Article: Lament for the public loo

Public services should be for the many not the few
The Big Issue, September 2008
By Heather Brooke

In for a penny in for a pound or at least 50 pence. That’s how much you’ll pay to visit the so-called public toilets around Parliament.

Local councils say the reason for leasing out the loos to private companies is purely economic. In a Westminster cabinet member report, officials say that the £2.7 million the council spends on public toilets is “a high level of expenditure for an entirely discretionary service.”

What? Pissing is discretionary? Tell that to your bladder the next time you get a call from nature. I suppose they mean peeing in public. We could go home or buy something in Starbucks or a pub and use their toilet. But should we have to? And what about those who have nowhere to go or the money for a purchase? And really, what else are taxes for but to provide common public services for which there is no commercial incentive?

Surely it’s basic human dignity (and hygiene) to have access to a clean toilet. Yet the number of public loos has diminished by 50 per cent according to Mike Bone, Director of the British Toilet Association, a finding backed up by other government investigations. London has seen the worst decline with just 400 public toilets left in a city with nearly 7.5 million people. That’s one for nearly 18,000 Londoners. Quite a queue!

It gets worse. There are 28 million visitors to London, of whom 12 million are from overseas and there is just one public toilet for every 67,000. That’s even before we consider the 2012 Olympics. Public transport is no better: of data supplied by 255 Tube stations, only 88 (35 per cent) have public toilet provision.

Beijing spent $48million (£27million) to provide 4,700 public toilets for the 2008 Games, one for every 500 metres. In addition all restaurants, shops and hotels have to offer their toilets for the use of non-customers for free.

I’m a healthy young woman and I find the lack of public loos in London extremely inconvenient so how much worse it must be for older people, pregnant women, parents with young children and those with urinary health issues. These people suffer while the young men who piss publicly on the street are given extra street urinals. Will it take a cadre of women urinating in public before we are given adequate resources?

When I think of all the nonsense my taxes pay for such as social engineering projects, public relations (which is little more than political propaganda) and top officials’ salaries, I am livid. According to the Town Hall Rich List (http://tinyurl.com/3xnw6v), 818 council managers earned more than £100,000 in 2006-07, up from 645 the previous year and in 2007 Tower Hamlets, England’s most deprived borough, paid 27 staffers more than £100,000!

That a basic necessity such as a public toilet is sidelined to make way for nannyish vanity projects of dubious merit and inflated bureaucratic salaries is outrageous.

It happens because in our current political system local people have no power or influence over how local councils spend our money. Central government politicians make all the important decisions. Therefore it is to these politicians rather than local people that a council listens.

If we did have any real power over our councils then public toilets might not be flushed down the pan. In New York, the Women’s Restroom Equity Bill signed into local law June 2005 ensures that all new and renovated buildings must have twice as many toilets for women as men. The measure was passed by the city council unanimously.

Some may argue that councils should be under a statutory duty to provide public toilets. But there are other less intrusive solutions. As in New York City, local councils could use planning laws to ensure any business serving food or drink open its bathrooms to the public. London Mayor Boris Johnson is encouraging all boroughs to sign up to the Community Toilet Scheme which provides grants for those businesses which open their toilets for free use.

“In Victorian times people were proud to provide pubic toilets,” says Mike Bone. Hopefully we won’t have to get back to pre-Victorian scenes of squalor before the importance of public toilets is re-discovered.

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