Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill – Third reading in Parliament on 03 September 2020. Proposed by The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)

Considered in Committee

[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

 12.41 pm

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton)

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.

Clause 1

Relief from non-domestic rates for public lavatories

Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)

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.

The First Deputy Chairman

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.

Kate Hollern

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.

Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)

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.

Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)

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.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)

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.

Kate Hollern

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

Mr Simon Clarke

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.

Kate Hollern

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.

This Bill should now be sent for Royal Ascent by the Queen and it will then become an ACT of Parliament and enter into Law.

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