Friday, 31 July 2015

Newspaper column 29 July 2015 - Public toilets

As many of you are aware, Cornwall Council is in the process of relinquishing its management of public toilets.  A number of concerned constituents have contacted me about this issue and I agree with their concerns.

The tourist industry is vital to Cornwall’s economy and the provision of public toilets, especially in the tourist hotspots, is a key part of the overall service that tourists expect.  Local people also use these important community facilities. 

The responsibility for the provision of public toilets does not legally sit with any particular Government body, although local councils have historically taken on this important role.  As Cornwall Council continues its programme of cutting services to save money public toilets have become one of the more controversial areas it has targeted.  

Cornwall Council’s approach has been to threaten to close local facilities unless the local Town or Parish Council agrees to take on the cost of keeping them open. Whilst some of the larger local councils have the capacity to do this, many smaller parishes have found this a real challenge.

One of the issues these local councils face is that public toilets are liable for business rates. As crazy as this seems it has been this way for many years. With little or no revenue to cover these costs, councils are finding it impossible to find the funds to run the service which often run into tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pounds per year.

When the Prime Minister was in the constituency a few days ago, the six Cornish MPs, including myself, raised the issue of business rates on public toilets with him.  He acknowledged the problem and was grateful that we had highlighted this issue to him.  I followed up the conversation with a letter to him, laying out my position.

In light of the current business rates review, I asked the Prime Minster and Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, that serious consideration be given to the case for making public toilets exempt from business rates, especially when run by not-for-profit entities. 

The Prime Minister then spoke about the conversation with the six MPs on local radio.  He said “The whole issue of how public toilets are treated for business rates for instance is an issue they want to put very firmly on table and I think that is important.

“It may sound to some people like a fringe issue – but when you are dealing with wanting to have lots of tourists, with having lots of beach resorts, this is a really important issue.

"Of course, there is more that we can do – and I know that we will be looking at all these things.”

The removal of the business rates is not the silver bullet for this issue but it should go a long way to help the smaller local councils provide this vital service.  I will be working to ensure that the review does consider my request, as this will be a big boost for our communities in Cornwall.