The sad demise of the public convenience
The Independent, 2 January 2006
By Heather Brooke
So farewell then, public conveniences. It seems you are no longer convenient either to the general public in need of relief or local councils charged with your erection and maintenance. The Victorians made Britain the envy of the world for public toilets. Ever since, we’ve been sitting on our laurels.
This New Year I’ve become acutely aware of the lack of public toilets as I trawl department stores, supermarkets and high streets. It’s bad enough in London, but nationwide the situation is even worse. When John Prescott threatened councils with council tax cuts, Torbay and Shepway responded by shutting all their public toilets, to the outrage of their citizens.
A night out in London, and the abiding memory is of streets paved with golden showers. Yet even this is tame to what I’ve seen in some public parks and East London side streets. It can’t be long before this slide back to medieval hygiene culminates with us all throwing our waste out the window. Is this really acceptable in 21st century Britain?
The Greater London Authority has received so many complaints about the state of the capital’s public toilets it launched a study in October to assess the situation and makes its first report at a public meeting January 16th. The public is invited to submit comments, suggestions and complaints until January 31st. Comments on London’s public toilets can be sent to: Anna Malos, PP10, London Assembly, City Hall, The Queen’s Walk, London SE1 2AA or email: [email protected]
This consultation comes not before time, yet there is no such initiative coming from central government. While the Chinese are busy spending £25 million installing 5-star toilets in Beijing, Britain’s interest in crap is confined solely to the scatological titles available in bookshops. Discussion of the real thing is strangely muted.
The last survey of public toilets done by the Audit Commission for 1999/2000 showed a dramatic decline in the nation’s public toilets. Instead of taking action on the Commission’s results, the government ended the official audits. Since then, the number of public loos has dropped a further 40 per cent, according to Richard Chisnell, director of the British Toilet Association and Loo of the Year award.
This decline is a direct result of the current trend for viewing public services as money-making ventures. True, in the short-term, toilets don’t make money and the costs (such as attendants and cleaners) can only be recovered by charging. Some councils are doing just that. Westminster now leases three of its public loos to private company Carlisile Cleansing who charge 50p to use their ‘superloos’.
But to view the usefulness of public services only in terms of cash flow is wrong. We pay taxes for communal services such as loos, libraries and schools because we understand that while they may not be profitable they are good for society. Why then does the government persist in forcing such public services to act like a business? We have already paid for such services once through our taxes – it is wrong to force us to pay twice.
Even the United States ditches its free-market capitalism when it comes to such services. Libraries and loos are popular with the public and as it is the local community who funds local services in the US, any councillor who cost-cuts in this area is likely to be kicked out of office. In the UK, where taxes are funnelled through central government, councils are free to ignore and antagonise their citizens.
Then there are the long-term costs of failing to provide such services. Westminster Council spends £2 million on public toilets, yet their budget for street-cleansing is a whopping £32 million. The council’s 40+ public toilets serve more than 10 million people annually. Leith Penny, Westminster’s director of environment and leisure, says new temporary urinals are preventing thousands of gallons of urine going down the street. This saves money and also makes life pleasanter for the street cleaners as there is less human excrement to pick up.
Coach companies bypass towns without public toilets. Torbay may soon suffer the same fate for shutting its loos. Other costs are harder to quantify yet clearly visible to anyone with common sense. A clean environment deters vandals and criminals and leads to happier residents.
I came across a scene at the once-manned public toilet in Bethnal Green’s Museum Gardens that is doubtless repeated across the country. The public toilets were shut to save money. Now the derelict hulk serves as a magnet and meeting point for druggies, alcoholics, and gangs. Meanwhile, the graffitied walls still provide a make-shift male urinal.
And that’s the other thing about public toilets – it’s women who suffer most by their absence. While it’s almost socially acceptable for men to piss publicly, women still maintain some degree of propriety even though their need for loos is greater due to pregnancy and menstruation. Yet in Westminster the new loos cater only for men. I ask Mr Penny what provision there are for women. “Well some women do use the urinals and there are a few with funnel attachments.”
This conjures up a vision that would doubtless make the front pages of the tabloid press. Must we really resort to funnels? Surely a better solution is to make public toilets a number one priority.
Tags: The Independent