Clause 1: Relief from non-domestic rates for public lavatories
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “consists wholly or mainly of” and insert “is used wholly or mainly as”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 2, which is in the same group. This follows what I thought was an interesting and useful discussion in Committee on the meaning of the words “wholly or mainly” when it came to defining whether a hereditament qualified for the zero rating under business rates as a public lavatory. In Committee I probed whether “mainly” was about the area it covered, perhaps the floor area, the value or the use. The Minister made it very clear that it was about the use; I have been reading what he said in Committee and that is very clear indeed. I will come back to that because Amendment 1 is the more important of these two amendments.
Amendment 2 is about the percentage use of the hereditament that qualifies for non-payment of any business rates. In Committee the Minister made it clear that the words “wholly or mainly” were put in because, he said, they are commonly used words in this kind of legislation, particularly in relation to charities. He referred to case law and to local authorities having some flexibility in whether they decide it is a public hereditament. He said:
“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 … because the remaining area is used as storage or for other matters of little consequence.”—[Official Report, 24/2/21; col. 852.]
The useful discussion that we had there again put the emphasis upon the use of the hereditament. The Minister went on to refer to the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and its reference to charities.
The interesting thing is that it is not entirely clear that 50% is absolutely clear and written into the legislation. The Minister kept saying that he did not want greater burdens to be put on local authorities and did not want them to spend more time on this, yet there seems to be some disagreement, in the context of business rates relating to use for charitable purposes, about whether the proportion of the use that is taking place has to be 50% or more. The Charity Tax Group says in its briefing:
“In order to benefit from the mandatory exemption from business rates it is important to understand the meaning of ‘wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes’. Case law suggests that ‘mainly’ probably means ‘more than half’; but there is a certain amount of ambiguity about this and the interpretation may vary from local authority to local authority”
which is unsatisfactory.
“It is sometimes argued that ‘mainly’ in fact means more than 75 per cent. Charities may have to try to negotiate this with their local authority.”
I am no expert on this area and I do not know how much of that goes on, but it seems sensible that if “mainly” means 50% or more that ought to be written into the Bill.
Amendment 1 would put into the legislation the exact words in the charitable legislation and the exact words that the Minister said in Committee referred to this legislation. I looked it up. Section 45A(2)(b) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 reads, for charitable relief,
“it appears that when next in use the hereditament will be wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes.”
There is then another paragraph that refers to community amateur sports clubs that has the same wording.
I am therefore trying, in an attempt to be really helpful to the Government, which I always attempt to do in legislation because if we get good legislation it is clear what it means and it is workable, to put into the Bill the wording in the Local Government Finance Act, which in Committee the Minister said applied to this Bill, which is to say that it is not, as this Bill states at the moment
“consists wholly or mainly of”,
“is used wholly or mainly”
for public lavatory purposes.
This is a very sensible little amendment. The Government ought to say, “Yes, of course. It’s sensible. Let’s put it in.” I beg to move.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interests in the register as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I must say that I enjoyed the forensic probing that my noble friend Lord Greaves has undertaken. The words in the Bill that he is keen to clarify are ones that legislators frequently use. One wonders whether this is for the precise purpose of storing up business for lawyers when a challenge is made and the words then have to be to defined. My noble friend has done his research and quoted case law. The Minister’s response will be of interest to many of us because it will relate not only to this Bill but to others where charitable institutions are involved.
My noble friend also drew our attention to the difference in the use of “consists” and “used”. As he rightly pointed out, a “well used” facility may not get relief, whereas one that consists “wholly or mainly” may well do. Perhaps the Minister will be able to explain the reasoning behind the use of the words in the Bill that my noble friend is questioning. I look forward to what I am sure will be a most informative response.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling the amendment. We debated issues around similar words in Committee. I thank him for raising these important matters again because we have to be clear. I was very struck by the points he made towards the end of his remarks about how important it is to get legislation right and to have good legislation. If we are not clear what we mean and mean what we say we will have all sorts of problems.
This gives the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, the opportunity to be very clear about what the Government mean. We need to be clear when we have words such as “mainly” and whether it is “more” or “less”. If we do not get these things clear then we get confusion. That leads to bad law and might potentially involve the courts. It potentially involves wasting more time in this House clarifying what we should have clarified in the first place.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is very good at picking these things up. I remember the debate that we had on rogue landlords, when he tabled an amendment on what was meant by the word “rogue”. It is important that we get these things right because then we will not need to clarify them. I thank the noble Lord for that. I look forward to the Minister’s response on the amendment.
My Lords, I draw attention to my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for these two amendments which would change the way a public toilet is defined for the purposes of qualifying for the relief within this Bill.
As currently drafted, the 100% business rates relief will be available to any eligible hereditament which consists wholly or mainly of public lavatories. The first amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would amend this so that eligibility is determined on the use of the hereditament.
The Government aim to make this relief as simple as possible to administer for local councils. When determining whether to award the relief, local authorities should be able to apply a degree of common sense and ask the essential question: “Does it look like a public lavatory”? Therefore, the Government favour an approach based on the physical characteristics of a hereditament, and “consists” achieves this better than “used” does.
While I appreciate the intention of the noble Lord in bringing forward this amendment, I hope that the House will agree that the extent to which a hereditament consists of public lavatories is less likely to be subject to change than the extent to which it is used as a public lavatory. As such, the approach chosen by the Government will result in fewer reassessments of awards of the relief being required.
Furthermore, the Government do not consider that the adoption of either option would result in a material difference to ratepayers. A hereditament consisting of a public toilet is unlikely to be used for any purpose other than that for which it has been designed. This contrasts with the business rates relief available to charities, which hinges on the use of the hereditament. The wording of the charity rate relief reflects that, for example, a hereditament consisting of a shop may be used for either charitable or non-charitable purposes. I do not consider there to be an equivalent issue in the case of public toilets.
I would like to reassure the noble Lord that it is not the Government’s intention for this relief to be available to toilets which are permanently closed and out of use. That is why the Bill amends only Section 43 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988—the section relating to occupied hereditaments. As such, the relief will not apply to unoccupied public lavatories.
The second amendment would define the meaning of the word “mainly” for the purposes of awarding the relief in the Bill as meaning “at least 50%”. As I have set out, it is councils and not central government which are responsible for determining eligibility for business rates relief and it is right that there is some element of discretion in this process. The use of the word “mainly”, which is used elsewhere in rates legislation where it remains undefined, achieves this.
It is right that local authorities have the ability to take a common-sense approach in marginal cases and to reflect on their own local knowledge, as well as any relevant case law and guidance, when making their decisions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his proposals. However, on the basis of the points made I hope he will agree to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for devoting some brainpower to this, actually thinking about it and coming up with sensible arguments. On balance, I do not agree with him. It seems that common sense would be to make it as simple as possible —his words—for local authorities, using exactly the same wording they are used to for other things.
I am particularly grateful for his use of the term “common sense”. He may find himself quoted from Hansard in future, when local authorities, as they sometimes do, make completely stupid decisions. It is now written down; it is laid down that common sense has to be used. I should declare my interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council.
I have tried to bring this into line—it will not destroy the Bill. The Minister said that the physical characteristics of public lavatories are very clear and do not change—but their uses do change. We once had a planning application for turning a public lavatory into an ice cream parlour, but I do not think that that succeeded. I think that, had they tried to sell ice cream from it, people would not have thought that it was still a public lavatory, but it is still very true.
I am grateful for what the Minister said; I am sorry that he will not accept my amendments, but I will not push them to a vote—they are not of that degree of importance. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
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 the debate.
3: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Review: impact of the Act on provision of public lavatories
(1) Within 12 months of this Act coming into force the Secretary of State must undertake and publish a review of its impact on the provision of public lavatories in England.(2) The review must make reference in particular to the impact of the Act on—(a) the number and distribution of public lavatories and whether this provision is adequate to meet the needs of communities,(b) the number of accessible toilets in England, including Changing Places toilets,(c) the cleanliness and maintenance of public lavatories, and(d) the provision of baby changing facilities.(3) The review must make a recommendation as to whether further measures should be introduced in order to address the requirements in subsection (2).(4) The Secretary of State must lay a report on the review before both Houses of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a review of the impact of the Act on the provision of public lavatories in England, with particular focus on number and distribution, accessible toilets, cleanliness, and baby changing facilities.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 3, to which I have added my name, I indicate my support for the other amendments in this group.
I thank the Minister for being so generous with his time. I also thank the British Toilet Association for attending the meeting with the Minister and providing advice that underlined the crisis that this country faces with public toilet provision. I believe that those of us with amendments today are, generally, not intending to impede the passage of this Bill. We support its modest aims, but it is far too modest to make any real difference, as is the price tag the Government have attached to it. The view of the British Toilet Association is that it will not create any more public toilets, but it may stem the tide of closures. If that is the case, it is, I suppose, a small success.
Amendment 3 is designed to encourage the Government to be much more ambitious. Already, there has been a consultation on some aspects of toilet provision, but too many government consultations seem to run into the sand, so this amendment requires a government review of the success of this legislation, looking specifically at aspects of public toilet provision that I hope we can all agree are modest social requirements for the 21st century.
The amendment specifically refers to accessible toilets; with an ageing population, we need many more of these. It also refers to baby changing facilities, which need to be clean and available to men as well as women. Modern fathers and grandfathers face a real challenge finding such facilities when out with young children. The amendment refers to cleanliness—the pandemic has emphasised the importance of this aspect. It refers specifically to communities: the Government must recognise and cater for the needs of a modern, diverse society. Indeed, the Minister is himself Minister for Communities. I know that, with his considerable experience of local government and distinguished record, the noble Lord will be very aware of the challenges and choices facing local authorities.
In Wales, where I live, a public health Bill put responsibility on local authorities to develop a strategy for the provision of public toilets: at last, there begins to be a longer-term view. Numbers count, and they dwindle all the time. Financially stretched councils often feel forced to cut funding to non-statutory services and, astonishingly, public toilets are a discretionary service. For example, both Birmingham and the City of London recently announced widespread closures of public toilets, and this comes at a time when we are less likely to be able to pop into a shop, pub or cafe to use their facilities.
In his opening speech at Second Reading, the Minister told us about government participation in the excellent community toilet scheme. The problem is that many such facilities are unlikely to reopen because the Covid lockdown has destroyed so many high streets and small businesses. Yet the availability of decent public toilets will be key to the revival of town centres after the pandemic.
We are talking about basic human rights and basic human needs; we are all experts on this topic. We do not intend to push this amendment to the vote today, but I appeal to the Minister to use this opportunity to build on the work that the Government are already doing and to commit to bringing a report and, I hope, more ambitious proposals to this House in the foreseeable future.
Amendment 4 (to Amendment 3)
4: After paragraph (2)(a) insert—
“(aa) the provision of public lavatories by town and parish councils,”
My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Randerson for the campaigning which she does on this issue, together with colleagues and campaigning organisations. Not very long ago—perhaps 15 or 20 years ago—there was a view that public lavatories were on their way out. I hate to say this, but they were being flushed away, first because it was thought that they were not necessary and, secondly, because of cuts in local government spending which, as we know, have been particularly strong in the last 10 years. The organisations and groups that campaigned for them then were felt to be rather old-fashioned and out of date. That view has substantially changed now. People are coming to understand that they are so important if we want people to spend time on British beaches, at holiday resorts, using car parks in the hills, and going to town centres, particularly ones which do not have large, emporium-type shops whose lavatories you can use.
But who provides them? I do not know what proportion of public lavatories in this country are provided by town and parish councils, but I suspect that it is a lot higher than the proportion of the population of the country that is covered by them. They tend to cover wider, rural areas that tourists go to, main roads and so on. As my noble friend said, it is getting increasingly difficult to find public lavatories in big cities. They are being closed down. In cities, you can usually find somewhere to go in a pub, a restaurant or a large shop. That is not so in the countryside. It is very difficult to find a parish council, of any size, or a town council that does not own and run at least one public lavatory. Many of them have more than that. They are vital.
I will now get on to something which is a hobby-horse of mine at the moment. I spoke on it in the debate on the Budget last week and I will speak on it on every available occasion that comes up. These democratically elected local bodies called town councils are becoming increasingly important in towns—small and medium-sized ones particularly, but some large ones—which have lost their own local authority councils and which are increasingly losing them as the country moves towards unitary authorities. In place after place, it is these councils, the representatives of the local community, which are providing public lavatories.
In most cases, that is because they are heritage lavatories, in the sense that they were bequeathed to them by a previous town council or, in many cases, the district councils and unitary councils in the boroughs, which previously ran the facilities, where they have a town or parish council, are passing them over to them and saying, “Here it is—we’ll give it to you. It’s not exactly an asset, but nevertheless we will give it to you. It’ll cost you money to run, and it is your responsibility to decide whether you want to keep this going in your area, because we cannot afford it anymore.” That is happening in more and more places.
The problem is that, when a town or parish council decides that it wants a new public lavatory, how is it going to finance it? Very often, town councils are now charging levels of council tax which only a few years ago would have been thought extraordinarily high and impossible, because they are taking on more and more facilities such as parks, leisure centres, community centres and all sorts of things and having to pay for them. The boroughs, districts and unitary authorities are not doing them anymore and cannot afford them, whereas the town councils can put the council tax up and, if local people agree to it, they can keep those facilities going.
How do they get new public lavatories? The problem is that the Government do not have a funding relationship with parish and town councils. I have asked various questions of the Minister who is sitting here tonight about this, and the answer that I get all the time is that the Government have no powers to fund parish and town councils. I find that extraordinary, as they have powers to do everything else; they have powers to buy new nuclear warheads and all sorts of other things, but apparently they cannot fund parish councils. That is what the Minister keeps telling me, although I do not believe it. I think that there are ways in which they could—but, if they cannot, the law needs changing.
With regard to revenue spending, the money goes to the districts, counties or unitaries, and the Government claim that they advise those bodies to pass money on to the parishes. Nobody in the parishes ever hears about that advice or knows where it comes from, but that is what the Government are saying—but these are strapped authorities that cannot possibly afford that. When they have special funding, such as revenue funding for all the work that has been done for Covid, it goes to the principal councils, and the towns, which might well have put in a huge amount of time and effort and done wonderful work on Covid, miss out. When they want new public lavatories, they cannot get the grants to do it.
The amendment from my noble friend Lady Pinnock mentions Changing Places. It is an excellent scheme, but I am told by the parish councils that it does not apply to town and parish councils; they cannot apply for Changing Places grants for producing new and better amenities for disabled people as the other authorities can. There seems to be a complete void of government thinking with regard to town and parish councils and the fact that they can often do things, including providing public lavatories, which are much more economic and often better than the authorities from which they have taken things on.
This is a little tangential to the purpose of this Bill but, nevertheless, it is a point that I will make time and again until somebody in government starts listening.
My Lords, Amendment 6 in my name would require the Secretary of State to publish an assessment of the number of public lavatories kept open by the rates release provided by this Bill. I also want to speak in favour of Amendment 3, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, which requires the Secretary of State not only to review the number of public lavatories in England but also to assess their distribution and whether the provision meets the needs of the community and also the cleanliness of public lavatories and whether baby-changing facilities are provided.
I very much regret that I was unable to speak in Committee due to sickness. I note the Minister’s offer to meet to discuss the issues that my amendment raises. I have since written to him saying that I would very much like to meet him, and I await his response eagerly.
I also want to thank the Minister for confirming in Committee that there are currently 3,990 public toilets in England and Wales. How does this figure compare with the figures of a decade earlier? According to the BBC report, “Reality Check: Public toilets mapped”, released in August 2018, there was a 13% decline in the number of public toilets provided by local authorities in the UK between 2010 and 2018.
We know that since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic many more public lavatories have closed. As I outlined in my letter to the Minister, the provision of public lavatories is an issue that has an impact on everyone in this country. To date, there has been a lack of data on public lavatory provision in the United Kingdom.
According to NHS England, 14 million adults in the UK have problems controlling their bladder, and 6.5 million have issues regarding their bowel. For too many, bladder or bowel continence issues are a significant barrier to living full and independent lives. As joint chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Bladder and Bowel Continence Care, I know well that a Royal Society for Public Health survey in 2018 found that one in five people did not feel able to go out as often as they would like due to the lack of public toilets available in England. The same survey found that 56% of respondents restricted their fluid intake before going out, trying to reduce the need to find a toilet.
The provision of public lavatories is a significant public health issue that requires far more attention than it currently receives. As part of the Government’s strategy to support people enjoying at least five extra healthy and independent years of life by 2035, serious consideration must be given by policymakers to how we can support people living with continence issues. The provision of public lavatories is clearly a critical part of this.
The aim of this Bill in providing rates relief for the providers of public lavatories is a good one that I hope will help keep more of these facilities open. The purpose of my amendment, and that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is to ensure that the Government track the success of this initiative and, more generally, that they gather more useful data regarding the provision of public lavatories.
Given that the scope of the Bill is limited to rates relief, it was not possible to table amendments to address some of the broader policy issues regarding public lavatories and continence care. That will have to wait till another day. My amendment aims to improve our evidence base on public lavatory provision in this country to assist the Government with any future policy decisions in this area. I shall not put it to a Division, but I hope that the Government will agree to it being added to the Bill.
My Lords, I thoroughly support the amendments, not to the point of wishing to divide on them but to say that the provision of public toilets is something that Parliament should have its eye on and that the Government should keep us in touch with. I do not believe for a moment that any of us want to go back to the condition of a few centuries ago when there were no such things. Those of us who are my age will have had the chance to sample such environments on our travels. Although I can attest for the sheer romance of being out on a dark evening and listening to the dung beetles scenting what is going on and humming towards you, that is really not the way that we, or anyone else in this world, should seek to run our towns.
I very much hope that the Government, in their attention in this Bill and in the consultation that they are conducting on toilets generally, will evolve a system of making sure that our provision of public toilets is not only sufficient to ensure that we have clean and hygienic towns and cities but that all those who might otherwise be restricted in their access to the world by a lack of public toilet provision are not so restricted. I encourage the Government, even if they do not accept these amendments today, to put the feeling that lies behind them into practice and, in due course, into law.
My Lords, I can speak very briefly to Amendments 3 and 6, which I sincerely support. A review after 12 months and annual reviews thereafter are essential if we are going to get a real grip on how effective this Act has been, and we all want it to succeed. There may well be other ways of collecting statistics, but a specific return is very important, not least for planning for the future, and that is where I shall place my emphasis.
The Minister was very kind and met us this week. He seemed to share our concern that we must not go backwards in the provision of public lavatories and our feeling that this is an opportunity to start to plan much more strategically and successfully for the future. The Victorians, with their deep awareness of the priority of public health, infectious diseases and the rights of men and women, were in no doubt about the importance of public lavatories. We ought to take our lead from them, because Covid has had a devastating effect on public services. Provision of, and the priority we have given to, decent public lavatories has deteriorated.
As we heard from the British Toilet Association this week, there is no doubt that this service is in crisis. That is not a word it uses loosely. Covid has shown what happens when public loos are shut with no thought for what else might happen when everything around them is also shut—all the ancillary provision in shops, public buildings and so on. It matters now that there are only public loos available, and it has proved a real nightmare in some places, with the cuts in services—we have heard about Birmingham and the City of London already this evening.
This is a moment of opportunity which may override a sense of despair for three reasons. First, there is now a wider understanding than ever before of public health and how disease spreads, and people are aware of the need to take responsibility for their own health.
Secondly, public lavatories are now the only lavatories available to people in public spaces. When they are closed or in a disgusting state, it is no wonder that people are not very happy about leaving home and tend to reconcile themselves to staying in and feeling trapped and claustrophobic in the way we have all experienced to some extent during Covid.
Thirdly, this has direct economic consequences. It is not simply a right; it is a social and economic function. It means, in particular, that our town centres, which are suffering so badly, will have less appeal and less reason to be visited. They have taken the brunt of Covid in so many ways—there are forests of estate agents’ signs in the town I live in. If the Government are serious about making town centres the centre of our communities again, they have to prioritise the provision of public loos.
Finally, this brings me on to a wider point. The British Toilet Association has called for a national strategy. It recognises of course that public authorities have to provide and that Wales has set—as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has already said—a really important example in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017, which specifically provided for a duty to be put on local authorities so they would plan strategically for access and for keeping loos open and decent. And it provided guidance to go with it. I know Wales often shows the way forward these days, specifically with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which is such a useful discipline on public policy, but it seems self-evident that, if Wales can do it, the other countries of the UK, especially England, can as well. It is part of preparing for the future. Not least, it is part of preparing for future pandemics and infectious diseases and recognising, and acting to address, the deep inequalities in public provision, and private provision, too, that trap older people in particular at home.
I hope the noble Lord, who seemed to be taken with our arguments earlier this week, will take this opportunity and seize the moment to think more radically and widely about what the country needs and how it might be provided. Of course we want this Bill to go through, and we certainly do not want to impede it, but we need to think more creatively about what can be provided.
My Lords, Amendment 3 seeks to exploit the opportunity—as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, said—that the Bill gives the Government to find out whether we have enough public lavatories throughout England, particularly for the growing number of disabled and elderly people, and whether this Bill, after a year, will have had the impact we all hope it will have.
I too am grateful to the Minister for arranging a meeting with the British Toilet Association. However, I am afraid, as I think the Minister realised, we learned that things were even worse than we thought, with a great many public lavatories closed, whether through fear of spreading the disease or because cleaning could not be undertaken. I myself have not been out and about for months, as I am in the “extremely vulnerable” category, but my friends tell me there is such a shortage of open public lavatories that there is evidence of people using front gardens to relieve themselves.
In Committee, I asked the Minister whether he would update the House on the Changing Places facilities. Muscular Dystrophy UK, which is co-chair of the Changing Places consortium, has been working with the Government to help identify how best to direct the funding. Could the Minister give us more detail on how this is going? Brilliant though Changing Places is, the country also needs a greater number of more modest disabled loos. We should take this opportunity, as a matter of urgency, to find out just how many open public lavatories we have for everyone.
My Lords, I warmly commend the four noble Baronesses who have put their names to Amendments 3 and 6. In speaking to this group, I declare my professional involvement with non-domestic rating as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as head of the National Association of Local Councils, and through my involvement with rural tourism and public access generally. So I hope noble Lords will forgive me for having a slightly dry, technical assessment of this approach.
It is right that, in the light of mass closures of public lavatories up and down the country, we should have a better idea of the provision and what is happening in terms of trends. I do not have the figures to hand, but my expectation as a chartered surveyor would be that in the context of the overall cost of the facility of heating, lighting, water supply, cleaning, building repairs, insurance and maintenance, the business rate element of a public lavatory would not be a tremendously significant factor. However, I stand to be corrected. Maybe a superior facility would indeed attract a willing payment per use at economically viable levels. Certainly, some municipalities are starting to buck the trend, and I am very pleased to note that Wales is leading the way—a point made so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.
The measure demanded here would obviously involve devoting some government resources to the review referred to. The distribution of Changing Places facilities is known, if I apprehend correctly from the British Toilet Association’s information. However, those run by other organisations—parishes, municipalities, venue and beauty spot managers, stately homes, royal parks, shopping centres and so on—is information not necessarily collected in one place. Though the dispersed knowledge must be held somewhere, it is not comprehensibly in the rating lists, for instance, which only record those separately in assessment. However, I do think that there is a collective will to close this information gap if the Government were so minded to tap into it.
As we have heard, public lavatories are clearly part of essential infrastructure. The old, the young, those with medical conditions, and the fit and healthy, all need access to decent lavatory accommodation. Manifestly, there are gaps in provision, because I am certain that we are all, like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, aware of unsuitable areas being used for informal toilet purposes. This is a personal hygiene and general public health issue, potentially damaging to the general environment, and must be addressed.
Regarding Amendment 4, I applaud and support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in advocating the role of parish and town councils. Many parish councils would willingly take on public lavatories, but as we have heard, are no more able to raise the money to run them than the principle authorities who may run them now. Even in transferring responsibility to parish councils, as happens, it is commonplace for the financial provisions not to form part of the transfer. This adds to the problem, and the essential funds for this essential infrastructure are therefore not ring-fenced. This is part of the process of attrition.
Beyond that, it is a matter of economic consequence for optimising the use of destinations to which the public may resort, and the public enjoyment of urban and rural space for shopping, recreation and so on. I find it tragic to hear, as we just have, of people who dare not venture far from home because of distance from suitable facilities or certainty of any provision whatsoever. I am mindful of the gross indignity that such an absence of facilities can create. These issues are very important. I am less certain that they are necessarily a matter for the Bill, given its long title, but having been accepted as amendments, I assume that they are in scope. Accordingly, I accept the general thrust of these, and look forward with interest to the Minister’s comments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has withdrawn from this group, so I call Baroness Pinnock.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Randerson has a wealth of knowledge of the value and importance to our communities, large and small, of the provision of clean, well-maintained public toilets. Her argument is a powerful one. We learned from the meeting that we had with the representatives of the British Toilet Association and the Minister that, in fact, there is no longer accurate mapping of open public toilets around the country. During these 12 months of Covid closures, public toilets have been shut out of concern that their use might enable virus transmission. As the country seeks to return to a more normal way of life, what is vital is that public toilets are available in every community. All noble Lords who have spoken so far have made that point. That is why I totally agree with my noble friend that this Bill lacks ambition and what is needed is a strategy for public toilets from a public health perspective.
I have a suggestion for the Minister. The Government are allocating funding via a Towns Fund to help regeneration. Perhaps he can urge his department to attach a requirement to successful grant applications that towns ensure, as a minimum, that they have a well-maintained and accessible public toilet for the disabled.
My noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out how important parish and town councils are in maintaining existing public toilets. He also pointed out the difficulty that those councils have in accessing capital money in order to restore or build new facilities. That, too, is something to which I hope the Minister will respond.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, urges us, as a society, to recognise the essential need for decent public loos, and that their provision is in crisis. I agree wholeheartedly when she says, “If Wales can do it, so can England.” It was well said.
My noble friend Lady Thomas speaks with long experience of the barriers that are unwittingly created for disabled people by the rest of the community. There has been a failure to provide public toilets that are both available and accessible. If we all had to plan our days out shopping or visiting on the basis of the availability of an accessible toilet, my hunch is that many more would soon be provided.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for pursuing a similar amendment and for supporting the purpose the amendments in the names of my noble friends. Of course, we on this side totally support this Bill. It will have some limited impact that might well ensure that some public toilets remain open. Unfortunately, it fails to address the wider issues of comprehensive provision and the role of government in encouraging and supporting the funding of such facilities. Hence, I fully support all the amendments in this group. Perhaps the Minister can provide some hope that the Government will return to the lack of provision of public toilets in future legislation. Better still, they could use the current funding regime to make their provision a priority for grants. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some evidence that the Government take the matter seriously, and I look forward to his response.
My Lords, Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is a good amendment and I support it. I look forward to the Minister’s response. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to highlight these issues. An ageing population needs more facilities; parents need facilities for their children. The point the noble Baroness made about changing facilities for fathers and male guardians is very well made. We also need to ensure that proper facilities are provided for disabled people, so I very much agree with the noble Baroness on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke to an amendment to the lead amendment. He was absolutely right in talking about people visiting town centres, beaches and so on. We are all looking forward to the lifting of lockdown over the next few months. The Government are going to say, “Get out there. Go out there and spend some money, visit some places and meet your family and friends”. I want to do that.
However, I am reminded of the time when, before lockdown, my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley and I went to Stratford for the weekend. We were walking out and about but could not find a public loo. Luckily, we were due to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company later that evening, so I went in there to use the toilet, but it is ridiculous. You just cannot find anything. There was a sign up saying “Public loo this way”. I walked around, but could I find it? No. I went round and round in circles. Luckily, at that point, I was able to go somewhere else and use the loo, but you cannot do that at the moment. Of course, even with the easing of lockdown, certain places may well be reluctant to let people in to use their toilets. We need to support our town councils, community councils and parish councils. The noble Lord’s point about funding was well made. We have to get these things right.
I am also in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about the importance of making these facilities available. People, especially older people and people with issues and worries, will not go out. They will not risk going out if they cannot find a place to use the toilet when they need to, because of the embarrassment and other problems. The fact that people will be restricted in doing that is a matter of much regret.
My noble friend Lady Andrews made an important public health point in respect of ensuring that we have proper facilities in place for people. That is really important.
I will leave it there, but I hope for a positive response from the Minister on the important issues raised in the debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Randerson, Lady Thomas and Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for their amendments, which would require the Government to publish a review of the impact of this Bill on the provision of public toilets.
Every year, the Valuation Office Agency publishes a snapshot of the number of separately assessed toilets as of 31 March. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, my brief research indicates that there were 6,087 public toilets in 2000, and that number had reduced dramatically to 4,627 by 2014 and to 4,383 by 2016. I do not have the exact figure for 2010 but it is clear that we have seen a dramatic reduction over many decades. As I mentioned in Committee, the current figure stands at 3,990 such facilities in England and Wales. This annual data release also breaks the aggregate total down to a local authority level, thus giving an overview of the distribution of these facilities across the country. The VOA will continue to make this data publicly available each year. Any future trends in the total provision of separately assessed public toilets, as well as their distribution across the country, will therefore be apparent.
Of course, the Government do not want to see further reductions in this figure. However, it is important to recognise that the ability for any public toilet to remain open is based on a number of issues. This does not diminish the importance of this Bill, but it does mean that hanging any trends in the provision of toilets solely on this business rates relief would not be the right thing to do. Operators of public toilets—in many cases, local councils—make decisions on the provision of public toilets in their area having reflected on relevant building regulations and their equality duty, as well as financial considerations.
In the first instance, the provision of toilets reflects the relevant building regulations. For example, under current building regulations, all new non-domestic buildings are expected to include a unisex, wheelchair-accessible toilet. Furthermore, I appreciate that Amendment 3 refers specifically to Changing Places toilets. I am pleased to be able to say that a major change in building rules in England made at the start of this year means that it is now compulsory to include a Changing Places facility in certain new public buildings. This is estimated to add these crucial facilities to more than 150 new buildings each year.
The House may also be interested to hear that the Government are currently undertaking a review of Part M of the statutory building regulations, which covers the access to and use of public toilets. This review will cover issues of mobility, demography and wider inclusion, and it will look at the size and layouts of toilets alongside the range of facilities needed to meet the requirements of people with different needs. This review will therefore look at the need to make any changes to building regulations in the context of the need for a fair provision of accessible toilets—including Changing Places facilities—and baby-changing facilities.
Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach to toilet provision would not be appropriate, and it is important that any support given to the total provision of public toilets is not blind to the need to ensure that the needs of all are met by this provision. That is why my department is undertaking a technical review of toilets which will consider the ratio of female toilets required versus the number for men, as well as the need for a fair provision of accessible and gender-neutral toilets. We have received over 17,000 responses to this review as part of the call for evidence, which ran from 31 October 2020 to 26 February this year. The Government are now considering these representations and will respond in due course.
As well as the important measure in the Bill, the Government are providing significant grant funding to directly support the provision of public toilets. In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, I am happy to give some more detail on the £30 million fund put in place by the Government to support the provision of Changing Places toilets. I am happy to say that the Minister for Regional Growth, Minister Hall, has now announced that this funding will be provided to councils on an opt-in basis so that they can install facilities in their local areas and boost the number of Changing Places toilets in existing buildings. District and unitary authorities in England will be invited to complete a short expression of interest and will soon receive full details of how they can access this funding.
I can also confirm that the Government are partnering with the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK—as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—to develop guidance to support the allocation of this funding. Muscular Dystrophy UK is an expert in this field and co-chairs the Changing Places consortium. I am sure that the House will agree that this partnership is a positive and important element of a significant multiyear programme to accelerate the provision of these vital facilities.
Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to thank those from across the House who took time to meet me and representatives from the British Toilet Association earlier this week. It was a valuable and constructive meeting and there was broad agreement on the importance of this measure in supporting toilet provision. While I do not think that an assessment of toilet provision in the context of the business rates system would be appropriate, I would be happy to meet again with any Peers who have an interest, as well as with the British Toilet Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association. I hope that this will provide us with an opportunity to further explore what is clearly an important issue, not just to those in this House but to many people across the country, and to build that ambition around the future provision of public toilets that has been called for by so many in this House.
I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Randerson, Lady Thomas and Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for their amendments, which recognise the importance not just of the total provision of public toilets but of having appropriate facilities which meet the needs of all. However, on the basis of the points I have made to the House, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, along with others, no doubt, I thank the Minister for his great interest in this area. I should apologise for not being able to make the meeting on Monday. I intended to, but I was caught up in a site meeting on ward issues. They are pretty difficult to organise at the moment, so it took rather longer. I apologise for that, but I have had good reports.
The only point I want to make is to thank the Minister for underlining what I was trying, less effectively, to say about the opt-in provision for new Changing Places-type provision and the fact that it does not apply to town and parish councils. However, major public buildings in a small town—a big community centre, a town hall or a leisure facility—may well belong to and be operated by the town council, and often are. The larger town councils at least ought to be included in that, and I wonder whether the Minister could go back and have a look at that. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 (to Amendment 3) withdrawn.
My Lords, this has been an excellent short debate and I thank all noble Lords who have participated. I note the cross-party support for the proposals here. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for reminding us that, while in this House we often speak of lofty ideals, in practice, out there on the streets of this country, it is the local facilities—the bus shelters, the bus timetables, the street lights and the public toilets—which make a world of difference to the quality of life of people who live here. And when those facilities are not good enough, they really complain. Many of those who have spoken in this debate have been or are councillors, and it is the councillors of this country who deal with these essential daily issues.
I particularly thank the Minister for his response. He provided some useful statistics to underline the need for the kind of report that the amendment suggests and outlined to us the details of the government review. I think the number of responses to it emphasises how important the issue is, and that there is clearly something wrong in the eyes of many people. I very much welcome the news about the government partnership with Muscular Dystrophy UK. I hope the Minister will think about this issue further and that, in due course, he will provide firmer details about future government action, because he clearly accepts that there is a need for action.
I particularly hope that the Minister will be able to address the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised about the ability of town and parish councils to apply for funding for changing places. There is really no logical reason why they should not be able to do so.
I hope my noble friend Lady Pinnock will be satisfied that she has had a long and very fruitful day speaking in this House. I thank her especially for being the lead signature to this amendment.
So although I am disappointed that the Minister did not give us a categorical assurance on the sorts of actions we all want, I am hopeful for the future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 5. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
5: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Report on the number of public lavatories and changing place facilities
(1) Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, and every 12 months thereafter, a Minister of the Crown must lay a report before both Houses of Parliament.(2) The report must consider whether the Act has led to an increase in the number of public lavatories and changing place facilities in England and Wales.(3) The report must be produced in consultation with relevant stakeholders independent from the Government.(4) The report must consider whether, for the purposes of subsection (2), rate relief should be extended to include—(a) local authority property, libraries and community centres that are free of charge to enter and contain a public lavatory that is free of charge for anyone to use,(b) premises that consist partly of public lavatories, or(c) premises that contain a changing place facility.(5) If the report makes any recommendations in relation to subsection (4), a Minister must lay a statement before both Houses of Parliament detailing the steps that will be taken by the Government as a result.”
My Lords, the amendment seeks to add a new clause. Its purpose is to require a report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament on the number of public lavatories and changing place facilities within 12 months of the passing of the Act, and every 12 months after that.
The report has to address a number of important points and consider whether the Act has increased the closure of public lavatories and, importantly, changing place facilities. We need to have proper conversations with the relevant stakeholders. Like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I was sorry that I was unable to get to the meeting with the British Toilet Association because I was here, considering the Domestic Abuse Bill at the time. However, I welcome the offer from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, to talk further on these issues, along with stakeholders such as the British Toilet Association, which does invaluable work for us.
Proposed subsection (4) of the amendment refers to whether the relief should be extended. That is very important. How does one extend rate relief? If the legislation is working, if the number of toilets is increasing and they are not being lost, we may well need to extend that rate relief. I make the point about changing place facilities because they are important. As I mentioned previously, there is now a changing place facility in the Tower of London. It is good enough for one of our historic royal palaces, so we should ensure that many other public buildings provide such a facility.
In the previous debate, I was reminded by my noble friend Lady Andrews of the importance of public health. I love the London Borough of Southwark—Southwark is in my title. The old town hall has a sign saying:
“The health of the people is the highest law”.
It was put there in Victorian times by the old St Mary Newington Vestry Hall. It is absolutely right. Think about what was being done in those times in terms of public health, sanitation and all the important things that had to be addressed. That motto is relevant today in terms of moving forward and ensuring that we address public health by having enough proper toilets available.
If the amendment is agreed, the Government will be asked to bring reports back to this House every 12 months. I suppose that the Minister is not going to accept the amendment. I may be wrong, but I hope that he can respond positively and genuinely because the Government need to arm themselves with that sort of information in order to get this matter right and ensure that the situation is improved for all our citizens.
My Lords, I support the amendment. I do not need to say any more about it. It concerns a slightly different aspect of what we have been talking about. Apart from that, I have made the points that I wanted to make. All that I will say is that I will keep on making them until the Government wake up and understand the role of town and parish councils. Having said that, I will sit down.
My Lords, I am going to follow the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and commend the amendment that was moved very eloquently by my noble friend on the Front Bench. I have said everything I wanted to say about the importance of keeping accurate records, and a regular and transparent check on how effective the legislation is and the difference that it is making. That is sufficient from me this evening as well
My Lords, I shall follow the previous two speakers in keeping my comments brief. That is not because the amendment does not have merit—on the contrary, it does—but because a lot of the issues it raises have been discussed in full earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy is right to pursue the extent of rate relief provision. There is an anomaly in restricting relief to standalone public toilets. We heard from the Minister during the debate in Committee that it would be difficult to achieve rate relief for public toilets in public buildings for reasons of complexity for the Valuation Office.
I appreciate those challenges in the administration of such a change, but where there is a will, there is a way. If rate relief were granted for public toilets within public buildings, it might just be the sort of relatively minor additional support that kept the toilets, the building and the facility provided there open. That would be a triple benefit.
What concerns me is that the Government are less than willing to find a way to enable more public toilets to remain open by extending rate relief. I understand that that is difficult—but let us hope that the Minister will be able to have a good think about it and come up with an answer. Maybe the report provision in the amendment offers a way forward; perhaps he will be able to agree to accept that part of it. Whatever happens, we have had a good debate on an important issue concerning public health and public facilities that is of concern to many people. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I hope the Government are listening. I know the Minister has been listening.
My Lords, I am conscious that everybody has kept their remarks relatively brief, so I am busily trying to pare down my speech in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
I appreciated the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the importance of town and parish councils in providing public toilets, and the fact that they have facilities that would benefit from, for instance, the Changing Places scheme. Because of the points that he has raised this evening, it is important for me to say that we will be looking at including in the guidance and the prospectus a call for councils at all levels to work together to think about provision, which I hope will help to ensure that town and parish councils are more involved than they otherwise would be. I thank the noble Lord for raising that point.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for tabling the amendment, which is similar to those previously discussed. I realise that his intention is to understand the difference this legislation has made, and I assure him that the Government keep under review the effectiveness of all business rates reliefs.
Nevertheless, as I set out earlier, the ability to keep a public lavatory open depends on a number of factors, and I do not think it would be possible to separate out the impact that this relief has had from the other aspects which determine local toilet provision. In addition, the amendment would require a report to consider whether the scope of the relief should be extended. I recognise that this is an issue in which many noble Lords are interested, so I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for the opportunity to set out why the Government have designed the scope of the Bill as we have.
Subject to Royal Assent, this Bill will deliver a 100% business rates relief for properties that consist wholly or mainly of public toilets in England and Wales. The relief has been deliberately designed to benefit those toilets for which removing the cost of business rates will make the greatest difference to the operators’ ability to keep the facilities open, and stem the decline that we have seen over many decades in public toilet provision.
Officials from my department regularly engage with the Valuation Office Agency and the Local Government Association ahead of the introduction of any business rates measures. Depending on the way in which the scope of the relief was extended, it might be necessary for an additional valuation exercise to be carried out by the VOA. I understand that the VOA has advised that such an exercise could require the assessment of hundreds of thousands of properties, at an estimated cost of around £90 to £120 per property. The total cost of carrying out an additional valuation exercise would therefore be significant, and would be disproportionate to the potential benefits to ratepayers of expanding the scope of the relief.
A different approach to extending the scope of the relief could reduce the burden on the Valuation Office Agency but instead require local authorities to identify qualifying hereditaments. On the basis of conversations with the LGA, my department considers that this would be likely to create additional administrative burdens and costs for councils, which would have to go beyond simply using the existing “public conveniences” category on rating lists, and would have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, suggested in Committee that most qualifying ratepayers would self-identify, therefore reducing the burden on local authorities. I agree that this could be the case, but some element of scrutiny would still be likely to be required on the part of each council to identify fraudulent or spurious claims, so the creation of administration and oversight would remain unavoidable.
While the Government set the legislation which informs the structure of the business rates system, the burden of implementing a relief of this sort and the process of ensuring that it is operationally sound fall to local councils and the Valuation Office Agency.
In the case of this relief, the Government consider that this balance has been met in the Bill as currently drafted. By ensuring that the criteria for the relief reflect a pre-existing category on rating lists, we have found a happy medium between ensuring that the measure delivers value for money and is straightforward for local authorities to implement, while providing targeted support for those facilities for which removing business rates costs will make the greatest difference.
It would be extremely difficult to isolate the changes this measure has had on increasing the number of toilets and changing places facilities from wider factors. Nor do I agree that it would be a good measure of the impact of the relief. However, I can assure the House that we will continue to keep all reliefs under review and, together with my colleagues in the Treasury, to listen to representations on how to improve the business rates system. I hope that, on this basis—and on the basis of the points made earlier this evening—the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that detailed reply to my amendment, which I will withdraw. We have had a good debate this evening on various aspects of the Bill and the rate relief that has been offered. We need to keep it under review. I am very pleased the noble Lord said that the Government will do that as we all want to see public facilities maintained and hopefully improved and increased. We all want this rate relief to work, so I hope that, if we find evidence that things are not working well, the noble Lord, his department and other colleagues in government will look at those representations carefully to see whether we can improve or enhance what has been offered here. I thank him for his response and all speakers in this short debate for their contributions. At this stage, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
House adjourned at 9.12 pm.