Think of this as a toilet. KOVE members Lynda, Phyllis, Suzanne and Anne-Marie give their verdict!

We were out on Kilburn High Road again yesterday for World Toilet Day. Kilburn Older Voices Exchange (KOVE) is calling for a staffed public toilet on the mile long shopping street. Pretty much everyone you meet over 40 can you tell a story about the lost toilets – Willesden Lane, Victoria Road (where we are pictured above making our annual protest), Marks & Spencer – of Kilburn. And everyone you talk to – shoppers, cyclists, local residents and workers – has their own provisional solution. They know a friendly restaurant (like the all-important branch of MacDonalds, which, despite being completely devoid of signage, is a part of Camden’s Community Toilet Scheme), they nip home smartly, they don’t drink too much before going out. But no-one thought such arrangements sufficient or politically appropriate. Everyone we spoke to in forty-minutes of leafletting supported our proposals: even a group of fifteen year-old lads from St Augustine’s said they would raise it back at school. KHR is classified as a Major Town Centre, its misfortune being to have no dedicated mall and to fall under the jurisdiction of two boroughs, Camden and Brent, whose administrative centres are far away in Kings Cross and Wembley.

Topically, after a year’s campaigning in the run up to the Mayoral election in May, the political landscape in London on this issue has radically changed. Widespread public concern, the pressure on public bodies during the pandemic, the actions of a range of advisers and lobbyists (including the Toilet Manifesto for London Group) and a surge of interest among members of the Greater London Assembly has seen the publication of twelve firm-handed recommendations. These form the main outcome of The Toilet Paper published yesterday by the GLA Health Committee following its meeting on September 13th 2021. Using a well-structured, three-cornered format which stresses the importance of duties, directions and data, they set the bar far higher then is normal for such documents. Key elements include the case for primary legislation, the importance of boroughs having a toilet strategy, the need for vast improvements in information, and major upgrades in accessibility. Transport for London have a pivotal role (likely to be very important in outer London). Recommendation 2 calls for the GLA and London Councils to bring the boroughs together and share best practice on Community Toilet schemes.

So is there anything not to like? Well, there is much encouragement for innovation and business involvement in funding solutions, but there is no clear demand for public investment. That’s going to have to follow the raising of standards and expectations – whether in creating much needed new provision or in the desperate need for upgrading the truly dreadful facilities of which there are too many. There’s also a curious reluctance to acknowledge us – the older population – in the report. It’s not that disability and long-term conditions and older age need in any way be opposed – in fact they often overlap in individual lives. We all need more and better toilets. But it is strange in a city that has so far struggled to make much of the Mayor’s age-friendly declaration to pass up the opportunity to make that connection. I spoke at some length to a cyclist, lycra-clad, going home from his daily training rounds in Regents Park. In He’d broken his leg earlier in the year and he wants to get back to Nepal. In his seventies his need is mostly one of increased urgency. Many of us third-agers are a critical mass of people who just need to go in a hurry. We don’t need high standards however much we support them*. Our greatest concern might be with a design-led movement prepared to close facilities that are not fully inclusive.

The literature on age-friendly in the UK is not so far distinguished by progress on improving toilet provision. But it seems evident that, were such a report to be published in, say, age-friendly Greater Manchester, older people could expect a seat at the strategic table.  Despite the excellent platform now set up by Age UK London that still seems some way off – PAiL and the Forums are only in the outer reaches. Meanwhile the pressure will shift – on to the cash-strapped boorughs who will have to get their act together. And for KOVE? Can an action group lose its ‘organisational memory’? It seems we can to some extent. We were rather out of practice. We’ve not done much street-interviewing for a good while. Our long-term colleague, film-maker Nick Foxell, did his best against the roar of traffic.  Managing the microphone was a challenge. Filming the whole event, capturing our own thoughts as we went about the work, having a petition for people eager to sign. Sitting down over coffee afterwards, Lynda, Suzanne and I agreed we’d done well. But we must do a workshop and try out some role-play before we venture out again. We’ve won the argument, now we have to force the pace and influence the plans themselves. Next year’s elections are at borough level. We’ll be back, Janus-facing, to our double-headed task in Kilburn.

*That said, the Royal College of Art‘s Publicly Accessible Toilets after COVID-19 which was published in May is a gem – well-structured, good argument, imaginatively illustrated and full of great proposals. Many thanks to Imran, Gail and Jo-Anne. And, as ever, to Jane Hopkins’ for her kick-starter research in Greenwich.