Spend a penny?

By skepticlawyer

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.

The Independent is irritated at the loss of this most British institution (probably up there with Trollope’s red pillar boxes) and isn’t afraid to say so:

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.


  1. TerjeP
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    At last a role for government. They can be masters of the loo, managers of the poo.

    I must admit I was quite surprised when I visited Britian that they are so tight assed about free public toilets. Especially given how much tax they cough up.

  2. derrida derider
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    A nominal charge for public loos is a good idea just to keep loitering and associated vandalism down. But it should be nominal.

    Wasn’t Vespasian chided by his son about that loo tax, and famously put a coin under his nose and said “ah, but you can’t smell the piss on this”?

  3. kvd
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    ….. is the hallmark of a civilised society and one that treats people, including visitors, with dignity

    Guess the subject; I think I’ve seen that applied elsewhere many times.

    And how delicate of SL to refer to the victims as a “pressure group”. Also what’s wrong with blue suede shoes? What colour should I tie die mine now?

  4. kvd
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    ps I have a spare endblockquote for anyone who needs one.

    [Fixed – LE]

  5. conrad
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “A nominal charge for public loos is a good idea just to keep loitering and associated vandalism down. But it should be nominal.”
    They used to have this in Beijing (I think it was equivalent to approximately 2c at the time). That didn’t stop the local park being filled with, well, you can imagine, for people for whom even that was too much.

    In terms of richer countries, at least in places like Aus, I would suspect that public loos are stopping people pee everywhere, which does occur in many rich cities, and isn’t very pleasant.

  6. Posted February 11, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    We live in an age of “infrastructure is evil” or at least not worth bothering about. (New dams, power stations, freeways and suburban rail lines are all evil apparently: public loos seems to be merely unwanted.) NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) has become BANANA (build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anyone). One could get all mystical and suggest is a lack of belief in the future.

    Personally, I think it is mostly about inner city networks ramping up their property values by starving the “vulgar” suburbs of land and services and the knock-on consequences of that. In the race of life, back self-interest, it is the only horse that is trying.

    The more politics and politicised structures dominate, the more social goods become delivered (or not, as they case may be) by “winner-takes-too-much” politics. On SL’s point:

    ancient Rome, Tokugawa Japan and late Victorian England.

    All societies with strong civil societies, with political structures embedded in a strong society, rather than the other way around. When the Roman Empire changed from about 300 career officials in the reign of Caracella (r.211-217) to about 30-35,000 under the later Empire it did not, to say the least, get better or more responsive on the infrastructure/service-in-general front.

    To continue the analogy, environmentalism nowadays performs the same role that Christianity did back then: a “higher good” to be imposed on the benighted citizenry; a higher good much more important than tedious old good government.

  7. AJ
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I think you will find it’s not BANANA; it’s just regular old NIMBY. Public toilets aren’t popular with people who live near them. Individual toilet blocks generate vocal opposition because of their association with vandalism, drug use, homelessness and public sex and individual toilet blocks get no real support because people who use them usually aren’t local, and it’s usually not a regular thing.

  8. kvd
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I hear there is a price spike coming for bananas. There’s another aspect to the nimby outlook which I call creeping nimbyism. A local example can be given of residents’ complaints of noise, from the local naval air station, after they bought their 5 acre paradise blocks. A family member, then youngish was detailed off to answer their complaints to the base commander, which he did by requesting the complainant’s lot and plan number “for forwarding to the local council so they can amend their listing of noise affected properties”.

    Fortunately for him he was moved upwards for initiative rather than sideways for bad PR.

    Also Lorenzo, that comment re number of Rome public servants is quite fascinating. I’m guessing increase not directly related to population growth.

  9. Patrick
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Paris train stations specialise in charging for toilets that would not be out of place in a third world country. Absolutely filthy and in a miserable state of repair.

  10. Henry2
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Individual toilet blocks generate vocal opposition because of their association with … public sex

    Sex in a toilet is a pretty grotty thought. If the person isnt safe to take home, are they safe to screw?

    Just sayin…

  11. Andrew
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Maybe everyone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome could stage a shit-in at the council offices in protest.

  12. Posted February 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] is close to my thinking.

    The homeless and destitute would be in real trouble – either lined up begging for the coin, dancing jigs and holding themselves harder than the next poor sod to increase their chance of getting a coin from the passers-by.

    Already, where there are still toilets at railway stations, they are in ticketted-only-areas.

    Aaahh, the good old days where there were “travellers aid” rooms at Spencer Street rail – for a token amount you could get a shower and a towel – the homeless counts went up, the homeless desperate to get or keep jobs tried to keep themselves clean, and the showers closed.

    The thing is, with disappearing rubbish bins force one to carry empty boxes or whatever to avoid a charge of littering, you can’t exactly put piss and poo in your pocket or walk around holding it your hand as far away as possible, to avoid whatever charge you’d cop.

    I believe there was a /partial/ solution in Vic… Dunno if it’s still on the books. Apparently if you cried out in pain 3 times you were allowed to piss on the rear inside wheel of a parked carriage (watching out for annoyed hooves).

    Of course, women and number twos weren’t catered for.

    Well, there are horses in the centre of town, and they have rather larger bowels and bladders than quite a few people, so if it’s ok for a great lump from a horse in the middle of the street, a bare bum over a drain shouldn’t be an offence, even when offensive.

    It’s hard enough already for taxi drivers.

    Oh well, we’ll get another bit of selective pressure for cystic fibrosis – a “half dose” protects one from losing all your fluids when hit with Vibrio cholerae.

  13. Posted February 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    I hear there is a price spike coming for bananas.

    Due to flooded banana benders perhaps? (Or is that a joke in bad taste?)

    Creeping nimbyism is a curse. Folk move into St Kilda, Balmain, Fitzroy, etc for the inner city excitement and then start attempting to close businesses through noise complaints.

    that comment re number of Rome public servants is quite fascinating. I’m guessing increase not directly related to population growth.

    You would be guessing correctly, if anything population was going in the other direction. The figures come from a splendid book SL Herself put me on to.

  14. Posted February 12, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    [email protected] on “creeping nimbyism”

    Yes… Some move in and try to change the place, others move in an try to keep it static. (I’ll admit I’m the latter type, but I’m unconcerned about much other than the parks, strip of small shops, and the average education level of adult residents). I don’t know about public toilets at night (I suppose if stuck, I could try the cop shop – using the excuse “prevent a crime, gimme a toilet”, but at least from 8 to 22:00 the shops have good toilets and the local small shopping mall has a great baby area complete with baths, microwave… with all toilets close to the front door).

    It’s not just toilets: rubbish bins are disappearing from tram stops, and even new “super stops” like that at Melb Uni are pretty hopeless at keeping the rain off more than a few people.

    Aaaah… Nice to see some of the less leftie folk arguing for public amenities and expenditure.


  15. kvd
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Geez Loo-Eeez, vacant plots for Eaglet, rooting through neighbourhood wheely bins… Sort of pleased you’re nimby.

    Anyway, there’s probably an iphone app for that, complete with traffic reports of congested routes.

  16. kvd
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Update: yes – there is! And for international roaming you could use SitOrSquat dot com

  17. kvd
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Eaglet 1 is obviously a lady. Eaglet 2 is not a gentleman.

    Says the mother. But remember it’s a well known fact that grandparents have great influence on childrens’ development; or at least I intend it to be so with my granddaughter when she starts walking. And grubs are great! A little salt, perhaps some paprika..

  18. kvd
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Off the topic (which I seem to be good at) but echoing [email protected], there is an interesting article on the changing face of inner Melbourne today.

  19. Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    [email protected] said “one of the main functions of governments is to provide public amenities, and if they aren’t doing that…”
    Yeah. The better the public amenities, in the long run, the strangers around you are more tolerable.

    Yes, in the long run. VLine trains have toilets, rubbish bins, and people who know how to use them, on a trip from Geelong that is about the same as the trip from frankston. Once, VLine trains were shuttling between city and Caulfield when the power lines were being maintained. First shuttle out, I got on a Caulfield to be met with a filthy train – litter everywhere. I had to yell out to the people getting off “Don’t you lot recognize a rubbish bin, or do you just delight in messing up something obviously too good for you?”

    It used to be said that taxes buy civilization (and, in the delightful series “The Roman Mysteries”, sponge-on-a-stick was called the pinnacle of civilization), but people are often too happy to ditch the civilization for a few extra cents in their pocket each day.

    I must admit, if there were no toilets, and I couldn’t avoid it, I’d leave my message wherever the premises looked like most like they were owned by the richest who could easily pay more tax.

    Without enough public toilets, as Mr Rabbit would say….

  20. Posted February 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] on grandparenting…

    Yeah, maybe that should be the measure of acceptable distance between public toilets (or street-level toilets opened to the public and appropriately signed in private buildings, as a requirement by councils): close enough so a pre-schooler just out of nappies can walk there between realizing they need a toilet, and it being too late.

  21. kvd
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Total agreement Dave. And in honour of your proposal I would even support all conveniences being situated on the left side of the street:)

  22. Posted February 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. Wondering if CBDs could be considered to “host” a similar number of people on the streets as attend something like evrnts where toilets have to be provided.

  23. Posted February 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The article is a good description, but with the economic illiteracy you expect from an Age writer. Rent control indeed. And is probably in favour of a generous migration policy but thinks government should stop “urban sprawl” and does not connect the dots to very high land prices in the inner city.

    [email protected] taxes buy civilisation up to the point they start funding folly and social pathology. One of the signs that California was beginning to go south (so to speak) is that infrastructure spending collapsed. But they found lots and lots of other things to spend taxpayer funds on.

  24. Posted February 12, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] take your point about “up to a point”. One might also use “up to a point” on the payments to the finance industry (as a percentage of total corporate profits across all sectors) for their services. You could also say bailouts with taxpayer money, the maintenance of moral hazard, is a social pathology.

    But that’s off topic.

    The thing about the loss of public toilets being an issue is that is provides the opportunity for many witticisms about the effects of trickle-down economics.

    The public toilet density is surely something that politicians (at whatever level of government) must be able to give figures on, for minimally accepted densities and distances, and then find means of ensuring those levels. Have the pollies done that?

    Perhaps nothing woll be done until there is a market for nappies for healthy adults, and even then, they’ll keep cutting toilets so that jobs aren’t lost in an emerging sector, and they’ll put up poo boxes like they do in parks for plastic bags used by dog owners.

    It still won’t help the beggars, who, incidentally, are probably more likely to have nastier infections in pee and poo than the average person.

    I’d be interested in notions from the non-lefties on appropriate availability (in terms of walking time), at least in CBDs during (a) times when young kids are about, (b) later when it’s mainly adults bringing revenue in the CBD, and (c) 24/7 for the homeless, who’ll need toilets /wherever/ they are.

  25. Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo’s point about high taxes failing to pay for useful stuff in California feeds into something I’ve often found myself saying in conversations about the size of the state.

    My small-government argument is based in part on the idea that it’s surprisingly easy for even a well-resourced body (public or private) to spread itself too thin. Part of the reason so much government is so crap is because government is simply trying to do too much. Running all the schools and hospitals and building all the infrastructure and recruiting a police force and staffing the courts and having a welfare state and so on and so forth… this is huge. The modern response has been to outsource some of this mammoth task to the private sector, but doing that well is also difficult: hence all the ‘off balance sheet’ crap that went on in Britain during the Blair years.

    It’d be painful, but ultimately more effective, for government to withdraw from whole areas (paying for schools is one thing, actually providing them is another; it creates a real poacher-turned-gamekeeper situation). It should then focus on what’s left and do the job properly. Those of you in my Bring Laws and Gods reading circle will know what I think of private prisons. They absolutely do not work and finish up placing business entities and their staff in impossible situations. And I was not making up the link to organised crime. It’s notorious, especially in the UK.

    And one of the things that should be done properly? Infrastructure provision. This isn’t to stop, say, Rio Tinto building its own railway line to transport raw materials to port. I don’t think crowding out the private sector is wise. But it does mean that stuff should be built and maintained, and careful thought should go into urban planning. As Lorenzo’s research in this area shows, people haven’t been thinking much at all, with the result that the average punter is being shafted every which way, especially when it comes to building and construction.

  26. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    The public toilet issue raised here is an excellent case study to debate the role of the state. There are undeniable human needs, and failure to provide those needs imposes greater expenditure elsewhere (in this case, the health system, or even general productivity if poor sanitation affects enough people).

    It’s also fairly straightforward to set tolerance levels with almost engineering exactness. If the state doesn’t ensure sanitary facilities are available, it has no legitimacy having public defecation and urination as an offence.

    I noted there are regs about provision of reasonable facilities at for-profit gatherings like open-air concerts. Councils (esp CBDs) similarly profit from patronage. What are the tolerance limits defined for events, and why should these not apply everywhere.

    Further, using the statistically foreseeable human needs and tolerance level approach (or indeed, the pain and suffering involved, even loss of income for someone going to a job interview if they cannot attend because of accident along the way), forces proper catering to individual needs – females needing three times as many toilet seats as males, and *much* more paper, because it takes them 3 times longer to do everything involved with urination. From female needs, to the need to cater for the disabled, an engineering approach to setting minimal standards is pretty easy.

    If we can’t get minimal service level requirements defined in this case involving easy calculations and clear universal need, with clear benefit to everybody whether or not they use the toilet, then all other types of human needs with indirect benefit to all won’t be supplied properly, regardless of how they are provided.

    So, small-staters and those starry-eyed about the ability of private enterprise to supply human needs, what things would factor into your calculations of required public toilet facility density?

    Do the homeless, sleeping rough, have a right to toilets? Councils and business might try to shift them to other suburbs, shift the expense, but the basic total need remains wherever they are shifted.

  27. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Great post and discussion.

    I wanted to say this the other day, maybe the reason governments are less inclined to invest in public loos nowadays is because the civil public treat it in a less and less civilised fashion. Grotty, sleazy, smelly, slimy places, some of them – the public loos in my area (Lalor) have syringes littered over the floor. Not sure but I don’t think mothers would be much inclined to use places like that if they could avoid it.

    Is this an example of what happens when people start treating something that was once a privilege as a right?

  28. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    All that being said some of the public loos in and around Melbourne are a classic (of their type) – possibly reflecting the (more?) civilised ethos of the time in which they were built. The underground ones in Melbourne are amongst the oldest in Australia, and the ones in a few cinemas/theatres around – the Astor loos, or the Sun Theatre – are really wonderfully elegant. They are so elegant that I think people treat them with much more respect than they would other toilets – they regard them as a ‘privilege’, in other words.

    A case study in toilets: the Flinders Street Station ones should never, ever be used. But the Degraves Subway toilets just across the road (and I’m not sure they are open to the public) are a small surviving pocket of civilisation.

  29. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    You’re so right about the lack of bins in public places. Also, train stations with hardly any seats. They really annoy me.

  30. Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Perhaps you could read my post on the destruction of financial prudence and we could move on. Here we are, talking about the dysfunction of public provision and suddenly the issue is markets. Huh?

    To draw together some of the comments, an issue here is the downsides of ethnic diversity in the undermining of public norms and trust. Political scientist Robert Putnam has done empirical work on this he finds clear and unsettling results. Complaints about poor behaviour in public places and facilities are directly connected, since, as a result of increasing cultural diversity, the sense of common norms is much lower. Which probably encourages local and other levels of government to invest less in common facilities. Such as toilets, bins, etc.

    One might consider that, returning to SL’s examples, Victorian England, Tokugawa Japan and even the Roman republic were not exactly renowned for their cultural diversity or lack of strong cultural norms.

  31. Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: I’d hoped I was clear in my question about what you’d consider when determining the required level of public toilet provision, independent of /everything/ else.

    I don’t know about the particular period in Japan, but I suspect that the elite in Victorian England and Rome had a broader education than many MBAs running the show these days.

    I also suspect that people are not very diverse when it comes to bottoms – hell even chimps and gorillas taught sign language spontaneously label obnoxious behaviour with whatever sign they’ve learnt for the brown stuff.

    I’d imagine too that Rome was more diverse than, say, Plantagnet or Tudor England – the more culturally diverse in this case having the better attitude to chamberpots emptied out of upper-story windows.

  32. kvd
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] that Putnam article is really very interesting, but he didn’t actually say

    as a result of increasing cultural diversity, the sense of common norms is much lower

    – what he said (in part) was

    the more ethnically diverse a community is, the less social capital it possesses

    which has a slightly different flavour to it – as attaching to this discussion, I think. To quote from the article: the notion of “social capital,” which Putnam defines in simple terms—“social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.”

    Your interpretation of common norms being lower may be right, but Putnam did not put it in that way.

  33. Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, but I was translating out of ‘social capital speak’. Lower levels of social trust are precisely about lacking confidence people will respect common norms. (I also have the advantage of having read some of Putnam’s writings on the subject: for example here.)

    [email protected] Yes, I am sure our elite has, in significant ways, a narrower education than in SL’s example societies. There is a range of reasons for this including the growth of knowledge, an academic elite prone to sneer at the notion of a common worthy cultural heritage and education systems dominated by regulators who are also providers and therefore compromised. (Why folk think that government-provided education will be, in the long run, any better than government production of food or cars is beyond me.) This is, however, not evidence against a lack of strong common norms.

    And while folk may have a common need to ablute, they do not necessarily have a common sense of public behaviour and attitudes to public facilities.

    The Roman Republic was indeed more diverse than Plantagnet or Tudor England it also had considerably more administrative and financial resources. Just getting public order vaguely functional was a major achievement for any medieval European state and while there was a major decline in retail violence in European societies in the C16th (European states began rather better at achieving a monopoly of violence), Tudor England was still run on what the Roman Republic would have regarded as a shoestring budget. No equivalent of aqueducts or Roman roads in Tudor England, for example, and the ability to put military forces in the field the Republic would have regarded as risible.

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