Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Newspaper column 22 July 2020 - Toilets

As MPs one of our main roles is to legislate – to pass new laws and regulations that address the current and future needs of the country to improve the way we live. Most of the legislation we pass is initiated by the government which will mainly come from the Cabinet members.

However, occasional as a local backbench MP you are able to influence the government to pass legislation that they would not have ever considered without your input. Last week I had one of these opportunities.

The Public Lavatories (Non-Domestic rating) Bill will probably not go down as the most exciting or glamorous piece of legislation the House of Commons will debate in this Parliament. For me, however, it represented the culmination of an eight year personal mission.

It was in 2012 when I was the Cabinet Member on Cornwall Council with responsibility for public toilets that I first became aware of the fact that public toilets were liable for non-domestic rates, or business rates.

At that time Cornwall Council were seeking to devolve the running of toilets from the Unitary Council to Town and Parish Councils and it was one of my duties to try to enable this to happen. I quickly found that one of the biggest elements of the cost of running public toilets was business rates. This was a barrier to parish councils taking on these facilities.

In a place like Cornwall public toilets are essential for locals and tourists unlike as well as being vital for elderly people or those with health conditions that mean they need regular access to toilets. Therefore, at that time I wrote to the then Secretary of State and suggested that toilets should be made exempt from rates. He agreed and said the government would look into this.

Three years later in 2015 when I was first elected as MP, I raised this with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he visited Cornwall. In one of those odd coincidences, this conversation took place on 16th July 2015, precisely fives years to the day that the bill to enable this to happen passed its first stages in the Commons, last Thursday.

It has been frustrating over the past three years that we have not been able to find the time to put this legislation to Parliament. With the turmoil of all that has gone in that time – General Elections, Brexit, hung Parliaments, and of course the pandemic of recent months, it was good to eventually get to debate and vote this bill through.

It was quite fulfilling, that after eight years I was able to speak about my reasons for wanting this legislation passed and to feel that I had played a significant part in making this change happen. It will save our local Town Councils tens of thousands of pounds every year, and even for many of our smaller Parish Councils the savings will be a significant part of their annual expenditure. The bill also allows for this exemption to be back dated to last April which will mean these savings will apply to the current year which I know will be very welcome.

I have always been a big supporter of our local councils which within the context of local government in Cornwall play an increasingly important role in serving the communities they represent. They have of course also played a key role in recent months in supporting their communities through the pandemic and lockdown. Providing vital local support, especially to elderly and vulnerable people.
Many of them have seen their costs increase whilst some have lost income through not having revenue from car parks and other sources. One thing I have been highlighting recently is that the government has made money available to support the Town and Parish Councils in Cornwall. This money has been part of the almost £40million that the government has granted to Cornwall Council and Ministers have been very clear that they expect Cornwall Council to pass some of this on to Parish Councils to ensure they are not in financial difficulties.

Sadly, so far Cornwall Council have refused to make any funding available to our local councils. Just this last week Cornwall Council have received a further £5million from the government and I hope that they will now make some of this funding available to Town and Parish Councils across Cornwall who are in urgent need of additional support.