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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spending a penny should be a bog standard right

This article of mine on the shocking decline of public toilet provision in Britain appears in the Daily Express.
I'd be interested to hear from readers based outside Britain, what the current state of public toilet provision is in your country.

Aldous Huxley once said "Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted." For a long time in Britain, we’ve certainly taken the provision of free public toilets for granted. Being able to spend a penny- usually without actually spending one- was one of the things that set Britain apart from continental Europe.

Alas, free public conveniences in Britain are fast becoming an endangered species. In the last five years over 40% have closed, many more have introduced charges. To relieve yourself in Parliament Square in Westminster for instance, will now cost you all of 50p. The government wants to shift provision of toilets to the private sector and is encouraging local authorities to copy the ‘Community Toilet Scheme’ of the London Borough of Richmond, which pays pubs and cafes £600 for the public to be able use their facilities. Some councils opt for pay-as-you-go, space age-style pods that many would-be users find thoroughly intimidating. Once in, will they be able to get out? Worst of all are the telescope urinals that rise out of pavements at times of peak demand on Friday and Saturday night.

If this trend continues, it will not be long before the proper public toilet disappears altogether. “It’s a great shame” says Tony Rheinberg of Armitage Shanks, Britain’s oldest manufacturers of sanitary ware. “Everyone needs to be able to go to the toilet and we shouldn‘t have to rely on private premises to do so”. Anyone who has sneaked into a pub or food outlet just to use the washroom, will undoubtedly agree.

Free, (and clean) public lavatories are surely a hallmark of a civilised country. There is something fundamentally wrong in expecting people to pay for a call of nature. What if you don’t have enough money? In Hungary, a fearsome lady attendant once prevented me from using the facilities as I was all of 2 forints (about 0.005p) short. That couldn’t happen in Britain, I thought at the time, but sadly that’s no longer the case. Most of the new turnstile-operated pay toilets at railway stations, require the exact coinage- meaning that if you don’t have it, you need to traipse round for change-hardly ideal when you‘re dying for a pee. Life without loos undoubtedly makes us all much more uncomfortable. “Some people are limited to how far they can travel by what we have termed the 'bladder's leash'," says Professor Clara Greed, a “self-confessed toilet evangelist” and world loo expert. Free and easy access to public lavatories is, she proclaims, “a fundamental human right”.

There can be no one who has not felt the discomfort of being away from home and being “caught short”. Part of the problem is that local authorities are under no legal compulsion to provide us with WCs. Faced with cutbacks in funding from central government, many councils have decided to pull the chain on their lavatories. London has been particularly badly hit: six years ago there were 700 public toilets, now there are less than 400. The capital has one toilet per 18,000 residents, compare that to Beijing which has one toilet for every 1,948.

With property prices high, toilet conversions can be a profitable business. In Forest Hill in south London, a Victorian toilet which had been derelict for years was converted into two apartment rented out for £700 per week each.

Toilets have been refurbished as pubs, nightclubs and shops: in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, one has even been transformed into a theatre - to pee or not to pee, that is the question.

Other non-economic factors have also contributed to decline of public loos, such as vandalism and their use by drug users and for homosexuals’ “cottaging”. Fear of improper use has led to many WCs being closed in the evening - a policy that had unfortunate consequences for 77-year-old Gwyneth Coles. She was accidentally locked in a loo overnight in Pickering, North Yorkshire, triggering a 12-hour nationwide police hunt.

Professor Greed believes the state of public toilets in Britain today is a disgrace. “A nation is judged by its toilets, it's one of the first images tourists and visitors get and we should generally be ashamed in this country."

The closure of public toilets has undoubtedly led to a deterioration in public order.
Street urination has once again become common, as it was in the bad old days before public toilets. Uric acid is corroding public buildings, including the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. “We're supposed to be a developed country, yet many High Street stores have to wash down their doorways to remove the urine." says Richard Chisnell of the pressure group The British Toilet Association, which campaigns for more and better loos.

Public loos are not only useful- they are, sometimes beautiful examples of late Victorian architecture. The award-winning toilets at Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, built in 1899, incorporate mosaic floors, marble fittings, shiny copper pipe work and glass-sided cisterns. Hull’s lovingly-preserved public toilets, including the Victoria pier loos, have been described as ‘a tourist attraction in their own right’.

Yet, to our shame, we are allowing other historic toilets to disappear. The wonderfully ornate conveniences at Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen, have been closed to the public since 2000: in December, plans were announced to turn them into a Parisian style bistro.

The decline is particularly sad in a country that once led the world in loos. The first privately owned public lavatories containing water closets opened in Fleet Street in 1852, while the first municipal toilet was opened outside the Royal Exchange in 1855. The price was exactly 1d- hence the popular expression ‘to spend a penny’. The 1850s was a great decade for toilets- it was in 1857, that that most important of accessories-loo paper, invented by American Joseph Gayetty, was first used in Britain.

Gradually, more and more municipalities began to provide toilet facilities. By 1895 there were public conveniences(or ’halting stations’ as they were known), in 36 British towns and cities. All the toilets back then were men only affairs, writer George Bernard Shaw was one of the early campaigners for facilities for women.

But as gloomy as the picture is today, all is not yet lost.

Some local authorities, such as the West Wiltshire District Council, which won the public toilet entry at last year’s Loo of the Year Awards, still take provision of public toilets seriously. So does Canterbury City Council, which last year opened a £108,000 state-of-the-art block of new public toilets to replace old facilities that were regularly vandalised.

On March 6th, a steering group of companies, campaigners and local authorities will report and make recommendations for public toilet provision.

Let‘s hope for all our sake of all our bladders, that the great British public toilet may yet be saved from extinction.

UPDATE: Charlie Marks has more on the government's completely potty PFI plan for public toilet provision here.


Martin said...


Let's hope the steering group will point us in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

I bet YOU were paid for this!

Neil Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Clark said...

Martin: Nice one!
anonymous: I don't quite get your point. As a full-time journalist, of course I get paid for articles I write. It's my living. What's that's got to do with arguing that public toilets should be free at point of use?

Anonymous said...

well, in Soviet Leningrad public toilets were free and apalling. What's worse there wasn't enough of them so after national holidays the city's centre was all urinated. Now they cost some money (apart from free shopping centres' ones) and less smelly.

Anonymous said...

The last post makes no sense at all.
The more you pay the less you urinate?