Do you have a disability? Do you want to spend a penny? In some places around England, including the North East, you will soon have more convenient opportunities to do so.
That is undoubtedly welcome news on what is a serious matter for those affected. More dubious is that you will only be one of those fortunate enough to benefit if the powers-that-be in Whitehall say so.
Under the UK’s over-centralised local government finance regime, funding for disabled toilets does not come from your council, as you might think, but is controlled by the government; it is part of a National Disability Strategy.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has recently announced £7.4m funding for 64 councils to provide disabled toilets at 120 venues. They include Darlington, County Durham, North Tyneside, Northumberland, Redcar & Cleveland and South Tyneside.
Between them the six North East councils will receive £778,025 to provide toilets at 12 locations, such as parks, tourist attractions, cathedrals, cultural venues, shopping malls and libraries.
These grants form Round 2 allocations from the £30mn Changing Places toilet programme. The DLUHC said they would help provide 513 new Changing Places toilets in England, enabling people to enjoy everything their local area has to offer with dignity and freedom.
In Round 1 of allocations last March ten North East councils shared £1,702,303 to build 33 toilets. Some councils, including Redcar & Cleveland and Sunderland in the North East, were allocated less than they had requested.
It was in the Spring Statement of 2022 that the then Chancellor confirmed that over £23.5mn had been allocated to 191 councils in England to install Changing Places toilets in public places and tourist attractions. Another £6.5mn was added later last year.
The latest allocations have understandably been welcomed by charities and campaigners for people with disabilities, and Levelling Up Minister Dehenna Davison said:
“Everyone deserves to have the freedom to enjoy their local communities – without the fear of whether or not they’re going to be able to access the facilities they need.
“[This] funding will see 120 new Changing Places toilets in places where they are most needed, helping ensure disabled people and their carers can go about their lives with dignity.”
Community Ownership Fund
This is not the only recent example of the DLUHC announcing comparatively small grants for good causes. On 9 February came news of 29 grants totalling £5,833,503 (an average of £201,155 each) from the Community Ownership Fund for local groups, village halls and similar throughout the UK.
One grant of £250,000 goes to St George’s Church, Fatfield, Washington. The church, we learn from the DLUHC, “is the base for a range of social groups and events providing support to community members through partnership with charities.”
The funding, it says, will enable an annexe to be built to the church building to better accommodate community need. The church hopes the extra space will enable activities to continue, new activities to be started and improved accessibility.
Doubtless the social groups that use St George’s Church will make good use of the new annexe, and good luck to them. But shouldn’t this funding, and the other 28 grants, have been matters for local councils? And shouldn’t councils, in turn, have been well enough funded to pay them if they saw fit?
The reason these relatively small grants, whether for disabled toilets or other local facilities, are controlled from Whitehall and not the town hall is that local authorities have been progressively disempowered and underfunded for decades.
Now Labour MPs fear that the Treasury is trying to strengthen central control over local spending still further by barring the DLUHC from approving capital projects without its agreement, adding another Whitehall hoop for local schemes to jump through.
During a Commons debate on local government finance on 6 February the MP for North Durham, Kevan Jones, asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Lee Rowley, to comment on a report in the Financial Times that the Treasury had stopped the DLUHC doing any further capital spending because it was concerned about value for money.
Mr Rowley replied: “The Treasury certainly has not stopped anybody doing capital spending…”
Pressed further by Clive Betts, Labour chair of the Commons Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, he added:
“I would not believe everything written in the press. As we do all the way through the year and through all these projects, we work very closely with the Treasury, and we ensure that we are achieving the ultimate objective, which is to level up communities…”
There is a glaring mismatch between the government’s devolution agenda, under which it is promising North East councils control over £4.2bn over 30 years, and its central micro-management of comparatively tiny sums even if, as is contested, the DLUHC is free to act without the Treasury’s approval,
If the provision of public toilets, even if as part of a National Disability Strategy, and the other projects described above, is not a matter for local government – even for parish councils where they exist – it is hard to know what is.
But given the tightness of Whitehall control that these comparatively small grants reveal, next time you want to pay a visit while in your local park you should be relieved to know that the relevant DLUHC minister – and perhaps a Treasury minister too – have decided it is value for taxpayers’ money.