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It’s not easy to do full justice to Jane Hopkins’ formidable survey of public conveniences in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, which came out as ‘Dying to Spend a Penny’ in June. Last year Hopkins, a retired social worker, now a community activist and patient representative, assembled a team of volunteers from Greenwich Pensioners’ Forum, a U3A branch and among her friends. Using a set of criteria that privileged accessibility and free use they identified and visited 86 toilet facilities on 70 sites very unevenly distributed across the seventeen wards of the borough. The more web-literate among her team looked into information available online, local, regional (including the well-established Community Toilet Scheme in Richmond) and more widely (like the Great British Public Toilet Map.) As is often the case with such initiatives the bulk of the survey work fell to Hopkins who also consulted a local representative of disabled people and talked to colleagues in several neighbouring boroughs.

She has already had a major success with Greenwich responding warmly and promising to implement her recommendations. Jane outlined these when she presented at an online meeting organised by PAIL (Positive Ageing in London) on July 22nd. As research associate with Kilburn Older Voices Exchange I agreed to be part of a small group asked to come up with a five-point manifesto. The initiative is part of a modest trend towards greater integration of older people’s campaigning efforts at local and national level which will hopefully see a diminished reliance on voluntary sector intermediaries, whether we are trying to speak to each other, to the wider community and to government.

The trigger for this publication is important. The Greater London Authority is about to publish its age-friendly strategy so the opportunity for coordinated lobbying on toilet provision is imminent. In the background there has been mounting public concern about the loss of facilities (indicating that for many of us the taboo on speaking about incontinence is becoming a thing of the past.) While policy emphasises getting out and about a growing body of research connects access to public toilets with the ‘maintenance of the health, wellbeing and independence of older and disabled people.’ Hopkins and her team don’t claim to have found every community toilet in Greenwich. The survey’s fifteen page directory includes toilets in malls, community centres, arts venues and railway stations but only identifies those accessible to non-paying customers. The team found highly variable standards from the unacceptable to the luxurious. They noted the limitations of opening hours both in standard restriction and inconsistencies of practice (facilities run by cafes in parks are a good example). Baby changing facilities were examined and logged and the three categories of ‘disabled toilet’ are explained. And there’s an excellent discussion of the realities of conducting such a project – only 40% of the volunteers recruited actually contributed in practice – while the team’s gender imbalance means that the number of facilities for men (who, Hopkins notes, are generally better provided for) could not be fully established.

The report’s analysis has its idiosyncrasies. But it is distinguished by a committed engagement with the moral and practical implications of its subject. Theoretically, it might be categorised as reformist, but given the shrinking capacity of local government at the present juncture it may not be easy to come up with a credible, more radical alternative. And COVID-19 has made the situation a great deal worse. Hopkins’ recommendations – there are ten in all – are quite complex but at their heart are two key propositions. The first is that toilet provision needs to be firmly implemented within the public health responsibilities of local government (and as underlined internationally within the ‘age-friendly’ discourse.) The second is that a named lead officer (as is the case in Southwark) responsible for an ‘annual toilet strategy’ (following the example of Wales) should be identified to make the whole business accountable. The value of this in providing a narrative structure for the oversight of policy (a prerequisite, in the absence of a statutory responsibility to provide toilets, for meaningful political direction). This was lacking in Greenwich with responsibility for provision divided between different stakeholders and, then, within the council, spread across three departments. A third agenda concerns the coordinated provision of information – something Hopkins considers a more significant priority than the pursuit of a community toilet scheme with its revenue implications for the council. Views might differ here given the much higher cost of maintaining a public toilet to a decent standard (but see below). Lastly, Hopkins offers a powerful critique of the failure of Greenwich’s planning department to impose requirements to include toilet provision in several extensive new housing developments.

In endorsing this publication and sharing my admiration for such a fine, self-directed piece of work I’ve three suggestions. First, there is going to be a genuine difficulty in providing and managing information. Neither analogue nor digital maps of toilet locations are easy to follow. In theory a printed guide is more accessible to people who don’t have access to a computer but the capacity for digital information to be updated may also give it a signficant advantage. More effective mediation of digital sources with older people and minority communities may be more effective than investing in booklets that will rapidly date. And any publicity about toilets, whatever the sensitivities, you might say, is good publicity.

Second, there’s a question of local targeting. The lack of a decent public toilet on Kilburn High Road, for example, is an absurdity and should be a high profile objective for the public and responsible authorities alike. A shortlist of such gross anomalies needs to be part of any credible GLA strategy for the city. And because sewage is at the heart of the problem the issues are not just about access and design: there is scope for greening provision and innovation within water management.

Finally, whatever the state of public finances, there is a powerful case for staffing toilets. Cities and towns need to be creating meaningful work. The sudden, distressing, death of David Graeber should remind us that a lavatory attendant is far from being a ‘bullshit job’ but one with dignity and purpose. And our activism has precursors to celebrate. I’ve mentioned Danny Silver before. Ada Picton was a noted pensions campaigner in the 1970s and 1980s. Much earlier, as a lavatory attendant in Brent, she had become a member of the London Joint Committee of Pensioners and Trade Unions from its founding in 1953. There is an underlying message there about solidarity, class and generation we would do well to heed.

The report ‘Dying to spend a penny’ – A survey of public conveniences within the Royal Borough of Greenwich is available by email from its author Jane Hopkins jemhopkins9461@gmail.com.

The 2007 report from UWE published by Help the Aged is nuanced but makes the link to social exclusion – and therefore social justice – clear. A book reviewed by Owen Hatherley in a fine polemic last year should also be consulted.