Public (in)convenience?

As ever, it’s been a busy month and I’ve struggled to post up all my recent water-related news and views here at Waterstink. Part of the reason has been that in early February, I started teaching again on ‘Water and Sanitation Planning and Policy in Developing Countries’, led by Professor Dale Whittington. This year I’m contributing material too, which is exciting and has been a great way to pull together and update material that I haven’t really had time to revisit in detail since writing The Crisis of Innovation in Water and Wastewater with Roger, back in 2005. In April I’ll be teaching on ‘innovation and sustainability’ and Australia and Singapore case studies too. The former part will be a great way to share insights from the work I did with Roger back in 2006 for UKWIR on Barriers to Innovation in the UK Water Industry. The latter part involves some new reading and digging around. All in all, lots of fun!

A few things did catch my eye in the news though. Most of them I’ll post back on soon. One in particular is very topical indeed, so I’ve chosen to write about it a little bit today. It starts with two stories the BBC put up this past month or so. One reported from Wales on how businesses are now seen as the main ‘public’ toilet provider in town and city centres there, given wide-scale closures of many public conveniences. The other noted that Manchester city centre now only has one public toilet left, in stark contrast to its ‘boon years’ for public loos in Victorian times.

It was ironic to read about all this, only a few weeks after hearing international expert on sanitation planning, Barbara Evans, talking on the above course led by Dale. She highlighted various social exclusion – and, of course, health – problems related to poor public toilet facilities and inadequate provision in developing countries. But would you really imagine age discrimination, discrimination because of family status, or discrimination on the grounds of belief, as big problems with the state of public toilets in the UK?

At first it may sound unthinkable. Sadly, it’s exactly what’s happening, according to the two BBC stories. Here are some indicative quotes that explain the situation:

‘Women, disabled people and elderly people feel the most angst over the toilet drought. And many people are shy about cheekily using toilets in shops, restaurants, bars and pubs.’

[From Age Cymru] ‘Public toilets are a lifeline for older people. “If there’s not toilets in their towns or cities, they can’t leave the house. We can’t underestimate the importance of public toilets in our towns and cities.” ‘

[From Jenny Randerson AM, Baroness Randerson of Roath Park, views] There are ‘issues such as opening times if the toilet was provided in a pub. “Obviously, if it happens to be in a pub, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t choose to go into a pub – elderly people, mothers with children, Muslims, so it’s not necessarily ideal…” ‘

[From Clara Greed, University of the West of England]’ “Toilets aren’t compulsory. They are always one of the soft options to cut, it has been endless decline. There is very little understanding of the value of toilets. Areas that have got public toilets attract more shoppers. People can stay.” ‘

So that’s women, disabled people, elderly people, and Muslims affected by the sparsity of public toilet provision these days – and shopping time reduced for some people too.

For the past two and a bit weeks, I’ve had a rather personal taste of this situation. How so? Well, as most of you probably know, today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox. You may or may not know that it also happens to be Baha’i New Year, a.k.a. Naw-Ruz. Baha’i New Year marks the end of a period of fasting, which is performed daily during this time, from sunrise to sunset. This meant I was getting up early to eat and drink, before heading off to work as per usual. Given how long and convoluted the commute from my new eco-ish home is these days, this sadly meant I was travelling almost straight away after eating and – crucially – drinking a fair amount of water, to avoid dehydration during the daytime… And hence, let’s just say, I was then looking for public loos en route before too long…

This is not my normal routine, of course, so I didn’t really know where to start. Could I rely on public toilets on the train part of my journey being open and clean? Some days yes; others, no, it turned out. (At times rush-hour overcrowding on the trains made it impossible to even get near any onboard toilets too…) Could I depend on an open/clean toilet at my destination train station? Often, yes; but sometimes ‘no’, due to random closures without advance warning. Would there be toilets on the remaining part-bus/part-walk part of my commute? Nope. Not one.

Instead of walking around with your average UK citizen’s ‘flush-and-forget’ mentality of obliviousness to toilet issues common to most people of my age and situation then, I was jarred outside my comfort zone – at least for a few weeks – and became acutely aware of the issue of a shortage of suitable ‘conveniences’ in UK town and cities. It was a real eye-opener, in fact. I must say, it’s something I think town and city council officials might actually want to try for themselves before cutting this ‘soft option’ any further in future too!

It’ll be another year before I’m in the same situation, of course. I’m not optimistic about the quantity and quality of toilet provision I’ll face in 12 months time, I must say. After all there are more ‘austerity’ cuts for local authorities on the horizon. Sadly, to combat the issue, I’m not quite ready to ‘get on my bike’ to campaign yet, as one Welsh councillor indeed did last year to raise awareness (although back in 1997, of course, I did walk from John O’Groats to Lands’ End for cancer research, so I wouldn’t say this is entirely beyond the realm of all possibility!).

Perhaps I’ll just have a look at how the long-standing British Toilet Association are doing on the issue, for now…

Update (15/11/2016): Revised link added for the BTA; featured image added from this source.

Duncan Thomas

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