UK councils are selling off public toilets. We need a loo coup
The death of public conveniences in a growing number of areas is unhealthy, uncivilised and unfair. Luton Borough Council is selling off some of its toilets and it’s time to take direct action.
Sell off public services, and the whole thing turns to shit. Nowhere is this little maxim made more clear than in the privatisation, renovation or plain old closure of public toilets. According to a report by the BBC, between 2010 and 2013, one in seven public toilets was closed because of local council cuts, and those that remain are of “a depressing standard”. There are now, apparently, large areas of the country with absolutely no council-run, free-to-use public toilets whatsoever. From Wandsworth to Newcastle, deserts of public inconvenience, devoid of safe, publicly owned, easily accessible loos are appearing. Whichever way you wipe it, the government drive for austerity has left many councils unable to provide this most basic service, dragging public health backwards towards an era of piss-soaked alleyways and mess in the streets.
That means, for those of you selfish enough to be pregnant, have a prostate, suffer from anxiety, have the temerity to have lived beyond the age of 50, be disabled, have a weak bladder or no money to pass a coin-operated barrier or pay for a drink in a pub … well, what exactly? What are our options here? Pee in your own shoe? Stand behind a line of Spanish teenagers with matching rucksacks as you wait to use the toilet in a white-lit fastfood hellhole? Crouch behind a wheelie bin down an alley outside Lush and hope the pounding smell of bath bombs covers your secret leakage?
It’s not just the obvious danger to public health, personal freedom and social inclusion that’s on the line here – the great British public toilet is also part of the national character. In Oxford, where I grew up, it was possible to wander down some stairs beside what looks like the spire of an underground church and take a leak under the 19th-century Martyr’s Memorial. I have run half marathons along the river Lea, only to stop at the public toilets in Cheshunt to empty the very last of my bodily fluids inside a 1960s blue and white box beside a gaggle of Canada geese. In the public toilets at the end of Butcher’s Row in Leeds market, I once pushed my pelvic floor to breaking point by trying to wee so silently that I could still eavesdrop on the conversation between the women from the tripe shop and the make-up stall, about the absolute state of the weather. Public toilets, like libraries, bus stops and park benches, knit us together; we don’t value them, we don’t think of them, but my God do we miss them when they’re gone. We’ll miss their felt-tip wall poetry, their tiles, their sanitary towel bins, outside taps, polished metal mirrors and Leonardo da Vinci bog roll dispensers (I always like to imagine that, just as he was putting the finishing touches to The Last Supper, Leonardo turned to his assistant and said, “Gary – I’ve got a great idea for a twin-tube toilet roll dispenser. Grab a pencil and put this down”).
As with any mention of toilets, the temptation to make “piss away” and “evacuation” jokes is obvious but, in truth, the absence of toilets will be discommoding for millions of us. As Eleanor Morgan puts it in her new book, Anxiety for Beginners: “The relationship between anxiety and the gut can be debilitating for some. You can end up walking around feeling like a ticking time bomb and develop all manner of safety behaviours relating to being any kind of distance away from a toilet.” Morgan’s solution is to wander into a very posh hotel and “quite literally get my shit done, in my own sweet time, hopefully with one of Chopin’s Nocturnes tinkling through the speakers”. While this sort of low-level protest is wonderful for those of us who live in big cities and can move without assistance through the world, it is no use whatsoever for residents of, say, Merthyr Tydfil, who haven’t a single public loo in town, or Eastbourne, where the public convenience has been turned, in a spectacular digestive irony, into a takeaway, or those who cannot simply slip, unnoticed, past a security guard or receptionist. What of wheelchair users? What of the elderly? What of women in housing crisis? As Maya Oppenheim wrote last year: “If you’re on the streets, privacy becomes a distant memory.” Forget changing your tampon or washing your face in relative safety and seclusion – this is apparently a luxury we can no longer afford.
According to the BBC, at least 1,782 facilities have closed across the UK in the past decade and, with no legal requirement for local authorities to provide toilets, locking out a loo is all too often seen as a soft option for saving money. There are now 22 councils with just one public toilet, including Manchester, Stockport and Tamworth. Speaking as someone who once ate a large fish and chip dinner followed by an ice-cream with a heavily pregnant friend in Stockport, I can tell you this is far from “convenient”. Of course, it is quite fun when an empty former toilet gets turned into, say, a dog grooming parlour (Portsmouth) a nightclub (Boston, Lincolnshire) or art gallery (Kingston), but it’s not exactly a fair exchange. Unless you let me dry my undercarriage on a freshly shorn terrier or wash my hands in a bottle of Aftershock Red behind the bar, these “improvements” are no good to me.
So what’s my solution? Well, it’s not perfect but, until the government improves local council funding, may I suggest that we all start to simply do our business in the businesses that donate to the Tory party? You’ll find a list right here, from Greene King pubs to Carphone Warehouses to Ladbrokes. Use them at your leisure. Water their porcelain. Drop your slacks within their doors. Consider it a loo coup. And together we might just win.
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