Only Britain could produce a pressure group like this, but these days it seems the British Toilet Association is needed more than ever. In the wake of recent cuts, it seems that public loos are going the way of the blue suede shoe:
One council is shutting all but one of its public toilets, so where in the High Street can you go to the loo these days?
People often employ one of two strategies when using toilets in commercial premises, having entered with no intention of buying anything.
In pubs, the non-patron toilet user may pretend to look around the pub for a few seconds, as if for a friend that is due to be met, before heading to the toilets.
In a fast-food restaurant, a quick scan of the menu before heading to the loos at least suggests you might be about to buy some chicken nuggets when you’ve finished with the conveniences.
These situations arise because the public toilet is in long-term decline. Manchester City Council has responded to the need for cuts by shutting 18 of its 19 remaining toilets. If you can make it to Mount St, where the town hall extension is, you’ll be able to go. If you can’t, you’ll just have to hold it in.
Since the boom years of the late Victorian era, when public conveniences sprang up everywhere, there has been a change. In recent decades public toilets have become run down, unloved, targeted by vandals and increasingly prone to closure by councils looking for cuts.
Public loos (and other public amenities, like baths and parks) tend to be creatures of societies with strong views about infrastructure provision, urban planning and public health and hygiene. It’s unsurprising that the societies most noted for them — Ancient Rome, Tokugawa Japan and late Victorian England — all had these characteristics, as well as a cultural memory of what life was like in unsanitary living environments.
The Victorians — after John Snow’s work exposing the source of the 1854 Broad Street Pump cholera outbreak — got into London loo construction in a big way; other cities elsewhere in the country soon followed suit. For their part, the Romans had a beautiful strict liability delict for ‘things poured or thrown’ [D.9.3]. They went to some trouble to provide baths, loos, covered sewers and municipal rubbish-removal and so objected to people tossing slops out of the window or using the alleyway beside the amphitheatre as a public convenience. The Japanese prized personal cleanliness and had a similar system of public baths and loos to the Romans. Vespasian–who inherited a notably empty treasury in 69 AD–mandated that people who used public loos had to ‘spend a penny’. At the time jokes circulated that this was because the new Emperor was as tight as a fish’s arse, but in all probability the fee was used to pay for upkeep and cleaning.
The provision of public loos has interesting social effects. It makes it easier for women with small children to leave the house (something commented on by visitors to ancient Rome, Tokugawa Japan and late Victorian England). In modern times, the provision of public disabled loos means that disabled people actually become visible. When I had my stint at the Home Office, two things were always the subject of comment by recent arrivals from the developing world: ‘your cities are so very clean’ (as an Australian living in London, I always found this observation astonishing, being used to Australian cities and the whole ‘keep Australia beautiful’ ethos) and ‘you have many crippled people outside’. At first I was also shocked by the latter, but over time came to suspect that the presence of public loos may have had something to do with it.
So what happens when public loos start vanishing from our cities? People start pretending to visit the store or pub, as mentioned above. Some retailers, however, don’t mind:
So which High Street names are happy for you to use their toilets?
John Lewis, for one. All of their 28 department stores have toilets, with 112 at the biggest branch in Oxford St. They are for customers and non-customers alike. There’s an obvious positive as you trawl through the shop on the way to the loos, says a spokesman, with the “reason being to try and drive footfall and turn people into customers”.
However, this isn’t always an ideal solution:
But, of course, many people would be too shy to march into a pub or fast food restaurant they weren’t planning to patronise and use the conveniences. And there are many places that lock their toilets as a precaution against vandals. Disabled people have a national key scheme from Radar that gives them access to 8,700 locked disabled toilets.
In a country that once prided itself on its standards of public hygiene and sanitation, this is a scandalous state of affairs. Not only is it now hard to find anywhere to spend a penny, but the cost, in the unlikely event that you do, could be considerably closer to a pound. A scheme for shops and pubs to share their facilities has not really taken off – nor should private enterprise be relied upon here. The provision of clean and convenient public loos, for a modest charge or preferably free, is the hallmark of a civilised society and one that treats people, including visitors, with dignity. The Victorians knew this; some time in the last few years, the guardians of our towns and cities managed to forget.