My Lords, I am pleased by noble Lords’ interest in the Bill and look forward to hearing the views of the House on this important matter.
This Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities. Town centres, visitor attractions and local hubs all rely on good access to these facilities. People’s ability to work, shop or enjoy their leisure time depends on appropriate toilet facilities. This can be especially important for those with particular health needs, or for individuals, such as taxi or delivery drivers, who do not work in fixed locations. More widely, adequate lavatory provision contributes to public health and improves the local environment, particularly in terms of street cleanliness and disease control.
Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been public concern about the reduction in available lavatories. Individual closures are often understandable where facilities are no longer suitable, however a reduction in overall coverage is an inconvenience for the public. The Government recognise this and we are therefore taking action to reduce the costs of those facilities most at risk. The Bill will support those who provide public lavatories and make it easier to keep them open. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public, and committed to introduce 100% business rates relief for public lavatories. This will be a permanent measure and will apply to hereditaments—properties with their own rateable value used wholly or mainly as public lavatories, rather than those inside larger buildings. “Wholly or mainly”, in this context, refers to a situation where there may be some ancillary purpose such as baby-changing facilities in the lavatory, so that it would not be wholly a public lavatory.
We can all envisage stand-alone facilities of public lavatories in towns, cities and communities that we know. These would be where there is a separate rateable value attached, such as—as raised in discussions with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope—the lavatories in the subway at Westminster Tube station, which are separately assessed so they would qualify for this. More widely, the noble and learned Lord and I shared a memory of a case that concerned these public lavatories: The Mayor and Corporation of Westminster v London and North Western Railway Company, a 1905 decision in the House of Lords. It concerned the building of these lavatories, and the question of whether access from either side of Whitehall, providing a thoroughfare for individuals, was legitimate in this connection. The House of Lords, reversing the Court of Appeal decision, decided that it was legitimate.
This Bill will provide important financial assistance from central government to those who provide these facilities. I also commend the local authorities and town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas. I note that the Welsh Government wish to apply this measure in Wales; accordingly, a legislative consent Motion will apply from the Senedd, the Welsh Assembly, in this regard. I therefore extend those best wishes to community councils and local authorities in Wales.
I also pay tribute to the local authorities, associations and businesses that have launched local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public. The Community Toilet Scheme, originally devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, is now widely used by many local authorities across the country. For example—this is only an example; it is applied quite widely—it includes schemes in Stockport, Kettering, Oxford, Poole and Amber Valley, among others. This enables local businesses to work with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use the facilities in shops, restaurants and so on without making a purchase. Often the local authority will provide a fee for this to the local businesses concerned, and that fee is variable. It is publicised in various ways.
The British Toilet Association runs a national campaign 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 where facilities are available. I tried this map before coming here today and it works incredibly well. You search for a particular town. For example, I searched Helston, where I was last week, and five public lavatories come up that people are able to visit. I also put in Saltaire—but more of that later, I suspect, when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, speaks on this subject.
According to the figures that Bradford metropolitan council has given me, 10 years ago it provided 49 public toilets; it now provides only seven. That is a huge reduction. I am aware that there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of closures of public toilets in other parts of the country, but the Government must have some overall figures showing just how large the reduction in public provision has been.
My Lords, I do not have the specific figures that the noble Lord refers to, but I can deal with the issue of how many are likely to be available under the scheme, which I am sure he will find helpful. I can tell him that a public lavatory in Saltaire came up on the map, but we can engage on that later. I can seek to get the figures that he is referring to but I do not have them to hand.
As I said, participating lavatories are shown on a map, called the Great British Public Toilet Map, so visitors to an area will always know where facilities are available. Obviously, tourist information centres will also have this information but I am keen to see whether there are other ways in which we can publicise the availability of lavatories in towns and communities. This is something that I am asking officials to look at.
For those with conditions or particular health concerns that sometimes mean that they require lavatories at short notice, the Can’t Wait card is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. That seems appropriate, no matter how many public lavatories there are in a town. In that situation, you may need to go to somewhere much more to hand, and I am sure that noble Lords will join me in applauding that initiative.
Of course, for people with special access requirements, it is not just about having any facilities available but having the right facilities. There has been a 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 providing £2 million of funding to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, for example.
The Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England, and in 2015 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provided funding for an online map of the UK that helps carers and disabled people find Changing Places toilets. Lastly in this connection, the MHCLG is also currently running a consultation on proposals for increasing the provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. That consultation seeks views on a mandatory requirement for Changing Places toilets in building regulations and will close on 21 July 2019. There are now over 1,300 changing places facilities available, compared to 140 in 2007. That is a considerable success and I am sure that noble Lords will applaud it.
The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that will provide important support for councils in England and Wales to keep these vital public facilities open.
The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that stand-alone public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. It is based on Part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.
We have had plans in the pipeline for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017. Though that Bill fell with the general election of that year and was not reintroduced, at the time there were significant concerns that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central government would not be widely used. The Government have responded with this new relief under the current Bill, which goes further than the previous measure because it will be mandatory. The full cost of the relief will be met by central government in England and by the Welsh Government in Wales.
I will give some idea of the cost of the measure, given that that was raised in passing by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. It will cost £6 million per annum in England and £450,000 per annum in Wales. As calculated at present, it will help to save 3,500 lavatories in England and 500 in Wales. This will extend to new lavatories built and separately assessed; they will attract the same relief under the same system.
In conclusion, the substance of the Bill has been called for by councils, health and disability charities and many members of the public. It is on a subject of wide and important public interest. The Government have also engaged with the British Toilet Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the rollout of this relief. This important, if unglamorous, measure will make a real difference to the lives of people up and down the country. The savings will be of vital assistance to councils where removing the additional costs of business rates could help to keep these facilities open. I commend the Bill to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I draw Members’ attention to my relevant interests in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The provision of public loos is a little discussed but fundamental aspect of enabling all people to feel confident that they can go out, knowing that they will be able to access a clean and well-maintained public loo and not have to rely on going to a café, for instance.
A report from the Royal Society for Public Health in May of this year makes a very strong case for a review of the number of accessible public loos. The report investigated public loos and discovered the number that have been closed by local authorities as a consequence of the severe cuts to public funding; the potential health impact of a lack of public loos; and the fact that many people plan their days out according to the accessibility, or not, of public loos.
The report found that in 2018, there were no public toilets at all in 37 council areas that were funded and maintained by local authorities. BBC’s Reality Check also did a survey of local authorities and public loos last year. It discovered that the tourist county of Cornwall reduced its council-maintained loos from 247 to 14. Some of those were of course transferred to parish and town councils, but that is not an option available to every council. Reality Check also found that in virtually every council in England and Wales, public toilets had been closed. For example, 25% of Brighton’s public loos have been closed despite it being a major seaside resort. Where all stand-alone public loos have been closed and not transferred, councils have directed people to the availability of toilets in local publicly funded buildings such as libraries, town halls and market halls. However, the fact remains that there has been a stark reduction in the number of public toilets available.
As the Minister has said, people with medical conditions or physical disabilities—or indeed people of a certain age group—who need to go to the loo more often will plan their day’s shopping or visiting on the basis of the availability of public loos. According to the investigation recorded in the Royal Society for Public Health report, the knowledge of a lack of facilities deters as many as 20% of people from going out as often as they would like, and over half the public—56%, in fact—actually restrict fluid intake due to concern over the lack of toilets. The lack of provision of public toilets is a major but largely unrecognised issue that significantly restricts lives. It is therefore one that deserves even greater exposure than the narrow focus of this Bill.
We on this side welcome the Government’s proposal in the Bill to provide 100% business rate relief for stand-alone public loos, and I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that it is mandatory. The business rates currently payable on such premises can, and in some cases are, prohibitive compared to the other costs of provision, such as cleaning and maintenance. For instance, in my own town of Cleckheaton the business rates payable on the public loos in the market hall, because they are a stand-alone part of it and separately rated, is currently £5,100, which is no doubt as much or more than the cost of keeping them clean and maintained.
Unfortunately, the Bill is a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. As I said earlier, some councils now run no public loos at all. In my own council of Kirklees, there were 25 in 2010 but now there are none. Large parts of the area are not covered by parish councils, so in those parts the closure of all public loos means just that. There may be nowhere to spend a penny. Some major coffee chains are enabling individuals to use their facilities without buying anything; that is positive, but I am not sure they would welcome a coachload queuing through their premises.
I therefore have a suggestion for the Minister. Will the Government consider extending the 100% relief to include toilets that are accessible to the public and in a publicly funded building—for example, a library, town hall or market hall? One of the reasons for this suggestion is to provide a degree of equality of treatment in areas that are not parished and have no opportunity for another public organisation to take over the running of them. The other reason is fair access for people with disabilities. For example, Huddersfield town hall has a Changing Places facility, the only one in the town. Given the continuing squeeze on local government funding, a bit of relief—albeit business rates relief—would not come amiss. Any additional action that the Government can take to keep these essential facilities open will enhance the lives of all, but especially those who already have life-changing conditions, to whom as a society we should give especial attention and consideration.
The Bill gives welcome relief to local authorities and parish and town councils. Sadly, though, this is too little, too late. I hope the Minister can give me some comfort that relief can be extended to accessible public loos in publicly funded buildings. When he replies, perhaps he will bear in mind that the business rates to spend a penny in those public buildings could be offset by requiring Amazon and other online retailers to spend a much greater share of the billions of pennies spent by their customers and increasing the relatively miniscule business rates they pay in comparison to our humble, but essential, public loos.
My Lords, I am sure that the House is very grateful to the Minister for the helpful and encouraging way in which he introduced this debate. I am particularly grateful to him for reminding us about the public convenience which lies in the underpass at the southern end of Whitehall. It is of interest to lawyers, some of whom engage in legal tourism, discovering places that are mentioned in celebrated cases and spending their holidays going from one to the other. The Westminster convenience is very easy for those who study at London universities to reach, unlike some places much further afield.
The point that interests me, and which led me to contribute to this debate, relates to my past. I once practised in the valuation for rating field and was the editor of a textbook on the subject. The fact that interests me is that public lavatories appear in the valuation list at all—but, on reflection, there is no doubt that they should be on the list and that they are chargeable to non-domestic rates.
This is the result of two basic rules: first, that every hereditament or structure that is capable of separate occupation should be entered in the valuation list; and, secondly, that the annual value attached to it for rating purposes is in theory the rent that the hereditament might reasonably be expected to let for from year to year, assuming that the tenant undertakes to pay all the rates and bear the cost of repairs and other expenses necessary to maintain the structure in a state that commands that rent. Nowadays, in practice, that figure is determined by a formula which probably does not bear much relationship to actual rents—but it is the formula that determines the rates that are chargeable for the hereditament.
As the Minister mentioned, not all lavatories that are available for public use are in separate occupation. Those found in railway stations and airports, for example, and those in other publicly funded buildings, are part of a larger hereditament. The problem is that it is the larger hereditament which forms the entry in the list and is valued, with each part of it contributing to the total annual value. As I understand it, we are concerned with the relatively simple position of self-standing hereditaments, but I recognise the point that the noble Baroness raised about lavatories and changing facilities in larger buildings. That would require separate treatment and is not as easy to deal with as what is being dealt with in this case. That is not to say that it is not a very important point—but how one deals with it is a bigger problem.
We are concerned with the self-standing public lavatories that one might hope to find in a town centre, in a public park or in or near a children’s playground. I have to confess that I never encountered one in my valuation practice and they are not mentioned in my textbook—perhaps they should have been. Nor can I remember when I last visited one. However, I have no doubt that they exist and they certainly are rateable.
As the noble Baroness forcefully explained, there is a very real problem, because they are increasingly difficult to find. This is not just a matter of convenience but a health issue, particularly for people with special lavatory requirements or other health problems which mean that they simply cannot risk going to places where one might hope to find them if they know that there is no public convenience there within easy reach. So something needs to be done. Removing the burden of rates is undoubtedly one way of addressing the issue, as the cost of maintaining these premises is not immaterial. Therefore, like the noble Baroness, I entirely support the principle behind the Bill.
Exempting the subjects from rates altogether by this mandatory relief is quite a big step. I am reminded of a similar decision, taken during the depression of the 1920s, to introduce, under the Rating and Valuation (Apportionment) Act 1928, a system of rating relief to encourage investment in industrial and freight transport hereditaments. The relevant legislation provided that the annual value of these subjects was to be determined by dividing by two the figure on which the rates would be levyable if the Act had not been passed. That measure was designed to encourage people to invest in factories and workshops, and no doubt also to discourage them from closing them down, in order to increase opportunities for employment at a time of acute difficulty and depression.
It was a sensible system, but it lasted beyond its useful time and was abolished in the 1960s. Since then, I have sometimes wondered whether a system of de-rating might be introduced to help the occupiers of premises suffering from depression in hard times. In a way, what we are dealing with today is a very good example of that. Here we have subjects that are clearly suffering from the economic problems of keeping them open. The closures which the noble Baroness referred to are dramatic and disturbing. It is a subject which requires similar treatment. Here, the relief is even more generous than that given in 1928. It is not just 50% off but 100% off, which is most welcome.
My only concern is whether giving this mandatory relief will achieve the desired result. I hope it is not just a matter of closing the stable door. Of course, there is no way of knowing what the effect of the Bill will be until it is enacted, but it will certainly help. I hope that it will go as far as the noble Baroness and the Minister indicated. I agree that this Bill should receive a Second Reading, and I hope that it will pass into law as soon as possible.
My Lords, I thought I might start my brief intervention by flushing out the arguments, but a colleague poured cold water on that idea. Seriously, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this little Bill, although sadly it is too late to save many stand-alone public lavatories that have now been closed for several years.
My purpose in speaking was to call on the Government to encourage local authorities to use this new freedom to install better accessible lavatories, in particular, Changing Places lavatories for disabled people wherever possible. However, the Minister has comprehensively shot my fox. This facility has adequate space for a wheelchair or mobility scooter user and one or two carers, an adult-sized, height-adjustable changing bench, a ceiling tracking or mobile hoist and a centrally placed toilet with space around it. This means that the most severely disabled people can be confident when going out and about, knowing that there is a public lavatory they can use, which is certainly not the case now. An awful lot of disabled people are virtual prisoners in their own homes because of this. It will make all the difference to the lives of families with severely disabled children, who often have to use the floor of a conventional lavatory to change them.
We must not forget those with hidden disabilities who have problems with continence—we must mention them too. Let us hope the Bill will inspire councils all over the country to look again at their toilet provision and perhaps reopen facilities that have been closed for several years. It is all very well to rely on local restaurants and bars to fill the gap, but their toilets are often not accessible—as all public lavatories must be—and are often used as storage rooms. Will the Minister’s department conduct an audit of accessible public lavatories around the country? Perhaps he might encourage the Office for Disability Issues, newly relocated to the Cabinet Office, to undertake the survey. If the Government are really serious about getting far more disabled people into work—and I think they are—it would be a useful exercise to pursue this challenge.
My Lords, perhaps it would help to explain why I find myself far away from my professional expertise in foreign policy in talking about public toilets.
The history of Saltaire is very much built on public sanitation and improvement. Titus Salt was mayor of Bradford and one of a group of Liberals and Congregationalists very much concerned about public improvement in a town which, like others in West Yorkshire, had endemic typhoid and typhus in the 1830s and 1840s, and several cholera epidemics. He moved his entire works out to Airedale and built a model village with outside toilets and back alleys wide enough to be regularly emptied, which, in those days, was state of the art in public sanitation. So, Saltaire and sanitation are very closely linked together.
We are now, as the noble Lord will know, a world heritage site and a regular destination for busloads of tourists—either schoolchildren or the moderately elderly—and, as they get off the bus, the first thing they ask is: where are the toilets? The answer is: they are closed. They were closed last year by the city of Bradford and I do not entirely blame it, given the intense pressure on resources it has faced, but I recall the chief executive of Bradford Council saying to my wife a year ago, “The tourists will have to use the local shops”. Of course, we are heritage-listed, and these 19th-century shops did not originally have indoor toilets and have steps up to the front entrance. Those that have now installed indoor toilets have them either in the basement, down a steep staircase—in our house, the staircase down to the basement is very steep—or on the first floor, so they do not help visitors who may be disabled.
The Bill’s provisions would have helped by reducing the estimated costs of maintenance and keeping open our local toilets from around £12,000 to around £6,000 or £7,000, but we do not have a local town or parish council at the moment, so we do not have the resources to do it, unlike Bradford’s other two tourist destinations —Haworth and Ilkley—where the cost and burden has been transferred from the metropolitan council down to the local town or parish. Given how stuck the metropolitan council is for resources, it would say that there is a certain justice—the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, will no doubt agree—in that these are moderately more prosperous areas, so they can damn well do it themselves.
However, we are left with real difficulties. The Minister said in introducing the Bill that this promise was made four years ago and we have been waiting for it ever since. It was put off by the 2017 election, but at least now it is coming through. But behind this are much wider issues of public policy: the provision of public services and what public services ought to be provided; whether they ought to be provided by local or central government; the future of local government and the provision of public space and public services; and how local government resources will be sustained.
I am very conscious, from other work I have been doing on attacks on the Civil Service and the whole question of the public interest, that there are those on the right of the Conservative Party who are libertarians, free marketeers and followers of Ayn Rand. I was slightly unnerved the other month when I read that Sajid Javid regards Ayn Rand as the most important philosopher he has read. These are people who believe that government as such is something to be shrunk as far as possible; that private is better than public; and that the individual should be able to do what they want, while those who cannot cope should be left behind. I recognise that both Ministers on the Front Bench at present are not of that persuasion. Indeed, as good one-nation Conservatives they in turn will recognise, at least to themselves, that that is not at the moment the dominant strain within their own party.
There are questions behind this measure about the whole system of local taxation, and the balance between charity law and non-charitable activities provided as public services. I note that in both cases, the rating system and charity law go back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and still reflect in some ways the assumptions of that period. For example, I note that private hospitals are charities and thus have an 80% rate reduction, whereas the NHS pays a substantial amount in non-domestic rates. There is currently a case in the High Court in which NHS trusts could be relieved of some £2.35 billion, if they win the case.
I am also conscious that public libraries pay substantial rates; for example, my noble friend Lady Pinnock tells me that Cleckheaton library pays £50,000 a year in non-domestic rates. I note that independent schools receive 80% tax relief on this but that state schools pay full non-domestic rates, and that the Scottish Government have committed to removing relief for most independent schools from next year. A set of large issues lie behind this mouse of a Bill.
I note that it has become more complicated in recent years with the introduction of relief for public houses, which are entitled to a £1,000 discount on their business rates from 2017 to 2019, while local newspapers have been getting a £1,500 discount on their office space for three years since 2017. The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018 provides 100% business rates relief for five years on new fibre infrastructure. This is a mess and needs fundamental reform. If we had a Government who were not as exhausted and internally divided as this Government are, perhaps they would also be addressing that large question in the context of how we provide the resources for decent, democratic local government.
This is a mouse of a Bill and, as such, I give it a very small welcome. It tackles one small corner of a very important area of public policy, which includes: the provision and financing of public services; the sustaining of public space and decent government; the public provision of basic facilities for citizens of this country; and the future of local government. When it comes to Committee, we will certainly want to test the provision of public toilets in other public buildings and whether they should also be within the scope of the Bill. I mean those within libraries, market halls and the sort of places my noble friend spoke about. However, we note that this is a tightly drawn Bill and that it will not be entirely easy to amend. We recognise that some of these wider issues cannot be addressed in this context and that we will have to raise them in wider circles than this.
My Lords, first I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Secondly, I am very happy to support the principle behind this Bill, and the Bill itself, as far as it goes, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I might want to explore options for improving it in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, set out what the Bill will achieve, and I will simply say that it clearly seeks to provide 100% mandatory business rate relief.
The closure of public toilets, over many years, is a matter of concern for the general population, particularly those with specific needs—they could be medical needs but are not exclusively so. The lives of an increasing number of people are affected by the state of Britain’s public toilets, such as people with disabilities, or their carers, the infirm, the elderly, or people with babies and young children. People of all ages—as I said earlier—are coping with a range of medical conditions and not finding adequate provision when they are out and about.
We need to be conscious of the ageing profile of our population. We travel more within the country than we used to. Furthermore, Britain welcomes many millions of tourists, and while that is something we want to increase, it adds further pressure on our existing facilities. These sometimes do not give the best impression, for example when you visit a tourist area and find the facilities are non-existent or in a not particularly good state. I was pleased with the progress that has been made—I think this was raised earlier—in making all the toilets at mainline stations free. That is not quite what we have yet but there has certainly been progress.
We should all be concerned about public health, hygiene and environmental standards in respect of toilet facilities. I agree very much with the British Toilets Association and its campaign to improve these essential facilities. If this measure helps—as I am sure it will—I very much welcome it.
Will the Minister, set out how this measure will increase the provision of facilities for women and for particular user groups such as wheelchair users, the elderly and people with young children and families who have medical conditions? The way in which the Bill is designed does not do that: there is a blanket exemption. Perhaps we should explore in Committee what we can do. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, made a powerful case highlighting the needs of disabled people. What problem would there be in saying that investing in more facilities for disabled people, young children and families, should attract double relief? What is the issue there? That would be a way of encouraging provision for disabled people, for example. These things need to be looked at in Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, made a very good point about lavatories in libraries, town halls and other public sites. I accept the point about hereditaments, but we should explore whether we could do something in that regard, because these are important facilities. Another issue is better security provisions—ensuring that these facilities are safe and secure.
The noble Lord—again, as a sort of aside—referred to the Can’t Wait card. That is a very good initiative; it is disappointing to pass places with signs telling you that you are not welcome if you want to use the toilet, and that you need to go somewhere else. That is not a friendly way of operating.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I know the area a little—though not as well as he does—and the problem that he describes. I was in Stratford-upon-Avon at the weekend and I tried to find a public toilet. I found the sign indicating the public toilets but could not find them. In the end I went into the theatre and used the facilities there. I could not find the public toilets, yet the place is teeming with tourists; there are coaches and people going up and down the road. It seemed to me that people were operating on the basis that people will use the facilities at coffee-shops, pubs and restaurants. That did not seem to be a particularly good way to operate.
I support the Bill: I will certainly think about tabling some amendments in Committee, perhaps along the lines we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. We may be able to improve the Bill, narrow in scope as it is.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on this important Bill. I do not accept for a minute that it is a small, unimportant Bill. It is a short Bill, certainly, but I think it has significance, so I do not understand the reference to it being a mouse of a Bill. It will take a substantial amount of public spending to help keep public lavatories open.
Let me deal with the various points made by noble Lords who participated and who gave a warm welcome to the principle of the Bill. I say in passing that this goes further than the provision in the Bill of 2017 that fell with the general election, in that it is mandatory. Secondly, there was a promise by the Chancellor in the Budget Statement 2018 that we would do this in relation to self-standing public lavatories. The reason we have not gone beyond that is one of cost and resource. I am happy to engage with noble Lords before Committee to go through that. It is not just a question of the relief itself, but the fact that we have to assess all these different properties to assess what would be the stand-alone cost of the public lavatory, and that is a massive undertaking which would be costly and time-consuming. I am conscious of the fact that there may be some urgency in relation to this measure—not just doing it quickly because it is desirable, but in terms of the days in which we live and the desirability of getting this legislation through.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, very much for her general welcome. She mentioned Cornwall. I was in Cornwall last Thursday, Friday and Saturday and because I knew this was coming I had the opportunity to discuss it with people in museums, particularly in Helston. I remember stopping there to find six public lavatories in a fairly small town—admittedly with tourist visitors. Cornwall is not an incredibly wealthy area, yet they had six public lavatories. They welcomed this because it will help some, if not all, of the public lavatories, which I think would be separately accessed. So I do not quite recognise the picture the noble Baroness was painting of Cornwall. I was variously in Redruth, Truro, Falmouth, Helston and Saltash, where the provision seemed to me perfectly adequate and probably beyond adequate, so far as I could see. Certainly, all those communities are far smaller than Kirklees.
I am not totally familiar with the position in Huddersfield, but I believe there are shopping centres, where there is presumably provision of lavatories. They are valued, in so far as shopping centres are concerned. There are technical reasons for this, but the rate that attaches to the public lavatory is very low because it is factored in with the shops in the shopping centre. I assume that that is the case. I do not know the position at Huddersfield railway station, although it is not so long since I was there because it has one of the most marvellous facades in the country.
We have to recognise that we are living in a different world. For example, I referred to the ability to check on a mobile phone where the nearest lavatory is. I do not know whether the noble Lord tried this when he was finding difficulties in Stratford-upon-Avon, but it is well worth doing. Yes, I think we need to publicise it far more than we do, but it is a very easy way of finding the nearest lavatory, wherever one happens to be in the country. There are many more shopping centres than there used to be, and many more coffee bars. I am not saying that that is the sum total of where we need to be, but it is a changing world. That was not the world we were in even 10 years ago—certainly not 20 years ago. We need to recognise that circumstances change. As I say, the principal reasons we are not going further than we are—and this has an annual cost of £6 million—are the cost and resourcing, particularly in getting it done quickly.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, very much indeed for his contribution. His experience here, his knowledge of the complicated situation and of where we are, is welcome. I was very interested in the legal tourism possibilities, and noted down that the lavatories at Westminster could perhaps be a stop-off point between Sayers v Harlow Urban District Council, which I think was a case of false imprisonment in a public lavatory, and Hightrees House in Clapham, which had nothing to do with lavatories but was a significant case. Some very interesting possibilities of legal tourism open up which we could perhaps engage in on another occasion. The noble and learned Lord made the point about rail stations, airports, shopping centres and so on; the challenge of extending it is an economic one.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, a doughty campaigner for the rights of disabled people, for her contribution. I will very happily make officials available to talk through the consultation we are currently holding. I extend that offer to other noble Lords who may want come along and talk to officials; I hope that they will participate in our consultation on changing places and toilet provision. I note, as I said in opening, that this rating relief will of course allow the reopening of lavatories—or, indeed, the building of completely new lavatories if they are self-standing—to attract the rating relief. I know that some councils have closed the buildings where there are stand-alone lavatories, and they remain boarded up. That may well be a possibility. I can also think of councils up and down the country whose reason for closures has not necessarily been just about the cost. Often, as noble Lords will appreciate and agree, it has been about drug use and other factors. That also needs to be said.
Perhaps implicit in what noble Lords have said—in fairness, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who is always fair, said this too—is that this did not just happen overnight. I took down what he said; I think he said it has happened “over many years”. That is indeed true. This did not suddenly happen when we got a Conservative Government in 2015. I do not have figures, but, in so far as I have been able to get some figures about closures, this has been happening for a long time, so it does not stand up that this has been brought about by the suggestion of Gradgrinds in 2015. That is not remotely the case.
I will happily look at the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, of the audit of accessible facilities. I do not know how easy that will be to do, but, when we discuss this with officials, we can look at it if that would be helpful.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, very much indeed. He is always quite rightly fighting for his community and the legacy of Titus Salt. I think that Salts Mill and the Hockney Museum are free entry and open seven days a week, and that the lavatories there are essentially open to the public.
They are indeed. Maggie Silver, who manages the mill, tells me that she has more than doubled her orders for loo roll since the public toilets have closed. It is just possible for disabled people to get in there, and the question of access for disabled people is a very important part of this issue, as I hope we all agree.
I do, and I hope that was implicit in what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester. I thank the noble Lord for acknowledging that there is at least the possibility of use there. Again, I am very happy to talk about the position of Saltaire with him; I think there was a closure of a public lavatory in Saltaire in 2018, and I am happy to talk to him about that.
The noble Lord opened up the debate far wider than I had really prepared for; I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, introduced taxation for Amazon and the noble Lord extended it to libraries, independent schools and the legacy of the Conservative Party and so on. I have always been much more of a Disraeli man than a Gladstone man. I can certainly put that on record and am happy to associate with some of the one- nation traditions of Macmillan and Macleod, but that takes us a bit further than where we are with this Bill.
I do not agree with the noble Lord about this being a mouse of a Bill; I hope that local councils throughout the country recognise that it is a genuine, and relatively costly attempt to ensure that we help with those 3,500 lavatories that are separately assessed in England and indeed, the 500 that are separately assessed in Wales. That is what the Bill is intended to do. The question of going more broadly can be looked at, but not in the context of this Bill because the resources from the Valuation Office Agency are just not there to undertake the work in the required timescale. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that there is a degree of urgency, both in a personal sense for individuals around the country and in a political sense. I hope that that is helpful.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who is always very fair on these issues. He recognised the importance of travel and tourism, and he is absolutely right. He asked whether we could do something about the provision for women, perhaps recognising that there is more of a need and often more of a queue for women than for men. That is a fair point. These provisions will at least help across the board.
The Can’t Wait card, which I mentioned in opening, refers to people who have an urgent need, through disease or other difficulty, for ready access to facilities. That extends beyond the number of public lavatories that there are. In those circumstances, people need somewhere that is immediately on hand, and the provision of public lavatories may help with that. However, there may be an urgency when this scheme would be desirable in any event. That is something that we should be proud of.
The noble Lord also referred to disabled access and the changing places scheme. I am very happy to write to noble Lords with more details on where we are on that, and as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to have a separate meeting with officials.
I hope that that is helpful. I will write dealing with the points I missed, and specifically with the changing places points made by the noble Baroness. With that, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.