitors to the area and others who depend on the uncertainties of public transport to get home. Whoever they are, they need to be provided for.
My interest in this subject, as I have mentioned before, is a professional one. I am interested in whether the amendments to test alternative solutions to those which the Government are suggesting are capable of being put into effect. The valuation of buildings for rating was one of my specialist subjects when I was in practice at the Scottish Bar. The valuation process itself was not for me; that was the job of chartered surveyors. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, is a distinguished member of that profession, with years of experience in the practice of that art, and I am very sorry that for other reasons he is unable to take part in this debate.
However, valuation for rating is not just about facts and figures. There are some legal rules too, and that is where I come in. The non-domestic rating system is the product of a listing process. Every non-domestic hereditament that is capable of separate occupation must be entered in the valuation list and given a value. A single building may contain within it a number of properties that are in separate occupation. If so, one would expect each of them to be the subject of a separate entry and a separate value, but where one finds a building in a single occupation, the consequence is that the entire building is treated as a separate hereditament and valued accordingly.
Therefore, where one finds a stand-alone public lavatory—which is what the Government are providing for in the Bill—one would expect it to be entered in the roll with its own entry and its own value. The reform which the Bill introduces is that the value of these subjects is to be taken to be nil. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made very clear, the problem is that there are not enough of them. That is what the amendments in this group seek to address.
As I see it, the amendments in this group respect the rules that I have described. Amendment 1 assumes that the publicly owned buildings listed here have a public lavatory within them that is free of charge for anyone to use. It assumes, rightly, that the public lavatory is not the subject of a separate entry, so it asks the Government to accept that the building as a whole should be given the relief. One can draw an analogy with the relief of 80% that is currently given to hereditaments that are occupied by charities, but the part of the building containing the public lavatory is likely to be quite small in comparison with the whole, and the loss of income to the rating authority may be disproportionate to the public benefit.
There is some value in exploring an alternative, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is doing with his Amendment 9. This would introduce a statutory rule that these public lavatories should be treated, in effect, as separate hereditaments, so long as they can be accessed from outside and therefore given a separate value. I do not know how many there are—perhaps not many, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has suggested—and if so it may not take us very far, but some distance is worth travelling in the interests of addressing the problem through the Bill. As a lawyer, I cannot see any objection to this proposal. It is an adaptation of the ordinary rules, but if the law provides for it, it is a perfectly orthodox adaptation. I commend this as a very neat way of responding to a very real problem that needs to be addressed, and I am happy to give Amendment 9 my support.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of an informal campaign group which seeks to improve the standards of public toilets generally. I am pleased to speak in support of the amendments in this group, and I am grateful to the Minister for his response by letter to issues that I, among others, raised at Second Reading. However, I am sure that he will forgive me when I say that I found his arguments unconvincing.
I accept that to include facilities open to the public, but not as separate or distinct buildings, would mean a valuation exercise. In each local authority area this would involve numbers maybe in the dozens, not the hundreds. That really cannot be seen as a costly hurdle. The Minister believes that it would divert resources from the 2023 revaluation. It should simply be part of the revaluation. I also reject the idea that identifying the facilities concerned would be difficult. These are public facilities and public bodies would self-identify. I also recommend to the Minister the Great British Public Toilet Map, available online, and a number of apps which guide you to local public toilets.
As it stands, the Bill is of course sensible, but it is a paltry little measure and will certainly not bring the transformation needed. I am not sure how deeply the Government consulted local government representatives. The local authorities that I am familiar with ceased building stand-alone public conveniences decades ago because problems of anti-social behaviour are so much greater in isolated blocks. Nowadays, new sets of conveniences are mainly incorporated in other public buildings, where issues of safety for users, maintenance and cleanliness are more easily dealt with. Stand-alone blocks obviously still exist but are often old and are too often already closed and shuttered.
I also wish to test the definition of “publicly owned”. The definition is very blurred these days. Facilities can be publicly owned but privately run—for example, in many areas that is the case with leisure centres. My area has publicly available toilets in libraries and shopping centres. The shopping centres are commercial developments and commercially run, but the toilets are discrete units. They are not just toilets in shops; there are separate doors to them, but it is a commercial operation.
We also have public toilets in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff—a large building at the centre of Cardiff tourism in the bay. It houses major musical events and a lot of youth and artistic activities. It runs free concerts and there are shops and cafes. There is free public access to the toilets. The Wales Millennium Centre is run by a trust, but that trust has been funded by major amounts of public money. I know that the noble Lord will say that that is in Wales and that there is a separate set of rules, but I use it as an example. Clearly, it would not qualify for this scheme, but why should it not? It provides the same facilities, with cleaning and maintenance, and the public are allowed to enter for a large number of hours each day of the week.
It is really not difficult to ascertain whether toilets are genuinely publicly available or available for a reasonable amount of time each day. The Minister told us that the Government are adopting the community toilet scheme, and similar types of rules can apply for rate relief.
My concern is not just that the Government’s scheme is not generous enough; it is also that it is not even-handed. Public toilets in buildings still have to be maintained and cleaned, so why should an accident of situation define whether this relief is granted? It could even discourage major new developments from incorporating what would be genuinely public toilets.
My Lords, I draw the Committee’s attention to my interests as listed in the register: as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The amendments in the names of my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to which I have added my name, challenge the scope of the Bill in its restriction to public toilets that are stand-alone and not part of a larger public building, such as a library or community centre. I thank the Minister for the opportunity to discuss these amendments and for the letter that he sent explaining the reasons for confining the scope of the Bill to stand-alone public toilets. However, we have to remember that one consequence of the long period of cuts to local government funding has been that many public toilets have been closed permanently. In my local authority, which serves nearly half a million people, there are now no stand-alone public toilets. The Bill is welcome but it is very much like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
These amendments are intended to encourage the Government to appreciate the wider need to increase the availability of public toilets. There is already pressure for some public toilets in public buildings to be closed because of the costs associated with keeping them open, as they are not part of the focused purpose of the building. For example, a public library is having to use scarce funds to keep the public toilets in its building open when there is barely sufficient funding to staff the building. That is the dilemma facing local authorities, certainly in the northern urban areas that I know well.
My noble friend Lord Greaves’s points are well made. Local people regard public toilets within a public building as being the same as stand-alone public toilets. The challenge is explained in the letter that I referred to earlier—the volume of work it would impose on the valuation office—but my noble friend Lord Greaves’s amendment seeks to find a way round this for public toilets that have separate access. I hope that the Minister is able to respond positively to that amendment.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is an expert on these matters. He has said that valuation for rating is not just about facts and figures. One example that he provided was the relief given to charities. The Government would do well to take heed of the arguments that the noble and learned Lord made, and that view has been well supported by my noble friend Lady Randerson. As well as making those arguments and supporting my noble friend Lord Greaves’s view, she argued that improved public toilets are more secure and can be more easily kept clean if they are within a public building, rather than being stand-alone.
The Government have a responsibility to ensure adequate availability of publicly funded public toilets. It is a responsibility that has been accepted since the days of the great Victorian public heath reformers. The Bill demonstrates that the Government continue to accept that they have that responsibility. It is not sufficient, in fulfilling this obligation, to make those public toilets that have survived the cull zero rated. The Government must provide the means for local government to increase availability to meet local need. That is what these amendments seek to do and I wholeheartedly support them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising the points highlighted by his amendment and for his valuable and knowledgeable contribution to the Second Reading debate, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and, with great knowledge, by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. I point out that the horse has not bolted entirely. There are nearly 4,000 separately assessed public toilets in England and Wales—3,990 as of 31 March 2020—and therefore this is a very important relief for those properties.
The effect of the first amendment would be to extend the scope of the relief to include publicly owned properties, such as libraries, community centres and other local authority properties, where they contain free-to-use public lavatories. In effect, this would mean that the local authority-owned buildings that contained a non-fee-paying public lavatory would be exempted from paying rates.
It is the Government’s firm view that public bodies, like other ratepayers, should pay rates on the properties they own and occupy, and it is therefore right that the legislation should broadly reflect this principle. The Government’s policy aim, and the purpose of Clause 1, is clear in that it provides a targeted relief to support the provision of public lavatories in specific circumstances. In particular, we want to support facilities that exist where there are unlikely to be any other publicly available toilets, such as those along our coastline or in towns, where removing the additional costs of business rates could make a significant difference to the ability of councils or others to keep the facilities open.
For England, the cost of this targeted measure is estimated to be around £6 million. The amendment would significantly increase this; for example, extending support to public libraries alone would see a tenfold increase in cost—to around £60 million. Although I recognise where the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is coming from, this is not the aim of the Bill. I do not agree with the premise of this amendment.
I turn to the second amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I recognise that the noble Lord intends that the current practice of determining what is—and what is not—a separate hereditament should be amended, so that any toilet which can be accessed independently of any other hereditament should be considered separately. He is supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, with his breadth of legal knowledge. While I expect that most public bodies which can be independently accessed already qualify for this relief, I appreciate that there might be some which do not. I recognise the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
I must return the Committee’s attention to the importance of keeping the administrative costs and the burden of this relief on local authorities to a minimum. If we were to amend the Bill in the way in which the noble Lord proposes, the Government would be asking the Valuation Office Agency to carry out an assessment of the location and rateable value of public toilets. The agency does not hold this information already. It would then prescribe that local government should make its own—in some cases, contrary—assessment in order to implement the relief. Requiring councils to do this would bring administrative costs disproportionate to any potential benefits to ratepayers.
The Valuation Office Agency is responsible for the valuation of all properties in England. The Government do not intervene in this independent process. I am sure the Committee will agree that it is important that this element of the business rate system retains its independence. Not only would the cost of implementing relief in line with this amendment be disproportionate to any benefit to ratepayers, it would mean prescribing an approach to assessing hereditaments that differs from the VOA’s own. As such, I do not consider it right to place such an approach in law.
It is right that the measure should remain a targeted relief, focused on providing support for public facilities in specific circumstances. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. Both amendments in this group—from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock and me, and from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—attempt to probe how the Bill could increase the number of public lavatories and prevent further closures.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about toilet facilities at stations. I regard these as public lavatories. It would be good to extend the provisions of the Bill to cover them. In recent years, charges have been removed at virtually all mainline stations in London—with the possible exception of Marylebone. This is good news.
Amendment 9 from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, provides for those public toilets with a separate entrance to be brought into the scope of the Bill. The noble Lord is right; there are probably not that many facilities which would come into this category, but it would be a welcome move.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that it would not be onerous to identify the different facilities which would come into the scope of the Bill. I do not accept the Minister’s comments about onerous costs on local authorities. In effect, the facilities would self-identify. I do not believe there is a huge amount of work involved. I do not accept the argument that the cost would outweigh the benefit to the local authority going forward. I am also grateful for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.
We all support the aims of the Bill. It is good as far as it goes. If we want to stop the decline in the number of public lavatories—and the public health benefits that go with them—we will have to go a bit further than this welcome Bill. This is the point of our amendments. I am sure we shall bring them back on Report. I hope that the Minister will reflect on whether, if we all want the same outcome, we should go further. I do not accept that the costs outweigh the benefits. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “or mainly”
Member’s explanatory statement
This is a probing amendment to explore the meaning of “mainly”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed response to my previous amendment. I thought that commenting here would be more convenient than making a separate intervention after the Minister in the previous group. That amendment—and others in this and other groups—will give rise to the need for further discussions with the Minister about some of the technical details, if he is agreeable. With the exception, perhaps, of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, none of us is an expert lawyer. We are trying to understand how it works.
That is the purpose of Amendment 2. I am not trying to persuade the Government to remove “mainly”; that would make the Bill even worse. This is a typical House of Lords Committee probing amendment. I am sure that during the noble Lord’s long career as a local government Minister in this House, he will have a lot of fun with a lot of similar amendments to much bigger and longer Bills. This is what we do. It is a way of asking questions. What does “or mainly” mean? It is not clear, and it is not defined.
The National Association of Local Councils’ briefing says that the cost to councils of paying rates on public lavatories is £8 million. The Minister said that the cost of the Bill as it stands is £6 million. Either in his reply to this, or at some other time during today’s discussion, could he explain the difference between those numbers and where it comes from? Perhaps he can give us figures for the extra costs which he thinks would be incurred by some of the proposals being put forward.
I have one other amendment in this group—Amendment 7. I had another, similar probing amendment, but there was a technical problem with it. It was my fault for submitting it on the last day. The Public Bill Office kindly offered to have the Marshalled List reprinted, but I said I could cope with what we have here.
Amendment 7 suggests that “mainly”
“is to be construed according to an assessment by the rating authority of the balance of use by the public of the public lavatories compared with the remainder of the hereditament, disregarding the proportion of the area occupied by the public lavatories.”
I have been trying to get my mind round the relationship between a public lavatory—which might be free standing —and the land on which it stands. This might be a garden area or amenity area in a town or village: a mini-park—or a pocket park, as they are called nowadays; we all know the kind of thing—or it might be a full park. If it is within a park, and basically for the people using that park, it will not be paying rates anyway, because parks are zero-rated. I think it is regarded as part of the hereditament that consists of the park.
If the public lavatory is free-standing in a park or elsewhere and the land around it is a separate hereditament, it will benefit from the Bill. However, somewhere, there must be a dividing line between a lavatory in a park and one that is mainly in an amenity area that forms part of the same hereditament as the lavatory, which is therefore all rated. That is the purpose of this amendment. Alternatively, there may well be a public lavatory that is part of a wider hereditament, the rest of which has fallen into disuse, but it is all part and parcel of the same rate.
If the public use of a public lavatory is greater than that of the rest of the hereditament of which it is a part, and is thus mainly what happens there—this might be a building that contains other council facilities: a storage shed or office, for example—I do not know how this would be worked out under the Government’s own proposal that everything should rely on “mainly”, where this word applies to use by the public.
The other amendment I was going to put down was about the financial valuation. It may be that a hereditament contains a public lavatory and, to all intents and purposes, is a public lavatory but contains another use: it is a mixed hereditament. I am not talking about a public library—where the lavatory is just a small part of it, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said—or a community centre, where the public lavatory probably would not be there if it did not exist. How do you decide if a council-owned building that consists partly of a public lavatory and partly of something else is “mainly” a public lavatory? Even if the assumed assessment or valuation of the rest of the building for rating purposes is greater than that of the public lavatory, the latter should nevertheless trump—that may not be quite the right word—or prevail over the rest.
I hope the Minister understands what I am saying. First, how does he define “mainly”? Secondly, even if the public lavatory is a smaller part of the area, can it prevail as the main use? Thirdly, if it is not as valuable as the thing it is attached to, whatever that is—a tiny parish council office or something like that—can it nevertheless be the prevailing use? I ask those questions to find out how the provision will actually work in practice: what is the workability of this, as regards public lavatories? Having said that, I beg to move Amendment 2.
My noble friend Lord Greaves has rightly questioned the meaning of “mainly” and its purpose: is it, as he asks, about the extent of public use? He is an experienced user of such probing amendments in seeking to get to the detailed consequences of Bills, and this one is no exception. I am sure the Minister will be able to give a detailed explanation in reply, and I look forward to hearing it.
The other query that my noble friend Lord Greaves rightly raised concerns his information that the cost of paying rates on public toilets is £8 million a year, which is rather different from the £6 million cited by the Minister. It would be good to know the reason for the difference in those figures, and why. Having said that, I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to my noble friend’s probing question.
My Lords, I have nothing really to add: the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has set out very clearly and carefully what he seeks to get from his amendment. As we have heard, it is a very good probing amendment that gives the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, the opportunity to set out carefully for the Committee what is meant by “or mainly”. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, this is a good House of Lords way of getting into the detail of the Bill, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Amendment 7 seeks, of course, to provide a welcome definition of what “mainly” could be construed or interpreted as, giving weight to public use of public lavatories. I will leave it there, and I look forward to the Minister’s explanation.
My Lords, I am beginning to learn how the House works, and I appreciate the education; I am sure I will get used to this way of drawing out important information. These amendments probe the current definition of a public lavatory that would qualify for this relief, and seek to amend this definition to capture some of the facilities that the Bill does not currently cover.
The Government have carefully drafted the scope of the Bill, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out for the House the rationale behind this decision. Subject to Royal Assent, the relief within this Bill will apply to all hereditaments that
“consist wholly or mainly of public lavatories”.
Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, probes the meaning of “mainly” in this provision. The phrase “wholly or mainly” can be found across government legislation and, in particular, exists within that legislation which provides for an 80% business rate discount to properties used
“wholly or mainly for charitable purposes”,
as the noble Lord mentioned. Local authorities are responsible for deciding which properties are eligible for business rate relief, and the use of “mainly” provides for some discretion on their part.
However, I will directly respond to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on how this would work in practice. Councils should reflect on all relevant matters, including any relevant case law and guidance, when making these decisions. The use of “mainly” means that an authority may, for example, look at the floor area of a building and see that less than 50% is being used directly as a public lavatory, but it may still feel that it meets the criteria for this relief because the remaining area is used as storage or for other matters of little consequence. That is very similar to the example that the noble Lord gave. The Government consider it right that the Bill provides local authorities with this level of discretion because these are decisions best taken on the ground and on the basis of local knowledge.
The second amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, follows on from the first and would act to define “mainly” within the Bill in reference to the extent to which a property is used as a public lavatory, rather than for other purposes. I appreciate that the intention of this amendment is to provide for the relief to be available to buildings that do not constitute separately assessed public toilets but that serve that purpose to a large extent. As I set out earlier, an expansion of the relief beyond those toilets that are separately assessed and have already been identified and separately rated would bring with it significant administrative burdens and costs.
In the case of this amendment, local authorities would be required to not just identify qualifying facilities but assess the extent to which the public are using them for different functions. The public use test would be particularly cumbersome because it would go beyond an assessment of a property’s physical elements and would require an analysis of the extent to which these elements are used by the public. The results of such a test could change relatively frequently, and local authorities may need to make the required assessment on a regular basis.
As currently designed, the measure in the Bill does not carry implementation costs disproportionate to the benefits to ratepayers, nor any significant implementation difficulties for local government. As such, we are not in favour of any amendment to this relief which would increase the complexity of its implementation, create unnecessary burdens for local authorities, or indeed create administrative costs disproportionate to the total benefit to ratepayers. However, I would be keen to engage with noble Lords on some of the technical reasons for not expanding the scope of the Bill.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his amendments, which probe the design of the relief before the Committee. However, for the reasons that I have set out, I do not consider that the potential benefits of the amendments would outweigh their substantial costs and I hope that the noble Lord will not press them.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for their support in this little group, and I thank the Minister for agreeing that we will have some discussions about it. He said that this would be to explain to us what we did not understand, and that we would then understand it. That is fine; I am totally in favour of understanding things.
I hope that the Government understand that some of us, at least, are trying to help them with this, to produce a slightly better Bill. We are not trying to wreck it and certainly not trying to place lots of extra administrative burdens on local authorities. We are looking for ways in which common-sense solutions can be found to problems which are going to occur. Inevitably, a town council will say, “Why are we paying rates on this and not that?” They are not experts, and it will cause all sorts of grumpiness. Also, it will not do, in some instances, what the Government are trying to do, which is relieve the burden on councils, particularly town and parish councils which are increasingly taking on public conveniences. So I hope the discussion we have will be two-way
The Minister said two things. First, he said that, in deciding what “mainly” means, councils should reflect on all the “relevant case law”. He then said that he did not want to put administrative and other burdens on councils. It sounds to me as if the Government are already admitting that there are going to be problems. If you have got to go to all the relevant case law and goodness knows what, it inevitably results in the creation of new case law, because it will get to the courts.
The second thing the Minister said was that the rationale was similar to that for charitable 80% relief, and that that is for “wholly or mainly” charitable use. The word “use” is crucial there, because the Bill does not say “use”, but
“consists wholly or mainly of public lavatories.”
One of my amendments talks about use. Can we look at that, and give the rating authorities a steer that it is the use which is important, rather than the other things, as the legislation does for charitable relief? That might just be a way forward.
I hope that the Government will not be stubborn and say that they are not going to change this under any circumstances, if there are ways through some of these problems. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw at this stage and look forward to discussions with the Minister.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 3. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division must make that clear in debate.
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, after “lavatories” insert “which are free of charge for anyone to use”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would confine the rate relief to public lavatories that are free of charge to use.
My Lords, Amendment 3 in my name seeks to add the words
“which are free of charge for anyone to use”
to Clause 1(3). The Bill provides a financial benefit and the effect of my amendment would be to restrict that benefit to public lavatories that are free to use—a very reasonable aspiration and objective. I do not see why those public lavatories that you must pay to use should be a beneficiary of this relief. The purpose of the Bill is to provide encouragement in this area, and I think that this amendment strengthens the Bill in this regard and provides a clear focus on the free use of public lavatories.
Amendment 10 from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is very sensible and I fully support it. Why should we provide financial benefit when the lavatory is not open for extended parts of the day? But I will let the noble Lord explain his amendment to the Committee.
On a more general point, in resisting amendments in previous groups, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, has relied on the argument that the Government do not want to place additional burdens on local authorities and that any savings would be outweighed by the cost of identifying these lavatories. When he replies to the debate, it would be useful if the Minister could evidence that. I have heard nothing from any local authority—the National Association of Local Councils, the District Councils’ Network, London Councils or the Local Government Association—to suggest that the argument that the Minister is relying on has any basis in fact. So it would be useful if he could explain that to the Committee. Or is it just the assertion of the department? I look forward to his response to the debate.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 10 in my name and Amendment 3, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which is fairly basic. I am old enough to remember one of the great hue and cry campaigns by women; it would be called a gender campaign nowadays. Not only did they have to spend an old penny—one of those great big things which people under 40 or 50 have never seen—but they had to go through a turnstile, which caused problems for pregnant women. That was a huge hue and cry at the time and was, I think, sorted out—but there are still plenty of supposedly public lavatories where you have to pay. The most disgraceful ones in my view were at mainline railway stations, which started charging considerably more than a penny, but that seems to be being changed now.
Amendment 10 would prevent bodies benefiting from free rates when the lavatories are not open for a reasonable amount of time and at reasonable times. I am always told by lawyers and Governments that the word “reasonable” should never be put in legislation because all legislation has to be reasonable before you start. Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a reasonable thing to discuss in this Committee.
There may well be some public lavatories in tourist areas which are not needed, or not in such quantity, at some times of the year. There may be ones which are needed at some times of the week and not others. It may be perfectly reasonable to lock public lavatories overnight to prevent them being used for undesirable purposes. That was certainly done in my part of the world. There may, indeed, be public lavatories which are open only on special occasions because of where they are and what takes place there. We used to have one which was opened at various times of the year, particularly on Remembrance Day, because it was next to the cenotaph. What is reasonable ought to be up to local decision-making by the owners of the lavatories, but they ought to be stopped from keeping them shut when they ought to be open. That decision ought to be made by the rating authority.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who referred earlier to some confusion in the Bill about what a public lavatory is, in terms of ownership. Does this Bill apply only to facilities owned by councils or by other public bodies, or to other voluntary bodies and charities as well? Does it apply to commercial enterprises that might provide a public lavatory at the entrance of their commercial facility—there might be a park, or whatever—which is open all the time for public use? Could the Minister clarify that? Is it use as a public lavatory, under the Minister’s terms, that matters, or, is it who owns it that matters? That would be a helpful clarification.
My amendment is about how the Government are going to stop people freeloading and getting rate relief when they are not providing the facility they ought to be.
My Lords, there are important and relevant issues to explore in Amendments 3 and 10, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lord Greaves, respectively. When a financial benefit is to be gained, as there is in this Bill, it inevitably becomes an issue of dispute at some time in the future when some realise that they are not getting rate relief on their provision of public toilets while others are. That is why it is important to explore what the Government are proposing here.
As we have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Kennedy, there is a considerable range of public toilet facilities. Some are open only during the day and some not at the weekend; some require payment, and some do not. We need to understand the implications of this variety of provision for the purposes of the Bill. Is it acceptable to make a small charge for a public toilet facility and get the rate relief proposed in this Bill? What will happen if that small charge becomes ever larger? Is it still right, then, that that facility is zero-rated? These two amendments indicate that what may appear to be simple, straightforward changes can have inconsistent consequences once the detail of the implementation is exposed, as it has been so expertly this afternoon. I look forward to hearing the reply from the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, wanted to know the evidence that this would cause a burden disproportionate to the level of relief provided. The reality is that, under these proposals, we are not asking local authorities or the Valuation Office Agency to do anything in addition to what they already do. But where we are widening the scope, we are asking local authorities to do something they do not currently do, so by definition that will increase burdens on them and, in some cases, on the Valuation Office Agency.
The effect of the amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Greaves, would be to apply a set of conditions that would need to be satisfied before the relief could be granted. I will expand on the reasons why I do not believe these are helpful in the operation of the relief. As a principle, I do not agree we should be moving away from the clear and simple aims of the policy by limiting this much-needed support.
The effect of Amendment 3 would be to exclude those who own and run facilities where a small fee is charged from receiving this relief. The Government’s policy aim and purpose in Clause 1 is 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 any other publicly available toilets, where removing the additional costs of business rates could make a real difference to the ability of councils or others to keep the facilities open. I understand the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about free-to-use public toilets. Nevertheless, the purpose of this Bill is to provide targeted support to separately assessed public lavatories, recognising the particular circumstances they face, not to draw a distinction between those that charge and those that do not. Such a distinction would add complexity, uncertainty and an unnecessary administrative burden for local authorities and would increase the pressure on those facilities that are not able to access this support. I do not agree that those ratepayers that operate a public lavatory and charge a minimal fee for the first service should be excluded from this vital support.
I understand the practice of charging a fee is reducing, but those that charge do so on the basis of a commercial decision. In some cases, that fee may be charged to meet the ongoing costs of maintenance and cleaning, which is entirely reasonable. Nevertheless, I recognise the importance of knowing which facilities charge and what services they provide, so I welcome the work of the British Toilet Association, which provides an online service called the Great British Public Toilet Map, which has been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. This provides visitors with critical information about toilets in a specific area, including whether they are free to use, whether they are accessible and whether they have baby-changing facilities. Users can then make a decision in good knowledge and plan appropriately. I also commend the community toilet scheme, which was first devised by the London borough of Richmond upon Thames and is now used by local authorities across the country. This enables local businesses to work with councils to widen lavatory access so the public can use their facilities without making a purchase.
Amendment 10, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would limit the relief on the condition that the facilities should be open at set times and days as reasonably necessary. As I have outlined, our aim is to increase the support for the provision of public toilets, not to reduce the level of assistance for facilities that are most in need of support. I would not support the creation of a further burden on authorities to assess and police the opening and closing times of a toilet before awarding relief. The establishment of such a regime would be disproportionate to the value of the relief and would not represent good value for money to the taxpayer. As I have set out, the relief applies only to occupied facilities and is awarded only in these circumstances. While I understand the intention of the amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Greaves, in practice, they may, at best, be unhelpful and, at worst, unnecessarily increase pressure on toilets to close.
I hope that I have helped clarify the Government’s intention about how the measure would apply. With these assurances, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, can agree to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. We are identifying issues the Government should reflect on before this Bill comes back on Report.
The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, has not sought to challenge my general point from my earlier remarks, that the position of the Government, in resisting any amendment here today, is that we are creating burdens on local authorities that far outweigh the benefits. Yet, as I have said, I have looked and cannot find any organisation from local government—the LGA, the Welsh LGA, the District Councils’ Network, London Councils, the National Association of Local Councils—or, in fact, any local council or local authority in England or Wales that would support the Government’s position. If they actually asked them, I suspect there would be a lot of support from local authorities for increasing the benefits of support for their network of public toilets. I will leave that point there, and at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 4. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, after “lavatories” insert “of a prescribed description”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures the Government has power to require that the lavatories are provided and operated in accordance with national standards, making proper provision for the various needs of their potential clientele including the disabled, parents with children, women and trans people.
My Lords, I urge the Government to take the opportunity to give the Bill some wording that expands its ambit, and to take advantage of the leverage that it gives them—as the noble Lord has noted, it is a generous disbursement of funds—to achieve other policy objectives. The policy objective that I, personally, would like the Bill to support is whatever the outcome is of the Government’s current review of toilet provision in general.
It has been a joke all my life, let alone my noble friend’s life, how there is always a queue at the ladies and none at the gents. We have not had equal provision in relation to demand. We now need to recognise that there are people—particularly those who are committed transgender—who are not easily able to take advantage of toilets that are just for men or just for women. Having toilets that are universally unisex, such as those in the Old Vic and the Department for Education visitor accommodation, is extremely difficult for many women and some men, including me, to put up with.
There are, therefore, matters of policy relating to the provision of toilets that we can reasonably anticipate will come to the fore over the next couple of years. It would be good to give the Government, in this Bill, the ability to lever the rates relief that they are giving in order to achieve their policies. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, we may find that over time there will be opportunities to expand the Bill’s ambit to other worthwhile premises in ways which, as my noble friend insisted, go along with the modus operandi of the valuation office. That is fine, but we are missing a chance if we leave the Bill as it is and do not give the Government additional power along the lines that I have suggested. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is not clear to me why the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, believes that it is necessary to—I quote—prescribe a definition of public lavatories. It is not clear what policy objective would be achieved by his amendments. Without wishing to cause offence, that clarity has not been expanded during the noble Lord’s introduction of the amendment.
As we have already heard, there is currently a huge variety of provision: some are in old-style toilet blocks, some include Changing Places and some include baby changing facilities. Some modern provision consists of a single facility into which only one person at a time can enter. Some public toilets are unisex, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, explained. That is increasingly the case in modern office blocks. I have never heard anyone being particularly concerned about that provision. Public toilets are simply a facility for members of the public. I do not on earth see what is gained by prescribing a definition.
The best thing we can do, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, explain his amendments, is agree to disagree with him. I, for one, cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, Amendments 4 and 12 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, enable us to debate important issues. He seeks to ensure that lavatories that operate in accordance with national standards benefit from this relief.
The trade union Unison has campaigned on the issue of disability and the barriers that disabled people face when using a standard toilet. Many disabilities are hidden. The sign that we often see indicating disabled facilities is a person in a wheelchair, but fewer than 10% of people who meet the Equality Act definition of disability use a wheelchair. Signs that say “Some disabilities are invisible” have become more prevalent given the requirements of the pandemic restrictions. Crohn’s disease and colitis are two examples of conditions that may mean that a person has to use a disabled toilet facility while having no outward signs of disability.
As we move forward we need a greater understanding and respect for difference, and we must ensure that people are protected. These are not easy issues; if they were we would not be debating them today. What we also need is many more Changing Places toilets, which are a very important to cater for. We will get on to this later.
The comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, reminded me that all the toilets by the reception at Southwark Council are gender-neutral, individual toilets. They are there for public use. So things are certainly changing, but we must at all times have respect for difference and for people. As we move forward on these issues we must ensure we keep those thoughts to the forefront and provide the facilities that people need.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for his amendments, which would provide the Government with the power to limit this relief to only those toilets that meet prescribed criteria of their choosing. The underpinning nature of the amendments is the desire to see toilets for all, and I am very supportive of the need to have toilets for those who need disabled access, gender-neutral toilets and gender-specific toilets. As I set out to the House earlier, the Government do not intend to limit the measure within the Bill to only those toilets that meet certain criteria. Subject to Royal Assent, the Bill will support the provision of separately assessed toilets across the country. I therefore do not agree that it would be right to make any amendments which could limit the benefits of this measure.
Furthermore, limiting the relief to only those public lavatories that fit a prescribed description would place a significant burden on local authorities, which will be responsible for administering the relief. Well-intentioned though the amendment is, it would weaken the effectiveness of the legislation were we to require its provisions to be subject to a new, locally administered system of controls.
While I appreciate the arguments that my noble friend Lord Lucas made in support of the Government having the power to make this relief more specific, any benefits must be weighed against the consequential impact on local authorities of using such a power. Although I do not think that the Bill would be improved by these amendments, I appreciate the points that my noble friend makes about the standards of our public toilets.
The Government are interested not just in the total number of public toilets in this country but in ensuring that everyone in our communities feels confident and comfortable using them. This means maintaining hygiene standards and ensuring fair provision of accessible and gender-neutral toilets.
Noble Lords may therefore wish to note that the technical review of toilets launched by the Government will consider the ratio of female toilets needed versus the number for men and take into account the needs of all members of the community, to ensure fair provision of accessible and gender-neutral toilets. The call for evidence, which closes on Friday, has received over 15,000 responses; a government response will be published in due course. As part of this review, the merits of any best practice guidance on the provision of gender-neutral toilets will be considered, alongside any guidance on the necessary provision of access to disabled toilets. These considerations also include provisions for older people and parents with very young children who need changing facilities.
I hope this reassures my noble friend that the Government are supportive of not just the total number of public toilets but the vital importance of ensuring that appropriate facilities are available to all. On this basis—and the basis that the potential administrative burden resulting from these amendments would outweigh the benefits—I hope that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his obiter dicta on the Government’s general intentions in this area, which I applaud. I can see that he has clearly understood the intent of my amendment and disagrees with it. I therefore beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 5. Anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, after “zero”, insert “; and where, on a chargeable day, the hereditament consists partly of public lavatories, the chargeable amount for the chargeable day of the public lavatories shall be separately calculated and the chargeable amount for the chargeable day of the hereditament shall be reduced by the amount calculated in respect of those public lavatories.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would give rate relief to premises that consist partly of public lavatories according to the proportion of the premises occupied by those lavatories.
My Lords, Amendment 5 in my name provides for a relief where there is a public toilet in part of a premises by enabling it to be calculated and charged separately and benefit from the zero rating. It would provide welcome support for public lavatories, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, will embrace it.
Amendment 6, also in my name, seeks to provide rate relief to a premises with a Changing Places facility. We need to do much more to support Changing Places facilities; providing this relief would be a very positive way to do so. Changing Places facilities provide the necessary space and equipment for people with disabilities —more than a standard accessible toilet can cater for. I mentioned at Second Reading that the Tower of London, a Historic Royal Palace, has a Changing Places facility installed. Noble Lords will know that that building’s construction dates from 1066, after the Norman conquest. The facility is in the New Armouries building, which was built in 1663. It has installed a Changing Places facility; we should follow its example and do the same elsewhere.
When lockdown ends, we want people to be able to get out, meet family and friends and do all the things we have all longed to do for so long. However, for disabled people wanting to enjoy those things that we often take for granted, we need to ensure more adequate, better and more suitable provision. It is not a lot to ask for. It is about dignity and letting people have the freedom to enjoy themselves. Supporting Changing Places facilities is a very welcome thing that we should all do. My Amendment 6 is a small step to encourage the provision of more Changing Places facilities. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, can provide a positive response. I beg to move.
My Lords, the formula proposed by this group of amendments raises an interesting practical question. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said on Amendment 6 about the desire to provide for Changing Places facilities where required, but my interest is in a more practical question: whether what is proposed here works with the normal principles of rating and valuation law.
I understand that it is proposed to extend the relief to the more usual situation where there is a public lavatory, or perhaps more than one, within a larger building which is not accessible from outside—the situation contemplated by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in Amendment 9, which we considered earlier. This being so, these amendments correctly assume that a value has been given to the building as a whole; they seek to extract from that value the amount attributable to the public lavatory or lavatories by asking for it or them to be valued separately and the value given to the building as a whole reduced accordingly. As I said earlier, I am not and never was a valuer, but I fear that the exercise that the amendment contemplates is not nearly as simple as it might seem. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, touched on this earlier.
The problem is one that a valuer would readily identify. First, it is not normal for individual elements in a building, such as public lavatories, to be given values in the course of making up the value for the hereditament as a whole, so a valuation exercise would have to be undertaken which is not normally—indeed, probably never has been—undertaken in the course of the valuations we have today. There is also a consequence for the other part of the building that does not consist of these lavatories—the effect of extracting the value and whether the value attributable to the remainder can be properly sustained without some kind of examination. I suspect that this approach runs into quite difficult valuation problems which a valuer would need to explore with the Minister to see whether they could be resolved.
There may be an alternative solution. I mentioned earlier the example of charitable relief; this time I will take another. Rather than engaging in the rather difficult exercise I have hinted at, it might be worth considering applying a derating formula across the board to all hereditaments comprising public lavatories. There is precedent for that approach in a statute introduced in the 1920s to provide relief for industrial hereditaments. These were hereditaments that were shown to be occupied and used as a mine, factory or workshop. The details are to be found in the Rating and Valuation (Apportionment) Act 1928. Hereditaments which met the tests for being treated as subjects of that kind were entitled to a reduction of half their annual value. The aim was to deal with the acute problems of unemployment and to stimulate the economy by encouraging the development of subjects for industrial use. Of course, an enormous problem was being addressed there that was shared across the economy as a whole, and one can well understand the measure and the extent of the relief that derating provided. I should mention that that statute was repealed some years ago so does not apply today.
A 50% reduction would be out of all proportion to what we are talking about when considering the public lavatories element in the overall hereditament, but that does not affect the principle on which the relief was given in these cases: that it is possible, without getting embroiled in detailed valuation exercises, simply to introduce a form of derating for a desirable purpose to encourage whatever one seeks to encourage. If the Minister is not willing to accept these amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, might find it worth considering a 1% or 2% deduction from the overall figure, perhaps adjustable by statutory instrument in the light of experience, as an alternative to the rather complicated valuation exercises that this group of amendments contemplates.
My Lords, I am attracted to the idea that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, has just advanced. After Second Reading, I had a very long and entertaining conversation with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, on the technical subject of valuation. Some of it may have stuck in my brain, but the overall impression that this was not a simple matter certainly stuck there—in particular, the idea that the uplift in rateable value that comes from having a toilet can be quite substantial. It makes, for instance, the upper floors of a department store much more attractive than one might think. So there are considerable complications underlying the process, and if a toilet was subtracted from the whole, the question of how that whole would be valued fairly—when a toilet is available but it is not being rated—becomes quite complicated. At least, that is the strong impression that I was left with after my conversation.
Having embarked on this course, the Government ought to be encouraged to continue down it. We ought to find a way to encourage those institutions that could comfortably provide public toilet facilities, and have their own reasons for doing so, in particular to encourage people to come into them or as part of their contribution to the society that they are embedded in. If a business is doing that, it seems reasonable that it should receive some recognition of it from the Government. It is providing a public service and we ought to find a way of supporting that.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, illustrated one way of doing it. I think even that would have its complications, in that one would have to ask, “Is the business doing enough to deserve the 1% or 2% that would be deducted from its business rates?” However, I really encourage the Government to look down that road and prepare to take steps down it, even if they cannot do so today.
My Lords, these amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, explore the opportunities for public toilets within a public building that are not separately rated, so that they may benefit from the purposes of the Bill. In particular, Amendment 6 seeks to achieve the benefits of the Bill for those facilities providing changing places. These are inevitably included within public buildings, where there is the large amount of space available to provide changing places.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has shared his expertise on these matters. He provides alternative thinking about derating hereditaments that provide public toilet facilities. The principle is sound; we all seek today to find ways of supporting public toilets through the financial benefit provided by the Bill, and not just those which are stand-alone. I hope that the Minister will, with his department, think carefully about the solution that the noble and learned Lord is pointing to. I certainly hope that we will be able to explore it on Report.
I for one support any means for exempting non-domestic rates where there is a public benefit. This debate has revealed the total incoherence of non-domestic rating. For example, in my own town of Cleckheaton the public toilets we have as part of our small market hall are separately rated and cost the council £15,000 a year in rates. These are no grand-affair public toilets; they are just two toilets, one for men and one for women. The cost of the rates is by far the largest element of expenditure on the upkeep of these toilets, yet they provide a free public benefit. The rate charged on this humble public toilet block is far in excess, in ratio terms, of that charged on an out-of-town warehouse providing storage for online shopping. This is all out of kilter.
Fundamental reform is essential and the Government have for too long avoided taking these difficult decisions. I hope that the Minister will consider all the helpful suggestions made this afternoon and be willing to think again about the contents of the Bill. I look forward to his reply today, and to further discussions and further debate on Report.
My Lords, I appreciate the backing that the Committee has given to the measures in the Bill and recognise the arguments made in support of extending the relief further still. The first amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would provide for relief to be given to properties which contain public toilets that are not separately assessed, and for that relief to be determined according to the proportion of that property occupied by the public toilet. The second would have the same effect, but separately for properties which contain Changing Places facilities.
In designing the scope of the Bill, the Government have given due consideration to the benefits to our communities of extending the relief to those toilets that are not currently separately assessed. However, these benefits must be weighed against the significant practical and financial implications of implementing such a relief. I hope that my colleagues present today have received a copy of the letter of 2 February setting out these implications in detail—actually, I think most noble Lords today have referred to it. For the benefit of the Committee, I will set them out again now.
The Government have taken the deliberate approach of targeting the measure within the Bill at supporting those toilets that appear separately on business rates lists. This means that this support will be available to those facilities for which the cost of business rates has the largest bearing on their ability to remain open. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would require the separate assessment of the rateable value of public toilets that sit within larger properties, and for the awarding of a business rates discount relative to the proportion of the property that the toilet occupies.
A valuation exercise to provide an apportioned relief would be extensive and require the Valuation Office Agency to first identify where the facilities are, and then to assess the specific rateable value of each toilet relative to the property of which it forms a part. This exercise would carry significant financial and temporal costs, as pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. It would require business rates valuers to carry out assessments and, where needed, to make site visits up and down the country. As such, it would divert critical VOA resources from the priority of delivering the 2023 revaluation and could potentially delay the implementation of the core measure of the Bill before the Committee today.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, mentioned a formula-based approach to derating. This would also result in considerable burdens, for example by requiring the VOA to identify the location of the public toilets. Obviously, the scale of the intervention is different from that for mines in the 1928 Act, but I am happy to discuss that technical approach with my officials between now and Report.
I am proud to be here today championing a measure that will be of great value to our communities. While I recognise the importance of all publicly accessible toilets, the cost of extending this relief according to the amendment would be significant—far greater than the financial benefit to operators of such facilities. I hope that the Committee will agree that a relief with implementation costs disproportionate to its financial benefits would not represent good value for money for taxpayers.
Although extending relief to toilets that form part of larger properties would undoubtedly bring about significant and disproportionate costs and practical difficulties, I appreciate that the second amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, concerns Changing Places toilets in particular. I therefore hope that the Committee will allow me to set out the steps that the Government have already taken to support these vital facilities.
I am proud to belong to a Government who are delivering on their commitment to provide more Changing Places toilets. At the last Budget, the Chancellor announced a £30 million fund to further extend the provision of these vital facilities and my department will shortly set out the allocation of this funding. I would be happy to provide my colleagues in the House with further details on this funding once they are available.
The funding comes on top of the £2 million announced by the Department for Transport to provide Changing Places toilets at motorway services and the £2 million made available by the Department of Health and Social Care to install these facilities in NHS hospitals across England. I hope that that reassures the Committee that where a Changing Places toilet is separately assessed, the measures in the Bill, subject to Royal Assent, act to reduce the business rates liability of these facilities to nil. While there are significant practical reasons why the Bill does not cover toilets—Changing Places or otherwise—within larger buildings, the Government are delivering on their commitment to supporting Changing Places toilets directly through grant funding.
I hope that with those assurances, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I was particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for his explanation of what would appear to be a far simpler method of achieving what I am seeking to do. I might have a look at that before Report as it seems to be a simpler method.
I thank the Minister for his response. Obviously, I am pleased to learn of the additional government expenditure on Changing Places facilities. It is good to hear but we need to do more and go further. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 8. Anyone wishing to press this to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
8: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
“(8E) Subsection (4I) does not provide any relief from non-domestic rates under the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that rates continue to be charged on public lavatories that are permanently locked up and out of use.
My Lords, the Deputy Chairman really ought not to continue tempting me to call a Division but, never mind, I am not going to.
I tried to do some research. In May this year, it will be 50 years since I was first elected to a local authority and I thought that I knew about things such as business rates and so on. I have discovered in the past week or two that I do not know much at all. They are complicated and technical. I thought that I would ring up the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and have a conversation with him but I have been advised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, not to do that because I might get too far into this subject.
As part and parcel of this matter, I have been looking at the Government’s rating manual, the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the regulations that are referred to in Clause 2, and discovered why no amendments have been tabled to that clause because I doubt any noble Lords who might want to table amendments to it would understand a word of it. However, I thought it necessary to table an amendment on empty properties.
The amendment is technically totally hopeless—I am certain about that—but it contains the words “empty properties”. All I want to do is use it to ask the Government: can they give a guarantee that the Bill will not allow people to pay no rates on public lavatories that they have closed? I am aware that local authorities all over the country nowadays charge rates on all kinds of empty properties, which used not to be possible. I do not want people to be able to close public lavatories and still have rate relief on them as a result of the Bill; in other words, I am asking that the Bill should not trump other legislation that allows local authorities to continue to rate empty property, and that people will not be able get away with that. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves’ Amendment 8 rightly explores the possibility of closed public toilets being eligible for the relief under the Bill. As those toilets provide no relief for the public, it is quite proper that no relief is provided for the authority paying the rates. It is clearly an issue that we need to explore, and be certain that the legislation ensures that authorities do not benefit from closing public toilets. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raises an important point and I hope that the Minister will able to provide some clarity on it. The amendment, on the face of it, highlights what would be an incentive to keep a public lavatory open. I look forward to the Minister’s response because, from what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, it would be perverse if, by closing a public lavatory, one would be eligible for rate relief. I am sure that that is not the Bill’s intention but it is important to get clarity from the Government on the issue that the noble Lord rightly raised.
My Lords, I am happy to give that clarification. I understand the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his amendment and support what he is trying to achieve. However, let me set out why it is unnecessary. His aim is to ensure that the relief cannot be applied in circumstances where a public toilet is permanently closed and out of use. I can assure the noble Lord that this is the Government’s intention. The Bill is therefore structured to reflect that aim. The Bill will amend only Section 43 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which relates only to occupied hereditaments. The Bill would therefore ensure that the relief would apply only to eligible occupied hereditaments, not to unoccupied public lavatories. As usual, local authorities will be responsible for determining the award of relief, having regard to the legislation, as they do with other relief schemes.
I hope that that clarification on how the measure would apply will help the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I will read carefully the Minister’s reply—and go one more step towards being able to pass my GCSE in business rating. I accept his assurance that what he said will be the case. As on all these occasions, if it happens not to be the case, we will come back and harass him in the House. However, his reply was acceptable; I will read it carefully and attempt to understand it.
Do I take it that the noble Lord wishes to withdraw his amendment?
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 11. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
11: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Assessment of the impact of Act on provision of public lavatories
The Secretary of State must within one year of the passing of this Act conduct and publish an assessment of the impact of this Act on the provision of public lavatories.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require the Government to publish a report on the impact of the Act on provision of public lavatories.
My Lords, the amendment in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, seeks to insert a new clause that would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the impact of the Act. The Bill, though small, provides for significant rate relief for public toilets as they become zero-rated. In those circumstances, the Government would surely want to see what the effect of the policy has been. The proposed new clause would bring that into effect.
I am happy to support Amendment 13 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, which goes well with my amendment, by giving us information, year on year, about the effect that the policy is having, given that it will be costing the public purse revenue of which it would otherwise be in receipt. If we found that public toilets were still closing, that would be useful information to help us consider how we keep them open and whether something else needs to be done.
Amendment 14 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thomas of Winchester, is on a similar theme to Amendments 11 and 13, but has an important emphasis on the review to look at the effectiveness of the Act in increasing accessible toilets and, in particular, Changing Places facilities, which we have talked about in earlier groups. I can see how beneficial it would be for the Government to have this information to hand. It would enable them to see that the Act was working effectively or highlight that more work needed to be done.
Amendment 15 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Pinnock, is in a similar place. It picks up on the point and gives power to make a recommendation whether other measures in this area need to be introduced.
I like all the amendments in this group. Perhaps all those who tabled them should get together before Report to table one amendment that takes all these points on board.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked me to speak to Amendment 13 in her name. We very much share the sentiments just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. We all support this Bill and want to see it succeed. We want it as a foundation on which a renaissance in publicly available toilet facilities can proceed down the next decade or so. To know that we are succeeding or to know where any problems or challenges lie, we need good data. We therefore hope that the Government will accept an obligation to publish that information so that we can cheer them for their successes and encourage them to do better where that appears to be needed. It took around 50 years to persuade Victorian authorities to install public lavatories, let alone to agree funding and rates for them. With luck, because of this legislation, we will see increased provision at a much quicker rate. This amendment would let us keep track of progress and would be an essential expression of Parliament’s support for this measure.
My Lords, I so agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, just said. I support Amendment 11, but am speaking to Amendment 14, which follows Amendment 11 in this group, calling on the Government to undertake a review of the impact of the Act on the provision of accessible lavatories within a year of its passing.
There are three reasons why we need to know whether the change in rating for stand-alone public loos is resulting in more accessible facilities. First, the population is getting older, so there will be more disabled and elderly people about in the future than there are now, which means that the need for accessible toilets will grow. Secondly, sadly, there will not be so many food outlets on the high street which have accessible toilets for use by the general public, because of multiple closures in the wake of the pandemic. Thirdly, thousands of disabled people, like me, have spent the last year shielding, which means that they will not have been out and about. Many will now be more fearful than ever about going out without knowing where they can spend a penny in an accessible toilet. The Minister may say that any review should be done by local authorities, but we will not have a national picture unless the Government take ownership of it. Perhaps the British Toilet Association could help with up-to-date information.
I asked the Minister, at a meeting to which he kindly agreed, whether he could tell us how the £30 million rollout of Changing Places was going. These wonderful facilities are absolutely vital to about 250,000 disabled people. They are needed in town centres, arts venues, hospitals and wherever there are large gatherings of people. We have heard a bit about them this afternoon. Perhaps the Minister will undertake to give us more specific information at the next stage of the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, and to support what she said. I am speaking in support of Amendment 11 and particularly to Amendment 13. I am conscious that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, is not able to be in her place today, because we all know what a superb advocate she is for all these matters. I am happy to support these amendments, because they are significant.
Amendment 13 makes clear what everybody who supports the Bill already knows: that we want to ensure that it works; that it is seen to be working; and that the evidence is collected and available for us to see. There is a matter of principle here: that public policy changes should be seen to be effective, especially when public money is involved; that when local funds are dedicated to a particular purpose, they are used for that purpose; and that there is transparency and agency in local and national government.
There is also a practical issue here. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, we have waited a long time for practical and universal initiatives to be taken to stop the closure of public lavatories and to place them in their proper context, which is within a robust and vigilant policy for local health and safety, rather than in some afterthought where no one is really interested in what happens to them.
As I said on Second Reading, the Bill is very welcome, but it would be a major disappointment if the funding that is going to be generated is not used for that purpose. We have to know the impact of the Bill, that it works and that it has achieved its purpose, and we need the evidence to be published. As other noble Lords have said, it is all the more crucial that we know this, because the measures will be introduced at a time when local authorities have never been more strapped, and it has never been more difficult to decide on priorities. We need to know that this small change will take its place in the range of priorities.
Local government needs financial and political investment to repair the damage and help to rebuild communities. I think that the Bill is part of that and part of the fabric of our whole public health and preventive health system, for the personal reasons that many noble Lords have raised today, and as part of a series of principles. I support these amendments and look forward to the Minister’s response. I cannot see any possible reason for rejecting them and I hope I am right in that respect.
My Lords, all the amendments in this group are designed to ensure that the Bill is not the end of the matter, and that the Government are forced to confront the appalling and declining state of public conveniences in Britain. The Bill will not start to tackle the many problems. The Explanatory Memorandum tells us that it will involve redistributing £6 million back to local authorities in England. There are 343 local authorities in England—of course, I realise that there is some double counting because of two-tier areas—but this number does not include parish councils. There are 9,000 of those, many of which go on to take responsibility for public toilets. The Committee can immediately see from those figures that £6 million will not go far; it will be swallowed up in the general budget of local authorities, which are chronically short of cash.
My own Amendment 15 is designed to ensure that, in good time, the Government are obliged to undertake a comprehensive review of public toilet provision. Are there enough of them and are they clean, well designed, well maintained and so on? As a result of this review, the Government should bring forward further measures. I realise that they are already undertaking a technical review of the accessibility and provision of public toilets for men and women. My intention with Amendment 15 is to ensure that the review is expanded and that a year after the Bill becomes an Act it is looked at to assess its effectiveness, if any.
In my amendment, I use “communities” to apply an all-encompassing term, because when one comes to the groups that have greater and specific needs, it is a long list. The issues for people with disabilities and, where relevant, their carers have already been covered very effectively by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. When I was a Mencap ambassador for Changing Places toilets, I was always struck by the poor design of many toilets intended for people with disabilities. The money had been spent and the provision was there, but the design was poor, so the Changing Places toilets are a huge bonus.
Parents with children—men and women—need special facilities. It is not just a case of needing unisex baby-changing facilities: as children get older, there is a need for cubicles large enough for both parents and children. Why do the cubicle doors always open inwards, when they could provide so much more room if they opened outwards? Some 14 million people in the UK have bowel and bladder problems, and they need catering for. Adequate numbers of cubicles for women are needed. They have physiological reasons for taking roughly twice as long as men to use the toilet; add to that pregnancy and menstruation, and you have additional needs. I have spent a noticeable amount of my life queueing for toilets, as I am sure any female listeners would agree.
Facilities need to take account of societal and community circumstances. There is a trend towards the conversion of cubicles to gender-neutral provision. Gender-neutral facilities are important for a number of reasons, including, for example, when fathers wish to take young daughters to the toilet and when mothers wish to take young boys to one. But, for religious and cultural reasons, many women are simply unable to use unisex toilets. Additional gender-neutral facilities should not be provided at the expense of current facilities for men and women. They are needed, but not at the cost of what we already have.
Throughout this debate, the Minister has repeatedly referred to costs. I fear that he is missing the point entirely. He will not get a major improvement without some expenditure. I urge him and his officials to investigate what is really going on and what is needed, and to consult, for example, the British Toilet Association, which advises on the design and operation of public toilets. Its advice ensures that money is well spent. The Explanatory Memorandum refers to compatibility with human rights; I would argue that public toilet provision in the UK is so poor that it is a human rights issue, and of itself the Bill will not affect that situation.
While I am here, I also urge the Government to look again at the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963. It required local authorities to remove turnstiles from public toilets. Only railways, for no good reason, are exempt from this legislation. Any noble Lords who have tried using toilets in railway stations will recognise the huge problems that causes for passengers with luggage, children or a buggy.
I urge the Government to be bold. Governments have failed to stem the decline in the numbers and quality of public toilets since the 1980s. They have failed to address the traditionally inadequate provision for women and the lack of facilities for people with disabilities. The last year has made us even more aware of the importance of cleanliness. At Second Reading I referred to the impact of sudden unlocking early last summer, when people travelled to the coast but shops and cafés with toilets were still shut. A hygiene crisis spoiled the day out for thousands of people.
I urge the Government to recognise that the Bill on its own solves nothing. They need to take this situation forward to a better place. In 2021, the availability of clean public toilets is a reasonable expectation for us all. As we recover as a country from Covid, we need to encourage our tourism industry. The state of our public conveniences is a source of national shame. For this reason, if for nothing else, the Government need to do more than just this Bill.
My Lords, I support these important amendments, and I ask the Government particularly to pay attention to the three powerful speeches we have just heard from my noble friends Lady Thomas of Winchester and Lady Randerson and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. Those three speeches sum up what the future really ought to be for public provision in this area. When the Government say they are carrying out a technical review, I am afraid that I am a bit cynical about the word “technical” in this respect. I am sure that their intentions are good, but it is more than just technical. It is about basic humanity and a basic provision of human-based services for all people. As I say, I hope that the Government will take this seriously.
To pick up on two or three particular points, parish and town councils are absolutely crucial in the future provision of public lavatories. Although they do not cover anything like a majority of electors in this country, they do cover a huge number of small and medium-sized communities. These are places that people go to, or through, and where people go for holidays and recreation. It is crucial that they are provided with the necessary resources to do what we all want to do, which is, in many places, to turn old inadequate Victorian and Edwardian public conveniences into modern provisions of the kind that people have been talking about which are suitable for everybody.
To do that, they need resources. I keep being told, and the National Association of Local Councils have been told, by the Government that they have no powers to provide funding for parish councils. That was almost the exact wording that I was given in a Written Answer from the Minister, not too long ago. I do not believe that; I think it is complete baloney. The Government can provide funding for projects on almost anything they want. They could certainly provide capital funding through some scheme or other for parish and town councils to renovate and modernise their existing public conveniences and provide new lavatories. I hope that the Government look seriously at that in their technical review because, if they are going to be provided, in many places the town and parish councils will have to do it.
Secondly, I asked a question earlier and the Minister did not reply, on whether the Bill applies to all kinds of ownership—public bodies including councils, voluntary groups including charities and commercial organisations, some of which may be charities. He said separately, in reply on another amendment, that the Bill applies specifically to lavatories that appear on business rate lists. Is that the definition? Does it therefore apply to any public lavatories that appear on business rate lists, whoever owns them, even if it does not apply to lots that are publicly provided?
My final point is on burdens to councils. As the Minister well knows, councils love to talk about, involve themselves in and do something about very local facilities. I understand the difficulties of providing extra burdens on the VOA, particularly at this stage, but I believe that, in a relatively small number of cases, public lavatories could be provided with the relief in this Bill by giving some discretion to local authorities, in some way. I do not believe that local authorities would regard that as a great burden, but as part of their ordinary job. We are not talking about a lot. I have a list of eight public lavatories that are on the business rates list in my own area of Pendle in Lancashire—only eight. The numbers that might benefit from the Bill, if it was extended a little, are not more than that. We are talking about single figures in most local authorities, certainly most ordinary districts. They could cope with that perfectly well and would not complain about the extra burden; they would welcome the ability to influence things a little for the better.
Having said that, I very much support these amendments and look forward to the Minister’s reply. I hope that we see a few improvements to the Bill from the Government, when we get to Report, to make it even better than it is now.
My Lords, this is an important series of amendments. My noble friend Lady Thomas knows, at first hand, the challenges facing people with disabilities as they seek to do what the rest of us take for granted. Before people with disabilities venture out, questions have to be answered. Is there an accessible public toilet? Is its accessibility such that it meets the needs of, say, those using larger mobility aids? Is it open at the appropriate times? How easy is it to access? Negative answers to these questions may well mean that someone with a disability is unable to go on a trip or holiday, or simply shopping.
My noble friend’s Amendment 14 is hugely important and I am proud that it is also in my name. I urge the Minister to take these concerns seriously, as I feel sure he will, and to press his ministerial colleagues to make them a priority. During this lockdown, we have all had the experience of not being able just to go out, when we want to. For people with disabilities, this can happen all the time. Ensuring there are accessible and available public toilets goes some way to remove one of their barriers to freedom.
My noble friend Lady Randerson spoke to Amendment 15, which is also in my name. My noble friend has had a long connection with those who rightly want to make the accessibility, cleanliness and availability of public toilets a national priority. As always, she made a powerful case. The least that the Government can do is to accede to the requests couched in these amendments and make the provision of public toilets that meet high standards one of their priorities. This is a public health issue, and we have all learned that we ignore the consequences of public health requirements at our peril.
Amendments 11 and 13, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, also make the case for assessing the impact of the Bill when it is enacted. In my view, assessment of the impact of new legislation should occur as a matter of course—it is surprising that it does not already—but it is important that an assessment of the Bill’s impact is made and that we learn from what has occurred as a consequence.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that all the amendments in this group are important and deserve to form part of a single amendment on Report, if the Minister is unable to concede to these requests at this stage. I look forward to hearing his response and hope that he is able to have discussions prior to Report, because it is in all our interests to make best use of the Bill, to make sure that the financial benefit it offers is available to others who offer public toilets and that we raise the standards of public toilets throughout the country.
My Lords, these amendments would require the Government to carry out an assessment of the impact of the relief on the provision of public toilets. The first, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would require an assessment to be made within a year of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, while the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, would require an assessment of the impact to be published on a recurring, annual basis. The amendment tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Pinnock, would require an assessment to be made with particular reference to accessible toilets and Changing Places facilities. The fourth amendment, which has been tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Pinnock, would require such an assessment to review the impact of the relief on the cleanliness and maintenance of public toilets and the provision of baby changing facilities, in addition to the impact on the overall provision of public lavatories.
I appreciate the interest that noble Lords have in the efficacy of the measure within the Bill and assure the House that the Government keep all business rate reliefs under review. I also want to meet with interested noble Lords and the British Toilet Association before Report to see how we can review implementation of this relief. That is an important step and, I hope, will be an opportunity to discuss some of the issues that have been raised.
Before I turn to the detail of the amendments, I will respond to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that I failed to answer earlier. I can confirm that the relief for all separately assessed toilets applies irrespective of ownership. I want to be clear on that point.
On the provision of public lavatories, the Committee may be interested in the data that is already published annually, to which I have already referred. There are some 3,990 separately assessed public toilets in England and Wales, and this figure is constantly updated and monitored. We do not want to see reductions, and it is clear that by significantly reducing the operating costs of these facilities, the measures in the Bill will help to keep public toilets open up and down the country.
While these measures constitute a significant element of support for these facilities, a number of other factors determine whether a toilet is able to remain open. Ultimately, the decisions on whether to maintain or close a facility must be made by the operator of the facility, often the local council. These decisions will usually be based on wider funding pressures, as well as the number of toilets elsewhere in the local area.
The Government strongly support the continued operation of our public toilets. As I set out earlier, we are providing £30 million of grant funding to directly support the provision of Changing Places toilets in particular. I also set out at Second Reading some of the good work that councils have undertaken through community toilet schemes to maintain and increase provision in their local areas. However, it is clear that there are a number of factors that determine whether a toilet is able to stay open, and it would not be possible to attribute any future changes in the overall provision of public lavatories, or facilities of any specific type, solely to the measures in this Bill. Equally, I do not envisage any direct link between business rates relief and the maintenance and cleanliness of existing public toilets. For this reason, and because the number of separately assessed public toilets is already published on an annual basis, I hope that noble Lords will agree that any assessment of the kind proposed would be unnecessary and an ineffective use of government resources.
However, I welcome the fact that the Bill has shone a light on the interest from across the Committee in our public toilets, and I recognise the passion with which my colleagues have spoken of the need for adequate provision of accessible toilets in particular. I hope that the Committee will therefore allow me to conclude by reiterating the support of the Government for these vital facilities.
A number of noble Lords spoke about the importance of accessible toilets. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, again raised the issue of Changing Places toilets and the disbursement of the £30 million of funds. I am happy to give further details on the progress of that, I hope before Report. It is important to many people in the country that we ensure that the absence of accessible toilets is reduced, because lack of accessible toilets reduces the ability of people with a disability to make use of our public spaces with confidence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised the important question of design and doors opening inwards, thereby reducing space. That is a good point, and everyone here nodded in agreement with that sentiment. So I am pleased to let the Committee know that a technical review is looking at the ergonomics and features of toilets and will I hope take some of these points on board. We hope to see an improvement in design in the future.
While the Bill is important, the provision of public toilets is rooted in a number of factors, and in the particular case of accessible toilets, the Government are providing direct grant funding. On this basis, and as the number of separately assessed public toilets is already published on an annual basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I agree with the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Greaves, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas of Winchester and Lady Randerson, and my noble friend Lady Andrews. The decline in the provision of public lavatories is a matter of great concern. The adequate provision of toilets is a public health matter, as my noble friend Lady Andrews said in this debate.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that many accessible toilets are poorly designed, despite considerable sums of money having been spent on them. I also agree with her that the need to provide more toilets for women and for men, and more gender-neutral toilets, as well as accessible and Changing Places toilets, is of paramount importance. As I have said, it is about understanding needs, the lack of provision of toilets for women, and ensuring respect for difference, along with the provision of facilities that are clean, safe and secure, and which people feel are safe to use.
The Bill does not address these issues because of its narrow scope, but I am sure we all agree that those are important matters. They are relevant issues that need to be addressed. I was very pleased by the offer of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, to meet interested Peers between now and Report, along with representatives of the British Toilet Association, and I look forward to taking part. However, at this stage I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Amendments 12 to 15 not moved.
Clauses 3 and 4 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
House adjourned at 10.17 pm.
(6 months ago)Commons Chamber
Considered in Committee
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
I should explain that, in these exceptional circumstances, although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk at the Table’s chair during Committee stage, in order to comply with social distancing requirements, I will remain in the Speaker’s chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker but of Chairman of the Committee. We should be addressed as Chairs of the Committee, rather than as Deputy Speakers.
Relief from non-domestic rates for public lavatories
I beg to move amendment 1, line 6, after “day,” insert
“the hereditament is a publicly-owned library or community centre or a local authority property that is free of charge to enter and contains a public lavatory that is free of charge for anyone to use, or”.
This amendment would extend the rate relief to publicly-owned libraries and community centres, and local authority properties, which are free to enter and which contain public lavatories that are free to use.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 1, line 7, after “lavatories”, insert
“which are free of charge for anyone to use”.
This amendment would confine the rate relief to public lavatories that are free of charge to use.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, after “zero”, insert
“; and where, on a chargeable day, the hereditament consists partly of public lavatories, the chargeable amount for the chargeable day of the public lavatories shall be separately calculated and the chargeable amount for the chargeable day of the hereditament shall be reduced by the amount calculated in respect of those public lavatories.”This amendment would give rate relief to premises that consist partly of public lavatories according to the proportion of the premises occupied by those lavatories.
Clause stand part.
Clauses 2 to 4 stand part.
New clause 1—Assessment of the impact of Act on provision of public lavatories—
“The Secretary of State must within one year of Royal Assent conduct and publish an assessment of the impact of this Act on the provision of public lavatories.”
This new clause would require the Government to publish a report on the impact of the Act on provision of public lavatories.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for seeing the Bill through Second Reading with such enthusiasm, and I thank the Clerk of Bills, whose support has been, and continues to be, invaluable.
Public loos have been an integral part of our local communities for more than 150 years, in green spaces and on high streets and thoroughfares. In 1851, London’s Hyde Park welcomed more than three quarters of a million people to the Great Exhibition. The park gave organisers the space to absorb the vast numbers, but visitors presented a public health challenge, and so, in Victorian England, public conveniences as we know them were born. Several years later, in 1858, the man charged with supplying the loos at the Great Exhibition, George Jennings, wrote to the commissioner of sewers offering to set up public conveniences across the City of London.
Back then, conveniences were the preserve of men, but thankfully we have come a long way since then. However, anyone who has ever needed a toilet in public will know that public conveniences are no longer convenient, since there are simply not enough of them. The role of public loos in improving hygiene and health is more important now than ever, given the importance of maintaining high hygiene standards and access to appropriate toilet and hand-washing facilities in keeping covid-19 at bay.
Everyone needs to use the loo, which is a human right under the United Nations sustainable development goals. Women and girls in particular need somewhere to change their sanitary products; people with certain disabilities require accessible toilets, or more frequent use; while parents need to change young children. People who work outside, and homeless people who are now being turfed out of emergency accommodation and back on to the streets, also need somewhere to use the loo. Not only is the lack of loos a public health crisis waiting to happen, but the lack of loos on our high streets, in green spaces and elsewhere is a deterrent to participating in public life for those of us who want to visit our cities, towns and attractions. Some call this a “urinary leash”, with people not feeling comfortable leaving their homes at the thought of being caught wanting in public and with no access to a loo.
Of course, closing public loos has not stopped people needing them; it has just created additional barriers to access for those who need them most. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, the treatment of natural bodily functions as something altogether taboo has proved the touchpaper for ignoring public loos for what they really are—a vital public health resource. The lack of attention paid to public toilets, if you will indulge me, Dame Rosie, is quite frankly potty.
As a constructive Opposition, we on these Benches broadly support the Bill, as we have consistently made clear, since it helps address some of the problems in financing the upkeep of public lavatories. We will not stand in its way or push the amendments to a vote.
However, in many respects the Bill is no more about loos than it is about local government funding—or the lack of it: the fact that it has been brought before the House is a reflection of the need to prop up council finances. After a decade of austerity, councils simply do not have the cash to run public loos, which are estimated to cost between £15,000 and £60,000 each year just to maintain.
Since 2010, public loos have closed at an alarming rate, with over 700 council-run loos closing in the following eight years. Although I appreciate that the Bill came before the House prior to the pandemic, it is curious that the Government have not extended its reach at a time when they are encouraging everyone to get out more. There is nothing in the Bill that would help struggling councils restore or provide additional cleaning and staffing during this crisis, nor does the Bill redress the longer-term damage that the lack of public toilet provision has done over the past decade.
I now move beyond the narrow focus of the Bill; I have already placed my concerns on the record. Although the Bill is important, it is curious that this matter has been prioritised rather than other urgent needs. The renter’s rights Bill promised in the Queen’s Speech is just one example of legislation that the Government could and should have brought forward. Now that we are here, however, I share the ambition of Members on the Conservative Benches to widen access to public lavatories, and I appreciate that the Bill intends to do that. Given that it is before us, we have tabled three amendments and a new clause, which have been grouped. I hope they are taken in the constructive manner intended.
First, I would like to see the Bill extended to provide relief to publicly owned libraries and community centres as well as local authority town halls, which are free for anyone to enter and contain public lavatories that are free for anyone to use. Widening access should be our overriding priority. As the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), the Minister for rough sleeping and housing, made clear on Second Reading, we must support facilities that exist where there are unlikely to be other publicly available toilets or where removing additional costs of business rates could make a real difference to their ability to stay open. That is why I have introduced one of my amendments.
Community centres, libraries and town halls are often conveniently located at the heart of our communities. In my constituency of Blackburn, there are eight community centres, four libraries and three town halls, which cost the council about £400,000 over the course of a financial year. If each of those premises provided a public lavatory, up to an additional 15 loos would be available to the public. The point is that we do not have to build new loos to widen access; we just have to make existing loos more accessible.
Secondly, in return for providing a free-to-use public convenience, each library, community centre and town hall should be eligible for relief equivalent to the rateable value of their public toilets. That would ease the crippling burden on councils, and that money could be better spent on services our communities desperately need. The money saved could pay towards an additional refuse collector or social worker; it could support a food bank or a family fleeing domestic violence.
Thirdly, we want to do away with a fee to pee. Stand- alone public loos that charge a fee should not be eligible for rate relief; that is not a good way of spending taxpayers’ money. Instead, we propose that owners of fee-charging loos are afforded this choice: either receive relief or continue to charge. They should not be able to do both.
Fee-charging toilets are often privately owned, and fee-charging private toilet facilities in shops, cafés, bars and restaurants have to some degree filled the gap in provision over the past 10 years. The pandemic, however, has exposed the gaping hole in free-to-use public toilets, because a large number of premises with toilet facilities have closed their doors, and people now simply do not carry cash, as shops insist on card payments.
Fourthly, we believe that the Government should publish a report about the impact of the Bill on provision of public lavatories. Throughout the Bill’s passage, it has become apparent that we simply do not have accurate and timely data on how many public loos there are, where they are and how accessible they are; whether they meet the specific needs of parents with young children, people with relevant illnesses or disabilities, women and girls and older people; whether they charge, and who is responsible for maintaining them. It is outside the scope of the Bill and therefore not formally tabled, but we have also asked the Government to consider carrying out an equality impact assessment to assess the decline of public loos.
To summarise, the Bill does provide some relief, so the Opposition will be supporting it. Should the Government reject the amendments that we propose, we would welcome a commitment from the Government to take them away, in the spirit of cross-party working, for consideration in the Lords or outside the Bill process. I remain concerned that in its current form the Bill, though welcome, does not sufficiently remedy the gaps in loo provision. It does not take into account the unprecedented nature of the challenge facing local authorities, nor does it redress the damage done over the last decade.
I believe that the amendments that we have tabled will make the Bill more effective.
Bills such as the one before us today may not always be the most high-profile, or garner the most attention, but they make a real difference in our communities up and down the land. Those of us who have “come up through the ranks” by sitting on local councils—in my case Holt Town Council, where I was a rather young-looking mayor in my time—know, from debates, about the annual bone of contention that the running costs of the town’s public loos have become. I am sure that state of affairs is commonplace around the country. But public lavatories are a lifeline. They must be protected, and I warmly commend the Bill for making a difference and doing good in local communities. I am glad that the Opposition do not intend to press amendment 2, because it is important that all loos should be eligible for 100% rates relief, to help all our communities.
Local councils and communities are facing ever-growing pressures and the opportunity to save some public money and shut loos is all too tempting. The Bill will go a long way towards removing a cost and preserving those valuable assets in many of our towns and villages. In my view, access to a lavatory is not just a nicety; it is a fundamental, basic human right.
In North Norfolk, we discovered just how important the public lavatories were when the pandemic set in. My mailbag was full of letters from people in uproar at not being able to use lavatories when they visited the coastal region. That led to all manner of issues; even bus drivers, taxi drivers and delivery drivers could not use those facilities, vital as they were. In coastal communities, where footfall is high owing to the number of our tourist visitors, where there is an ageing demographic and where there are many people with disabilities, lavatories are not just nice to have—they are a basic necessity.
The Bill, for my North Norfolk District Council, will result in a very welcome saving of approximately £80,000 per annum, which is a lifeline for those councils recovering from covid-19. We have one of the most generous provisions in the country: 39 public conveniences, with annual running costs of around £700,000. Those facilities are a vital part of the visitor economy and the Government’s exempting them from business rates is a welcome saving for the authority—part of the package of measures that has been put in place.
Many of my constituents know that I have spent the summer touring my home, mainly along those coastal areas and villages, and can vouch with some first-hand experience that we have the finest public conveniences in the country. There can be few better places in North Norfolk than Cromer’s public lavatories, found on the pier or at the town’s Deep History Coast discovery centre. Alternatively, for those caught short in Blakeney, the Blakeney harbour toilets take some beating for their outstanding location. For those who want something a little different, however, why not take a trip to Walcott seafront to see the new beach and loos, refurbished as part of a £19 million sand-scaping scheme that has delivered a new beach and protected the community?
Before I end, I cannot leave out the work of our parish councils either, especially one of the crown jewels of the North Norfolk coast: Cley next the Sea. The parish council has recently opened its very own public loo, named the Curloo—ornithologists present will understand why the Curloo is so aptly named on my coast. The inspiration for the initiative came from the outstanding parish chair, Dr Victoria Holliday, who led the fundraising project to raise £36,000 in donations to build this invaluable amenity.
There is no greater example of the importance of helping our communities to retain or lower the cost of their public lavatories than Cley Parish Council’s work when Dr Holliday realised that visitors were bypassing the village because those with certain conditions were not coming into the village because of the lack of facilities. Using local trades, the council raised the money to build its very own Curloo. The Bill may be a lifeline for them in saving rates and safeguarding their facilities. The council in Cley can now safely say it will have to fund a little less to have a pee in Cley next the Sea.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I will try to be brief, although I must make a declaration as co-chair of the all-party group on local democracy, which has been pushing for this legislation for some time.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who have worked on this with me. I would also like to pick up on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who recognised the great work that his parish councils are doing to keep their public loos going, and to recognise some of my own, some of which I also used on my summer surgery tour this year, in Rookhope, which is run by Stanhope Parish Council and Durham County Council, and in Wolsingham, run by the parish council there. The latter council is one of the reasons why I have been such an active campaigner on this issue, because it is paying about 2% of its annual budget on the rates for the public loos, so this relief today will make a major contribution.
I want to pick up on a couple of the Opposition’s amendments. I am glad they have withdrawn amendment 1, which would have extended the scope of the Bill, and amendment 2, which would have limited it, as they were somewhat contradictory. Amendment 3 would add a level of complexity for much larger councils and is unnecessary at this stage, although it will be well worth considering the issues it raises for inclusion in future legislation.
Today’s debate has raised some interesting and valid points that help us to understand how the provisions of the Bill will operate. But before I get to the detail of the amendments, let me first remind the Committee of the purpose of the Bill.
As has been discussed, the importance of public lavatories to our communities and economy is recognised by local and central Government alike. In particular, we recognise, especially at this time, the need for access to high-quality facilities to maintain high standards of public hygiene. More broadly, good toilet provision helps the high street and supports the independence of people who rely on those facilities. This small but important measure supports the Government’s strategy to open up our economy and society as we recover from coronavirus and delivers on the Budget 2020 commitment to provide a mandatory business rates relief for public lavatories.
As Members would expect, the Bill has been welcomed by councils that operate public lavatories, as well as by the public who use them. It will ensure that eligible public lavatories, both privately and publicly run, will receive a 100% reduction in their business rates. Crucially, in cutting the costs of public lavatories, particularly in cases in which rates bills make up a significant proportion of their running costs, the Bill will help to keep these vital facilities open.
To ensure that both local authority and privately run facilities receive support to respond to the current pressures, the Bill contains provisions for it to apply with retrospective effect from 1 April 2020. That means that the relief will be backdated to the start of the current financial year. By making the relief mandatory, the full cost of the measure will be met by central Government. Authorities in England will be fully compensated for awarding the relief through the usual grant process. Business rates are, of course, a devolved matter; nevertheless, I am pleased to say that, with the consent of the Welsh Government, the Bill will apply to both England and Wales.
The legislation is needed because all non-domestic properties, publicly or privately owned, are liable for business rates unless they have been specifically exempted from the liability. Public lavatories are not currently excluded from the rates. Although a non-statutory discretionary relief could provide support for privately owned public lavatories, primary legislation is needed to allow local authorities to award relief to the toilets that they run, because legislation currently prevents them from awarding discretionary relief to themselves. I hope the Committee will agree that the Bill is a positive and important measure that will provide critical support to those who run public lavatories.
Let me turn to the amendments, which focus on the scope of the relief. They explore matters such as whether the relief should be awarded to other properties used for wider purposes and whether it should be used to encourage free-to-use public toilets. I appreciate the points made today by the Opposition, and we are taking other measures to help local facilities with their rates bill, but in general terms, as I will explain, I do not believe we should depart from the clear and simple terms of the Bill.
Amendment 1 would extend the scope of the mandatory 100% relief to include publicly owned libraries and community centres and all local authority properties that contain free-to-use public lavatories. The Government’s view is that it is right that public bodies should, like other ratepayers, pay rates on the properties they occupy. As I have set out, legislation therefore restricts local authorities from granting discretionary rate relief on the properties that they occupy. The cost of the Bill in England is estimated to be around £6 million; however, the amendment would significantly increase that. To give an example, to extend the support to public libraries alone would see a tenfold increase in the gross cost of the measure, to around £60 million.
The steps that we are taking to introduce 100% relief for public lavatories recognise the particular importance of the facilities, both in public health terms and to help to ensure that people are able to access and use public spaces. The Government’s policy aim, and the purpose of clause 1, is to target the relief so as best to support the provision of public lavatories. In particular, we want to support facilities that exist where there are unlikely to be any other publicly available toilets, or where removing the additional costs of business rates could make a real difference to the ability of councils or others to keep the facilities open.
All that is not to say that we do not recognise that this is a difficult time for local government—we do. The Government understand the impact of covid on the sector and have therefore made £3.7 billion-worth of funding available to support councils during the pandemic. That is un-ring-fenced precisely because we know that local authorities are best placed to determine how to respond to pressures in their local areas. Additionally, we have promised a new scheme to support councils for lost income by providing for council and business rates tax deficits to be repaid over three years instead of one. Furthermore, we have enabled councils to defer £2.6 billion in business rates payments to central Government.
Amendment 2 would limit the relief to apply only to those public lavatories that are free to use, while amendment 3 would apportion relief to public lavatories where they are part of larger hereditaments as a proportion of the overall assessment of the wider property. I understand the Opposition’s concerns about free-to-use public toilets; nevertheless, the purpose of the Bill is to provide targeted support for separately assessed public lavatories—recognising the particular circumstances that they face—and not to draw a distinction between those that charge and those that do not. I see no harm whatsoever in charging a modest fee to support the service and maintenance of public toilets, and neither do I consider that the public think that unacceptable. I therefore do not agree that the relief should exclude those who charge a fee to use facilities. Such a distinction would add complexity and uncertainty to the wider legislation and risk continuing to impose this tax burden on some stand-alone facilities, which might otherwise close.
On amendment 3, Members are correct in saying that publicly available toilets in properties such as shopping malls will, where they are assessed as part of a larger property, fall outside the scope of the Bill. However, unlike stand-alone toilets, we have not seen evidence to suggest that those toilet facilities are specifically at risk of closure due to the business rates bill. Furthermore, the assessment and administration of such an apportionment, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) alluded to, would, in practice, be much more complex and, I fear, far out of line with the level of the resulting rate relief.
Currently, lavatories inside other buildings are not typically given a rateable value in their own right within the wider valuation. Instead, the overall value adopted for the shop or library, for example, merely reflects the presence of a toilet. To meet the aim of the amendment, it would therefore be necessary for the Valuation Office Agency to revalue every eligible building, to reassess its overall value and the value of the lavatory specifically as part of that. That would not only be an artificial and notional exercise for the VOA, but many thousands of properties would potentially need to be reassessed, which would divert resources away from other VOA priorities, such as the operation of the business rates appeals system and the 2023 revaluation. I fear that the amendment would fail to meet the objectives of the policy to target support where it is most needed and would not represent good value for the taxpayer. As I have explained, we have more generally provided a great deal of wider support to local government and ratepayers during the current crisis.
Finally, new clause 1 would require the Secretary of State to conduct and publish an assessment of the impact of this Bill on the provision of public lavatories one year after enactment. I understand that Members will be interested to know what difference this legislation has made over the coming years, particularly given the significant public interest in this issue. I would like to reassure the Committee that the Government keep under review the effectiveness of all the business rates reliefs that we provide. As I have set out, the aim of the Bill is to provide targeted support to those separately assessed toilets to help local authorities keep them open.
Local authorities are ultimately responsible for the provision of public lavatories in their area, and the decision to open or close facilities must rest with them. Nevertheless, the Government strongly encourage councils to keep these facilities open. I recognise the good work of many of our local authorities, some of which we have heard reference to today, in setting up their own community toilet schemes. For example, the London Borough of Kingston has increased provision in its area.
The requirement for there to be a review only one year after the relief comes into force probably would not assist the long-term implementation of the policy. It would not provide enough time to see the true impact of the changes on planning decisions by local authorities or by private companies. As this is a matter for local plans and potentially construction work, it will be many years before the full effect is felt. In the short term, it will be next to impossible to attribute changes in the number of lavatories to this relief or, indeed, to other changes. For example, if more lavatories open, it could be due to the relief, or it could be due to a wider tourism boom in coastal areas such as North Norfolk. Simply looking at changes in the number of lavatories will therefore not necessarily be a good measure of the impact of the relief. Nevertheless, I assure the Committee that we will continue to keep all reliefs, not just this one, under review, together with my colleagues in the Treasury, as part of its wider review of business rates.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) for not pressing her amendments to a vote. This is a good Bill that will make a real difference to the lives of many people, and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This Government know how important good lavatory provision is for all of us at work, in our leisure time or as we shop, and this Bill delivers on the commitment made by the Government at Budget to establish a 100% mandatory business rate relief for eligible public lavatories.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Members on both sides of the House for their positive contributions, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for North West Durham. This Bill has genuine cross-party support, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn for her constructive comments. I am also grateful to those who, on Second Reading, fully supported this measure, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who have both worked tirelessly in support of getting this measure on to the statute book. This represents mission accomplished. Furthermore, I would like to reiterate the welcome support offered to the Bill’s passage from the National Association of Local Councils and the British Toilet Association, as well as local authorities, including town and parish councils up and down our country, who have worked so hard to open their facilities to the public and to support their local communities.
During the passage of the Bill, a number of questions and points have been raised that it may be helpful for me to address briefly. I can confirm that local authorities will be fully compensated by central Government for awarding the relief, including those lavatories run by parish and town councils. Subject to enactment of the Bill, the relief will apply with effect from 1 April this year, meaning that eligible properties will receive a backdated discount, ensuring that they will pay nothing in the current financial year and onwards. In line with other reliefs, local authorities will be responsible for determining eligibility within the scope of the legislation and will award support to those lavatories that they consider to qualify for support.
It is also worth noting that in late July, the Government published our response to the Changing Places consultation and announced changes to building regulation guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets for the most severely disabled in many new public buildings. That is the right thing to have done and it is something that we can all be proud of across the House.
This Bill is a positive measure, which has been widely welcomed by those who run public lavatories, and provides support to help keep these facilities open. I commend it to the House.
I will keep this brief, as I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear. It is disappointing that the Government have rejected our amendments, which, for reasons already outlined, we believe would have further widened public access to loos. The Minister will be aware that there are strong feelings in both Houses about the number, quality and accessibility of public loos, and the Lords will return to the matters that we have raised in our amendments.
The Bill as it stands is a welcome attempt to cover some of the costs associated with public lavatories, and for that reason, we will support it. The relief that the Bill provides does not cover all the costs of maintaining public loos, given the enhanced cleaning regimes that councils and other loo providers have put in place to tackle covid.
I sincerely hope that introducing the Bill at this time is a signal from the Government that they are committed to supporting councils, many of which have run public toilets during this crisis. If the Government are serious about saving public loos, they should also consider our request to carry out an equality impact assessment. Doing so would be a tangible demonstration that the Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
(7 months, 3 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities and the economy. Ensuring access to public toilets and handwashing facilities is critical in maintaining a high level of public hygiene as the lockdown continues to ease across the country. More generally, our ability to work or to enjoy leisure time often depends on the availability of appropriate toilet facilities. This is especially important for essential workers such as taxi or delivery drivers who do not work in fixed locations and who often rely on public facilities, and it will be important for all of us as more and more people begin making use of our public spaces again as lockdown eases.
Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been significant public concern about the potential reduction in available lavatories. Members of this House have also raised valid concerns about the provision of toilet facilities in their own constituencies. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public and committed to introduce a business rates relief for public lavatories. This Bill delivers on that commitment, providing support for those who provide public lavatories, both publicly and privately run, by reducing one of the most significant running costs for toilets and making it easier for them to be kept open.
Today also marks an opportunity to thank colleagues in this House who have campaigned long and hard for the Bill’s introduction, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), as well as a number of others. Furthermore, I thank the National Association of Local Councils for providing its support for this Bill. I am pleased to say that, in line with the announcement at Budget 2020 by the Chancellor, this Bill will, subject to Royal Assent, apply retrospectively from April 2020. That will mean that, for eligible properties, the relief will be backdated to the start of this financial year.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. Does he share with me the relief felt by key workers across my constituency, such as ambulance drivers and the police, who, in rural areas, often conduct very long shifts and, as a result of the efficiency of putting those workers on the frontline, no longer benefit from physical facilities themselves?
That is a well made point. It is precisely because so many people rely on these facilities that it is important that we do this. Although it is not necessarily the kind of legislation that people will talk about in 100 years’ time, it is of real, practical value.
As the hon. Lady says, they should—because this legislation does something of lasting benefit. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), and I also commend the hard work of our emergency services throughout the current crisis.
I am aware that, as we emerge from lockdown restrictions, there has been concern about the reopening of public toilet facilities that may have been closed because of covid-19. Although decisions on reopening public lavatories are rightly for councils, the Government have been clear that we encourage them to open wherever possible. Indeed, I wrote to councils in June to say just this and to refer them to the Government’s advice on measures that can be taken to open toilets safely. I am grateful to councils for their efforts in reopening these facilities and hope that today’s Bill will come as welcome news.
I extend my general gratitude to the local authorities, town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas and to keep them open. I also pay tribute to the councils, associations and businesses that have launched innovative local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public—for example, the community toilet scheme devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames that is now used by local authorities across the country. This enables local businesses to work together with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use their facilities without making a purchase. I recognise that that may be more challenging in current circumstances, but it is an innovative and helpful approach that I commend, and which will become important as more and more businesses reopen.
I highlight the excellent work of the British Toilet Association and its national campaign—imaginatively called “Use Our Loos”—which encourages businesses to join these community schemes and open their toilets to the public. Participating lavatories are shown on a map called the Great British public toilet map, so that visitors to an area always know the location of available facilities.
For some people, medical or other conditions may mean that they are particularly likely to need access to toilet facilities at short notice, so I very much welcome the introduction of the “Can’t Wait” card, which is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in commending such initiatives, which are already making a huge difference to people’s lives.
For people with special access requirements, it is about not just having any facilities available, but having the right facilities. That is why there has been a strong cross-Government drive to provide more Changing Places lavatories to help maintain the dignity of people with special lavatory requirements when they are away from home. The Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy includes £2 million to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, and the Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England.
In May 2019, we launched a consultation on proposals for the increased provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. Following that consultation, the Government have committed to change building regulations guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets in new public buildings. At Budget 2020, the Chancellor confirmed that the Government will launch a £30 million Changing Places fund. This will allow the Government to work with the Changing Places Consortium and others to identify the sectors where we most need to accelerate the provision of such facilities in existing buildings.
Although the focus of today’s Bill and this debate is public toilets, I recognise that this Bill comes at a time of unprecedented challenges for business, when business rates may be at the forefront of concerns for those who occupy non-domestic properties. That is why the Government are taking unprecedented steps to help businesses that are most affected. As a result of the Government’s expanded retail, hospitality and leisure relief, eligible businesses are expected to receive almost £10 billion in business rates relief as part of the Government’s wider support for the economy during the pandemic. Combined with existing measures, this means that a total of 1.1 million ratepayers—over half of all ratepayers—will pay no business rates at all in 2020-21. Our economic response is one of the most generous globally, and the Government are working urgently to deliver vital schemes such as the expanded retail discount as quickly as possible. I would like to use today’s debate to pay tribute to local authorities for working hard to implement these measures right across the country.
The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that is important to reduce running costs and help keep these vital public facilities open. The Government have been listening to and addressing issues surrounding the provision of public toilets for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was included as part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017, and concerns were raised that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central Government would not be widely used. The Government have listened. This Bill will provide 100% mandatory relief. Specifically, the Bill provides 100% mandatory business rates relief to properties in England and Wales that are used wholly or mainly as public lavatories. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing the relief and will be fully compensated by central Government for any loss of local income resulting from the measure. Subject to the safe passage of the Bill, it will have retrospective effect from 1 April just gone, in line with the Chancellor’s commitment at Budget.
The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. That will help the Welsh Government to deliver their commitment to provide access to public toilets for public use under part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.
A business rates relief for public toilets has been called for by councils and health and disability charities for some time and has wide-ranging public support. The Government have responded. This small but important Bill will make a real difference to many people’s lives, including essential workers, as lockdown eases. The savings will assist councils. Removing the additional costs of business rates could make the difference in helping to keep these vital facilities open, while supporting high standards of public hygiene as we emerge from the virus. I hope that Members across the House will agree that this is a positive step and support the Bill’s passage. I commend it to the House.
I do not know where to start—after so many weeks away from this place, it is extraordinary to come back to this Bill, which is incredibly important.
On the east coast of India, in a town called Pondicherry, on the seafront, beside a broad walkway, underneath coconut trees and opposite a massive statue of Gandhi, there is a large public sign. It has a map of the town on it, and all public lavatories are clearly marked. There are pictures and diagrams clearly illustrating activities that may be carried out in them, and importantly, there are also pictures and diagrams illustrating equally clearly where those activities should not be carried out. There is information about the public health consequences of carrying out these exercises other than in lavatories. It requires no app and no internet. The sign is replicated in other public meeting spots around the town, and I love it—I love it so much that I have a picture of it on my phone. I have followed the toilet trail around the town, and I can vouch for every one.
On a serious note, the message from the sign is clear, and it is one that we need to reflect on as we consider this Bill. Across the whole globe, public health requires that there are public toilets and that people can use them with confidence, know where they are and trust that they will be available, safe and clean for use. I salute that wonderful town and all the others across the world who understand the need to promote public lavatories and, importantly, to break down taboos about talking about them, because we definitely need to do that.
It is absurd to think that people will leave their homes for leisure, pleasure or the many jobs that take us out and about and suspend their need for a lavatory. Urination, defecation, menstruation and changing babies’ nappies are all natural bodily functions, even if we do not enjoy talking about them, and they all require toilets. The absence of toilets does not remove those bodily functions. Instead, it removes people’s freedom to enjoy public space. It affects their health or, unfortunately, prompts the unsavoury use of public space as a lavatory. The Bill recognises that, in part, and we will be supporting it. Since it helps to address some of the problems of financing the upkeep of a public lavatory, we will not stand in its way.
I want to place on record my appreciation of the House of Commons Library research staff, who turned around a briefing for my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and I in quick time to help us to prepare for this debate, and of the Royal Society for Public Health and the British Toilet Association. Their contributions inform our scrutiny and will help us to make suggestions for improvements, which I hope Ministers will consider in the autumn. I also thank the Clerks in advance for their help.
We will support the Bill, but we have concerns. First, there is the lack of help with lavatories in other public buildings, such as a library or a community hall. Secondly, the Bill does not redress the overall damage done by the past 10 years of cuts to local authority funding, which have resulted in councils’ unwillingly taking difficult decisions to remove loos or restrict their use. I am concerned that the funding that the Bill provides, though welcome, will not be sufficient to remedy the gaps, and I want to ensure that the Government are aware of the strain that local authorities are under at the moment in any case.
Thirdly, there is no recognition of the consequent inequality of access to public space, particularly for elderly, sick or disabled people, parents of young children and women and girls. Nor does the Bill recognise the consequences for all of us when some people end up using the public space. Fourthly—I know the Bill was originally planned before covid, as the Minister also mentioned, but here we are—there is nothing that I can see that would help struggling local councils to restore and to provide additional cleaning and staffing during this crisis, at a time when we all want to encourage people to feel confident about going out and about. The Minister mentioned the covid importance, but I have not yet seen anything that deals with those increased costs, and I hope we can return to that at a later date.
I would like each hon. Member here to imagine the loo map of their own constituency. They have probably all checked, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I hope you have too. It is a fascinating subject. Has the map been made public? Is it in plain view? Can it be found in a place that people naturally head to for information? Can someone who does not have a smartphone easily find out where the loo is while they are out and about? Will it be close, open, safe and—ideally—free?
To anyone listening to our debate who says they never use public loos—I do, by the way—I encourage them to consider what it is like to have a bladder infection, to be in that early stage of pregnancy where the baby is causing urgent needs, to be elderly and not able to sprint to a lav, or not to have the confidence to go into a café and say, “I have a medical condition and I need to use your loo.”
Many councils, towns and cities, including Bristol, do have the schemes that the Minister has mentioned to use loos in private property, but many people do not know about those schemes. That includes the Can’t Wait card; the Minister quite rightly commended businesses for that, but I fear that many people still do not know about it or do not have the confidence to use it, and of course at the moment many businesses are shut.
If there are not sufficient facilities, we all suffer. There are the social and economic consequences, and there are consequences for us all, with the smells, health and hygiene problems, if people choose to or feel forced to urinate or defecate in public. The Royal Society for Public Health recently published a fantastic report called “Taking the P***”—one can fill in the asterisks for oneself, Mr Deputy Speaker. The subtitle, and the subject, is “The decline of the great British toilet”. It is a most educational report, and I urge everyone who has a problem discussing the subject of loos to take a read and consider what life would be like if we did not have public toilets, and what it is already like when there are not enough.
More than half of the public apparently restrict their intake of fluids before and during a trip out, at the risk of dehydration and other health consequences. One in five operate on a toilet leash, not allowing themselves to go further than they can nip back home from to use the loo; that number rises to more than two in five for those who have medical conditions. That has economic as well as social consequences.
I am sure the Minister will be greatly relieved that there is a general consensus on this public lavatories Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while there should be adequate provision in council budgets and they should be supported in the provision of public lavatories, those lavatories must also be accessible, and that it is not good enough for us to allocate space for public toilets if they are not accessible, especially to those with special needs?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is as if he has read my speech, which says that the lack of public toilets disproportionately affects people with ill health or disability, the elderly, and also women—I mentioned menstruation—outdoor workers and homeless people.
Health conditions that require frequent trips and often privacy that a cubicle alone can provide include bowel cancer; stroke; multiple sclerosis; use of a stoma; urinary incontinence, which can happen for all sorts of reasons, including family history, and at all ages; inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis; and conditions that damage the nerves that control the bowels or bottom, which can include stroke, spina bifida, recent surgery and childbirth. One in 637 people has Crohn’s; one in 417 has ulcerative colitis; one in 500 people lives with a stoma; and one in 526 has multiple sclerosis. Every single right hon. and hon. Member in this House will have constituents who are thus affected.
Women need the loo more often when pregnant, menstruating or out with small children, or after childbirth. Differences in clothing and anatomy mean that it takes longer for women, which results in queues and waits, which in turn causes problems for women’s health. People’s whose job keeps them out and about have real problems if they cannot find a loo. I am sure that the Minister is aware of this, but I wish to add to his list of concerns rough sleepers and other homeless people: even if they have accommodation in a night shelter, they still need somewhere to go by day. We cannot expect them simply to stop functioning, and they may struggle to use options such as shopping centres or cafés. That is a lot of people I have listed.
The “Taking the P***” report rightly points out that we have a taboo about talking about natural bodily functions and, as a result, public loos and their role in assisting with hygiene, hydration, exercise and participation in public life are not recognised sufficiently as the public health resource that they truly are—I think I have become somewhat passionate about the subject of public loos. The British Toilet Association raised with me problems of public fouling, which has consequences for health, hygiene and enjoyment of public space. There is also a risk of covid transmission through human faeces. Fouling in parks and on beaches has particular risks for children, and that has been compounded during the crisis by the closure of many public loos.
The British Toilet Association also raised the fact that access to a public toilet is a human right under the UN sustainable development goals, and in particular that women and girls need somewhere private to change sanitary products. Closing public loos does not stop people needing them; it just stops some people going about their daily lives and causes others to do things that have health consequences for us all.
The Bill helps only the finances of buildings that are solely or mainly loos—so far so good—but it will do nothing to reverse the decline in numbers and will not help with the running costs of loos in other buildings. The Royal Society for Public Health estimates that the running costs of public toilets vary between £15,000 and £60,000 per year, depending on size and staffing. In 2018, the BBC’s “Reality Check” used freedom of information requests to obtain information from most councils, and concluded that at least 673 public toilets had closed between 2010 and 2018. By my calculations—the Minister may have a better calculator than me—that means that it will cost between £10 million, give or take, and £40 million, give or take, to replace those lost lavs. Given the consequences of those reductions in numbers for public health and people’s lives, will the Government at least check my workings and use their good offices to come to a more accurate figure that we can at least debate when we come to the next stages of the Bill?
As I said, we will not oppose the Bill, but we will seek to amend it at later stages. As a favour to the Minister, I shall outline the ways in which we might do that. Will the Government assess the number of public lavatories in buildings that would not qualify for the provisions in the Bill, and the opportunity cost of not giving them that same support, as well as the actual financial cost? We can then debate on a more informed basis whether we need to increase the Bill’s reach to include those lavatories. Will the Government assess the cost of replacing them all? Will they assess the need for increased capacity to meet the specific needs of parents with young children, people with relevant illnesses or disabilities, women and girls, and older people? That would mean an equality impact assessment. Will they use the Bill to create provisions for emergency temporary additional financial support for local councils to help with the costs of operating, cleaning and staffing public toilets during the continuing covid crisis?
I hope that by now the House will have heard my enthusiasm for reforming the provision of public loos, my urging of the Government to push the Bill further, and my utter lack of toilet puns, which frankly I need to be commended for—there may have been accidental ones, but I promise that I did not intend them—but I cannot close my speech without remarking that although this is a chronic and serious problem, it does not have the urgency of other issues under the purview of the Department for which it could, and arguably should, have used this parliamentary time before recess. Those issues include the renters’ rights Bill promised in the Queen’s Speech and the building safety Bill—legislation that covers urgent needs that are going to become apparent over the summer, as is particularly true of the renters’ rights Bill, what with the temporary ban on evictions set to end in August.
We would have helped the Government to get emergency temporary legislation across the line in time for the temporary evictions ban to make sure there was provision for those who felt the need to be protected by the Secretary of State’s good words back in March, when he said that nobody should be made homeless because of coronavirus, of which there is a real risk. That time has now gone. I am also concerned about the buildings safety Bill. It is obviously around—whispers have come to my ears—but we have not yet seen it, and three years on from Grenfell, people have spent the lockdown living in unsafe buildings and often paying for the cost of the waking watch.
All in all, the Bill is needed, though a curious priority compared with other urgent needs. Given that it is before us, however, we are disappointed that the Government have failed to seize the opportunity to restore public loos, help millions of people to enjoy daily life and redress the damage done over the last 10 years, but we will return to all of this in September, when the Bill returns for its remaining Commons stages.
I am sure that the Bill, with its title, “Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill”, is not, for most people, the most exciting or inspiring Bill that will come before the House, but for me it marks the culmination of an eight-year personal mission. In 2012, I was the cabinet member for Cornwall Council with responsibility for public lavatories. At that point, this newly formed unitary council was running—if I remember correctly—272 sets of public lavatories across the whole of Cornwall and had made the sensible decision that this was not something that a unitary authority covering the whole of Cornwall should have responsibility for and devolved it, wherever possible, to town and parish councils.
I spent the summer of 2012 touring the public lavatories of Cornwall, from Bude to St Keverne, from Torpoint to Penzance, and many places in between, and consulting the local parish councils about whether they would take on their running. In many cases, I found they were keen to do so, and rightly so, because these facilities can be run much more effectively and efficiently locally, where they can be managed to meet the particular needs of the local community, rather than centrally.
One of the biggest barriers, however, to small parish councils taking on these facilities was the cost of the business rates. I was shocked that public lavatories were even liable for business rates. It seemed nonsensical. I wrote to the then Secretary of State, now the right hon. Lord Pickles, and suggested that public lavatories be exempted from non-domestic rates. He wrote back saying he thought it was a very good idea and he would look into it. Three years later, I was elected to this place.
Coincidentally—I checked my diary—it was five years ago this very day that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, came to Cornwall. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) and I had dinner with him that evening and put to him the case that public toilets should be exempted from business rates. He was equally shocked that they were even liable for business rates, and he agreed with us and said that the Government would do something about it. Well, it has taken five years to get from the then Prime Minister agreeing to do this to the Bill at last coming before the House. For me, then, this is a very important day and, as I said, the culmination of an eight-year mission.
I want to place on the record my thanks to those who have helped get us to this point: to the Minister today, who has at last brought the Bill before us, after many years of frustration for me, to previous local government Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and the current Chancellor when he was a local government Minister and worked with me to get this through, and to the previous Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who first committed the Government to doing this in the 2018 Budget. It has been a team effort. I should also pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, who has worked with me since those days in 2012 to get to this point.
Public toilets are essential, especially in rural and coastal areas, where people can find themselves many miles from other facilities. They are essential in supporting our tourist industry. As has rightly been pointed out by the Minister and the shadow Minister, they are very important for the elderly and for people with health conditions that mean they need the lavatory more often and, as has also been pointed out, to many workers, delivery drivers and some of our other key workers who need to use the toilet during the day. It is important that everything possible is done to maintain the facility that public lavatories provide, particularly in rural areas.
Let me place on the record my thanks to the many town and parish councils across Cornwall that I worked with back then, and particularly now in the constituency I represent. They have not only taken on the running of public lavatories, but over the past few weeks they have worked incredibly hard to reopen them, despite the challenges they currently face. At the risk of leaving some out, I will name a few: Newquay Town Council has worked particularly hard, as has St Austell Town Council, Mevagissey Parish Council, Gorran Haven Parish Council, and many others I am sure, who have gone out of their way to ensure that public lavatories stay open during this pandemic.
I believe the total cost of these measures to the Treasury is around £8 million, which in the current scheme of things, and given all the costs we are facing, does not seem a huge amount of money. To small parish councils, however, whose total precept may be only £20,000, that can represent a significant sum in reducing the costs that they incur in running public toilets. This Bill is important in the overall scheme of things to many parish councils.
Many parish councils currently face huge pressures. Many have lost income, perhaps because they run car parks, and they face additional costs. Many have gone out of their way to provide incredible support to communities, and to ensure that elderly and vulnerable people are looked after during the pandemic. The fact that this measure will be backdated to April will be of significant help to many parish councils in reducing costs this year, and helping them with the pressures they face. What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that those parish councils that might already have started to pay business rates on these facilities get a rebate in a timely manner? If they have paid out and are due a rebate, it is important that that happens as quickly as possible.
Although the Government have made funding available to primary authorities—in our case Cornwall County Council—to support small town and parish councils, the council has not as yet passed on that support. It has refused to do that, which is concerning because many of our parish councils are currently struggling. Even though the Government have made funding available to Cornwall County Council, it has declined or refused to pass that funding on. What more can the Government do to ensure that where funding has been made available through primary councils to support our town and parish councils, the money gets to where it should go? Parish councils are doing an incredible job in supporting their communities, and where the Government have made funding available, it is important that that money gets to them.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about Changing Places toilets and the work that the Government are doing—another issue that I have pushed for over a number of years. It is increasingly important in our communities for Changing Places toilets to be widely available, and I applaud the Government for the steps they are taking to ensure that happens. I welcome the Bill. In the overall scheme of everything that we as a country currently have to face it may not seem like big a deal, but for someone like me who has been waiting a long time for this Bill to come before the House, it is incredibly welcome. The Government are taking an important and sensible step, and I am pleased to give them my support.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who made an excellent speech and who has done so much to make this change happen. It was also a pleasure to listen to the enthusiastic speech of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire); I really enjoyed listening to it. She made some brilliant points, particularly on maps and public information about where toilet facilities are, which is often overlooked.
This is an incredibly welcome Bill that I have long campaigned for. As has been said by other hon. Members, it is not the most exciting or glamorous piece of legislation, but it will make a real, tangible difference to people’s lives. When I first started talking about the need to improve public toilet facilities in Buxton a couple of years ago, it was a source of amusement to many people locally. A particularly charming Labour activist gave me the new nickname Mr Toilet Flusher—not the most amusing of the nicknames that they have given me over the years. Although that might have been quite funny to the High Peak Labour party, public toilet facilities are no laughing matter to many people with hidden disabilities and medical conditions, pregnant women, the elderly and those suffering from conditions such as prostate cancer, so the Bill is an important step forward.
Even before the global pandemic, high streets were struggling badly. We need to do more to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to come and shop in our town centres and support our fantastic local businesses, which involves making it easier to park and get in by public transport or by cycling. It is also important to maintain the things that make our high streets unique and such enjoyable places to come to. At the same time, it means making sure that there are proper public toilet facilities.
The Bill is a small step, but giving 100% business rate relief to public toilets will make a huge difference, as has already been said, particularly to local councils, and will make it that bit easier to provide public toilet facilities. It is a positive move that will be a boost for high streets across High Peak in places such as Buxton, New Mills, Whaley Bridge, Glossop and Chapel-en-le-Frith.
I very much welcome the Bill, but it should not be the end of the conversation. We need to talk an awful lot more about the issue, we need to end the taboos around public toilet facilities, and we need to do more to help our high streets, particularly when it comes to supporting future high street fund bids—an excellent one has been submitted for Buxton.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (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.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory). I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on their good work in bringing about the Bill.
I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Bill, which sees the Government recognising the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities. Town centres, visitor attractions and local hubs rely on good access to those facilities. My constituency relies heavily on tourism and attracts people from wide and far. Whether they come to visit the beautiful spa town of Ilkley or the home of the Brontë sisters in Haworth, or to take a ride on our famous heritage railway line, the Keighley and Worth Valley railway, access to public toilets is vital. It is a must.
People’s ability to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time depends on appropriate toilet facilities being available. Of course, such access is important for those with particular health needs, as well as individuals who work in emergency services, refuse collectors and taxi and delivery drivers, who all work from no fixed location. Public toilets are a necessity and more widely, adequate lavatory provision helps with public health and improves the local environment, particularly through street cleanliness and disease control.
Given how vital those facilities are, it is understandable that there has been public concern for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, that many of them have unfortunately closed. Closures have happened across my constituency, and I am sure that applies to other Members’ constituencies too. It is understandable when the facilities are no longer suitable or required, but reduction in overall coverage is undoubtedly an inconvenience to the public.
The Bill is therefore welcome and I am pleased that this Conservative Government are taking action to reduce the overhead costs of public toilets, which will make it easier to keep them open and help guarantee their future for much longer. A review of the whole business rate structure is long overdue, but for these vital facilities, I am glad that the Bill is working its way through the House. It is a small but vital measure.
The Bill is a significant step, which introduces 100% relief for our public lavatories—important financial assistance from central Government to those that provide the facilities, such as Bradford Council or the many parish councils across my constituency. I want our public toilets in Keighley and Ilkley to remain open and I would love to see more open across my patch so that visitors, residents and those working in my constituency from no fixed location can still have access to those facilities. The Bill provides that support and helps ensure that much-needed facilities can remain in place.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (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 the Member for St Austell and Newquay (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.
I declare an interest as the co-chair, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), of the all-party parliamentary group on local democracy, which has been behind a lot of the campaigning on this matter.
Just to reassure those on the Government Front Bench, who seem fearful that this might not be a piece of legislation that is talked about in 100 years’ time, when I questioned the Leader of the House about it last week and asked when the decision was coming forward, he mentioned that the taxation of toilets had been introduced by the Emperor Vespasian 2,000 years ago, so I think those on the Front Bench today are making a mark in history.
I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who brought this matter to the public’s attention many years ago and have been campaigning on it ever since. I am particularly delighted, as I think the Bill will be welcome news to Justin and the team at the National Association of Local Councils, who have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. I particularly welcome the Government’s announcement that the relief will be backdated to April this year.
In a recent conversation with town and parish councils, including St Austell Town Council, they mentioned the extra costs they have had during the covid crisis, providing support for their communities, of about £50 million. So the fact that £8 million a year will be going to help those councils and will be backdated will be really helpful.
Members from all parts of the House have already made clear the points that I would like to make about how the Bill helps people with hidden disabilities and particularly helps women and girls and those with children. If someone is trying to find somewhere to change them or something like that, toilets are useful facilities to have at hand.
It is a real benefit to our local authorities. Wolsingham, in my constituency, spends between 1% and 2% of its annual budget just on rates for public loos. I know how important the issue is for that local authority and for those in other tourist areas, and I know just how vital it is for the Cornish MPs who have been campaigning on it as well. To flag up the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), the financial impact of the Bill will really benefit local authorities. This issue has been a burden on them for far too long, and it is right that we are now making that change.
I also flag up the importance of regional news. My local regional broadcaster in the north-east, Richard Moss, who is from the political team there, came out and did an interview with me on this very subject when I became co-chairman with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth. I give another shout out to that team, who are under threat at the moment from the BBC centrally. Campaigning local MPs can make a difference, and those regional news channels are very important in order for us to highlight the campaigns that we are pushing.
I thank Front Benchers very much for introducing the Bill. I know that it is just before the summer, but it is a great thing to get over the line now. I really hope that by reducing the cost of public toilets we will be able to see more open across the country in the years ahead.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (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 the hon. Member for Keighley (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.
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 the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (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 the Member for St Austell and Newquay (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.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (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 the Member for High Peak (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.
Non-domestic rating (Public Lavatories) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(2) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
(4) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to other proceedings up to and including Third Reading.
(5) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(David T. C. Davies.)
Question agreed to.