Hugh Morris discusses why public amenities such as toilets are a reflection upon society as a whole.
The humble public toilet: a quiet, unassuming part of urban areas in Britain for years. Their steadfast presence in our towns and cities means the stalls of our towns and cities are often bystanders as politics rages about them.
But public loos are bystanders no longer. ‘The UK have privatised their public toilets’, claims Jonn Elledge. Government austerity between 2010 and 2018 meant 13 per cent of surviving public toilets were closed. In truth, this doesn’t seem like a huge amount. But as we are forced into outdoor socialising by Covid-19 minus the relief of a conveniently-placed café, the scarcity of public amenities suddenly become a pressing issue.
Post-Covid the likelihood of revolutionary change in our public peeing infrastructure is low, and in the grand scheme of things, there are certainly more imminent issues as cafes and bars begin to reopen. More important though is the idea of the loo as a litmus test for the nation. Public potties should take pride of place as political bellwethers for governments, councils and communities alike: together, if we can get public toilets right, then we’ve got a good chance of properly tackling the society’s more pressing problems.
We have to start by working out what has changed. Yes, councils have cut public toilets, but what has changed too are general attitudes to toilet trips. Those frequenting city centres are now much more likely to pop into toilets in cafés, restaurants or pubs. And for those caught short, spending a penny now means spending the price of the cheapest Americano. As weary baristas trot out protestations that ‘this toilet is for customers only’, Twitter account @ldnloocodes began their vigilante movement provide codes for London’s locked toilets. All of which is admirable, but wouldn’t it be more worthwhile if instead we rethought how we use public space?
Just because we are gradually privatising our own urban experiences (headphones: in; world: out) doesn’t mean that our public need has completely evaporated. When a student walks into Fleabag’s café in the first season of the hit BBC series and laboriously plugs all of his mobile devices into the mains without paying for any food or drink, what we’re led to believe is a selfish hinderance is instead a perfect representation of public need trapped in a private space. If we’re to help this anonymous student survive Fleabag’s withering looks to camera, we could do with having a conversation about public spaces, and toilets especially.
Why public toilets in particular, though? Answer: it’s because their ramifications stretch far beyond the public / private debate. The lack of provision is, for example, a fundamentally gendered problem; you are more likely to require toilet facilities if you are a woman, and being forced into doing your business in public is far less likely to be passed off as an amusing anecdote by members of the public, as horrible reaction on Twitter recently showed. Central London’s installation of private, temporary urinals in preparation for the grand reopening of pubs on 4th July was a monumental facepalm in the history of providing of public facilities – women need to pee too, and more!
The answer to Urinalgate is not necessarily gender-neutral portaloos either, as some might lead you to believe. Temporary, cramped and difficult to upkeep, their fundamental flaw lies in their inaccessibility to those with more specific access needs, and the plonking of scores of cheaply-sourced portaloos on Festival lawns and outdoor concerts shows the often blatant disregard for those with particular access requirements.
These issues are just a selection of those involved in the wide-ranging toilet debate, but even this collection shows that we need to think carefully about even these most mundane of public amenities. If we show the same care with other areas of our society that we should with public toilets, we’ll be better placed to tackle the bigger problems our post-Covid society will undoubtedly face.