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In July this year Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association (BTA), described the shortage of public toilets in Britain as a crisis. Last week he told the GLA Health Committee that Lord Greenhalgh, the government spokesperson on housing in the House of Lords, agreed with this judgement. The two-hour debate he took part in and the investigation simultaneously announced by the Greater London Authority indicate the issue is being taken seriously. Anyone concerned for the health of our ailing democracy could take some encouragement from the deliberations of the five members of the Committee and their five invited guests. There was even a surprising level of cross-party consensus that fairness demands public toilet services be free. Some improvements are likely to follow: whether the response will be adequate is another question.

For some of us, like me, poor toilet provision is a source of inconvenience and embarrassment. The problem has worsened over time, and is sharpened by my encounters with bad facilities. But at its most extreme the crisis means that exploited workers like truck-drivers (17% of whom are women) struggle with gruesome conditions of mid-Victorian barbarity, while, nationally, a quarter of a million disabled people face needs so pressing every day that they must live as prisoners at home. Here at least, according to Karen Hoe, the Changing Places Manager at Muscular Dystrophy UK, Britain is now a world leader at installing highly specialised facilities. But the GLA Committee debate showed that the government strategy of shifting responsibility to the private sector has hit the buffers. It didn’t work during the pandemic. But more generally, and under mounting pressure to improve provision, it is local authorities who are in the front line. As Raymond Martin told the committee, since BTA was established in 1999, government has brought forward neither the legislation nor the funding.

Introducing the discussion, the chair, Caroline Russell, referred to toilets as a really important public health issue. The star of the session was Councillor Julia Neden-Watts, from Richmond Borough Council, whose seasoned pragmatism did not, thankfully, lead her to assert that pragmatism will be enough. Before the pandemic Richmond had seventy-one small businesses and local venues participating in its Community Toilet Scheme (CTS), each receiving funds of up to £1000 a year to make a toilet available to the public during working hours. Even now, they still have 50 of these place signed up. By contrast some local authorities have failed to get such a scheme established at all. Forty minutes in assembly member Krupesh Hirani asked Neden-Watts why she thought Richmond’s CTS had been so successful. Neden-Watts was careful not to speculate, admitting she didn’t know much about what other councils were doing. But from what she did say and taking into account some complementary observations from Martin and reading a little between the lines we can identify the following points.

First, as Martin pointed out in support, has been commitment: Richmond has stuck this out for  a long time. The GLA reported in 2011 that the borough had 97 businesses each receiving £600 a year (at a time when the total number of ‘community toilet’ facilities in London was 358). The direct annual budget is low – just £66,000. The pandemic came as a shock: forced to suspend the CTS when most venues closed in lockdown the borough spent £250,000 on temporary facilities at three sites while having to meet the extensive additional costs of cleaning open spaces and streets hit by urination and defecation. Then, behind the budget is a decent infrastructure: the well-briefed Neden-Watts (who chairs the Richmond’s environment committee) was able to comment on every area of debate about provision. Now, coming out of lockdowns and restrictions and faced with a decline in participants, the borough is carrying out a review which involves officers, councillors, businesses and the public.

But I suspect the third reason is the most significant. Richmond is a Liberal Democrat council and ideologically comfortable with a model of public service that relies on inter-sectoral cooperation to counter the lack of top-down resources. Neden-Watts said small businesses cared about their premises, and would look after their toilets, offering a kind of ‘natural surveillance’ that fosters trust with the public. She rejected any idea these businesses should meet the costs themselves just because they had a small increase in customer footfall. This positive model of supported hospitality must surely help a local council manage the limits to its authority and the restricted powers it has to raise money on its account. But does it offer a serious platform from which to provide an adequate public service?

Neden-Watts’ response when the Chair asked whether it would be helpful or feasible to require the provision of public toilets through legislation and funding from central government was interesting. It was easy enough perhaps for the BTA and the other two lobbyists, Karen Hoe (‘we’d welcome it being put in any kind of mandate’), from Muscular Dystrophy UK, and Ruth Wakeman, from Crohn’s and Colitis UK, to endorse the point. Neden-Watts’ response was different and an edited version of it is worth considering:

I’m having an internal wrangle. I think if we were just to leap in and say all councils must provide this many toilets that would be a shock. That would be unfeasible… I’m thinking of my environment officers – they’re so hard-working and have so many things to do. This would be one more thing and it would be a disaster. But – obviously it’s a challenging thing to ask – but I’m thinking of some sort of audit at least of what exists and some kind of attempt to decide whether that’s satisfactory. And going back to the point we made earlier on about having data. And… is there a recommended level of provision we should have? We don’t know what we’ve got. It’s almost like we need an audit, an inventory. And a consultation. And a conversation about it so that we know what we’re comparing with what and where the obvious shortfall is and what’s working quite well. Almost a mix and match approach, a tailored approach from different authorities might be required. I think it’s complicated. I think it’s generally a yes that I’m heading towards. I think that is something that is necessary. But I think it’s a challenging process. And that a consultation and the conversation might be the way forward. Perhaps?

The fashionable term resilience seems for once appropriate. There speaks someone hard at work, responding to a crisis with limited resources and conscious that, without information and a suitably committed alliance, a new policy mandate could turn out to be no more than disruptive – central fiat distracting from local initiative. Her ambivalence speaks perhaps to a broader concern among local authorities who can at present have little confidence they will find themselves in charge of any localised process, however strongly mandated. As we’ve seen, disastrously, in the organisation of public health responses to the pandemic or in the administration of the badger cull, Britain’s centralised model of governance can so easily and cynically be used to override local jurisdiction.  

The Toilet Manifesto for London speaks to this dilemma in two ways. First, we followed what’s now a broad consensus: provision of public toilets is a public health issue driven by priorities for equality. (As the BTA estimates something like a third of adults can find ourselves in urgent need of a toilet because of a disability or medical condition). Second, we called for local infrastructure, borough strategies to coordinate an understanding of need, provision and partnerships – what Neden-Watts refers to as a conversation – to achieve significant improvement. Whatever part representative campaigning has played in forcing this issue on to the agenda its evident the situation during the first lockdown was the key driver for change. Things went badly wrong. Across the country there was a high, and in some places intolerable, level of fouling which was extremely costly and unpleasant to counter. All councils appear to have struggled. Some found themselves barely able to work out what to do at all. And Neden-Watts’ point about data and audit was made cruelly evident. Local authorities found they had little information and no common policies across departments. The days of counting toilets lost are over. Instead it’s time to ask: what is the current baseline from which to build?

A recent initiative focused on the data question. During the Mayoral campaign in the spring Sadiq raised eyebrows with a claim to have installed 250 toilets through the Good Growth Fund. In June Caroline Russell asked him formally for a breakdown of these facilities which the re-elected Mayor duly supplied. It emerged there may eventually be as many as 350 cubicles at around 60 locations with some still under discussion or awaiting installation. The sketchy document released by the Mayor is informative but falls into a deep-rooted pattern where toilets are represented as an extra and not as a primary form of provision. It doesn’t distinguish clearly between ‘accessible’ and ‘accessible on request’ nor explain where toilets are new and when they are replacements nor show clearly which boroughs have made bids let alone explain why. It fails to meet most of the basic requirements for meaningful dialogue that Councillor Neden-Watts set out during last Tuesday’s discussion.

In the fifth point of our Manifesto we challenged the older public to play a role in scrutinising provision as well as demanding change. This form of involvement is essential and necessary whenever we, as older citizens face a shortfall or identify any structural injustice. We have the means, politically, to organise and counter. We can deploy our numbers and our relatively time-rich lives to benefit ourselves and – as in this case – act for the broader public good. And our mass involvement could also play a part in discouraging central government from misdirecting future investment. While it may work well to deliver the Changing Places programme from a specialised central platform the availability of toilets in a democracy should be directed by people elected at local level and the officials who report to them. By engaging with that principle as older activists we represent age need and enact democracy.

Where is ‘age-friendly London’ in all this? The age-friendly concept relies on elders being able to assert themselves in a rationally governed arena, which in London means the wider agendas of equalities and social integration. But neoliberal government is not rational. Furthermore the heterogeneity of later life (let alone the cohorts waiting to age behind us) undermines the granting of minority or protected status and makes it hard to administer. It’s true that toilets can be age-friendly and also benefit everyone whether they acknowledge it or not. But as the GLA debate showed the problem we face here is not primarily about ageism: it’s in the fatal conjunction of austerity and centralised power. The missing voice is not that of older people so much as elected local government. As an ageing man with a cranky bladder I want reliable, accessible public toilets. As a socialist I want primary legislation backed by wealth taxation. As a democrat I want sound co-productive engagement. To the extent that age-friendly can help restore power to local democracy it’s a strong card: without that tough commitment we risk being reduced to one of the many tribes of cats fighting in the sack.

In London, besides its planning role and oversight of Transport for London, the GLA has the vital task of coordinating the necessary alliances and working with London Councils to make sure action follows words. Kilburn Older Voices Exchange (KOVE) has campaigned on public toilets since 2004. This Thursday we host Professor Jo-Anne Bichard from the Public Toilets Research Unit as part of our annual general meeting. She’s presenting on ‘The need for public toilets: opportunities, liabilities, controversies’ with responses from Camden Council, Age UK London and Greenwich campaigner, Jane Hopkins. Kilburn High Road, a lengthy district shopping centre, has no dedicated public toilets and a very limited Community Toilet Scheme administered by Camden. Neighbouring Brent Council removed a single automated cubicle last year. The main open space, Kilburn Grange Park, has a toilet attached to a small sports facility, only accessible on a discretionary basis. KOVE wants to see a twenty-four hour facility. It should have a bank of at least eight cubicles and an attendant. Negotiation will be difficult. Two boroughs are involved. There is no mall and no large department store. So the boroughs, businesses, interest groups and local communities will need the additional heft the GLA can bring. An age-friendly Kilburn will benefit everyone. It will mean pulling together to give politicians and officials the power they need and then to ensure they work directly with us to deploy that power to maximum effect.

As research associate I represent KOVE on the Toilet Manifesto for London Group. But here I’m writing in a personal capacity – hopefully, with my colleagues support. The user survey in support of the GLA’s investigation can be found here.