Saturday 28 February 2009

Bring Back Public Toilets!

As I was trudging home yesterday I absent-mindedly picked up one of those useless free papers. I was outraged by the outrageous headline – Ryanair: we may charge £1 for loos. To make matters worse £1 was isolated in pillar-box red as if to highlight this affront to labour values, and to remind us this proposal comes from the Brown hating Michael O’Leary (chief executive of Ryan Air). What is the world coming to?

But, if the truth is told, going to the toilet is already a financial transaction in our society and our outrage should have occurred long ago. Ten years ago you would hear people grumbling as they walked the streets uncomfortably that there were no public toilets, but nowadays we simply accept this situation, like the lack of student grants. A generation will soon exist that haven’t seen a public toilet.

However, public toilets do exist in a few places, like public phone boxes and public lidos. In sleepy seaside towns they still seem to be a symbol of civic pride and these white (ish) blocks with two doors are an important part of an English beachscape.

If we are serious about citizenship and installing civic values perhaps the return of the public toilet is an important step. We can measure our success in producing a happy society by the cleanliness of the public toilet. If you go to Switzerland the pristine state of the public toilets reflects a society at ease with itself.

Even if public toilets are covered in graffiti they have their own value. How will future anthropologists’ research unpublished swear-words, social stigma and tensions without the walls of public toilets with their useful diagrams? In Northern Ireland I remember public toilets that revealed the political and religious tensions in different communities: telling the Pope or Mrs. Thatcher what to do depending on where you happened to need the toilet.

Historically, the public toilet was important for Labour’s re-building of the nation after the second world-war and every estate would have a public toilet built into it. Rich and poor, young and old, all used the same public toilets.

In fact, nowadays public amenities have all but gone and one of the only public spaces left in our society is the public library. When I worked in a library I would notice people nipping in to use the toilet because there is nowhere else they can go without buying a cappuccino: you cannot do anything, let alone go to the toilet, without spending money.

When the Fabian Society has another conference debate in which people suggest a policy idea, I will argue for the return of the public toilet. It may seem like a laughing matter, but during the course of this blog I have convinced myself that it really does matter. Ryanair and the headline writers of the London-Lite have only high-lighted this social issue and have given me something to be outraged about.


Stuart White said...


well said! This is a prime example of the 'public squalor' which sits alongside a precarious 'private affluence' in a society overly driven by market values.

I'm pleased to report that the public toilets in Oxford's Market Street are still in good working order. But on a recent trip back to my home town of Coventry I searched in vain (and in some discomfort) for one. Sad when one bears in mind how post-war Coventry, Labour-controlled, presented itself as a 'Welfare City'.

Son of Eric said...

Calix, big issue in our sleepy seaside towns in Thanet!

well said yes Labour supports free good loos here.

Rachael Jolley said...

You might be interested to hear that Westminster local authority doesn't require restaurants or cafes to provide toilets even if you are eating in their space, while other authorities do.

Strange but true.

Calix said...

Thanks for your responses to my semi tongue in cheek but semi serious blog.

I agree Stuart that the demise of the public toilet is symptomatic of a society built for consumers and nothing else, and I also sympathise with your uncomfortable trip in Coventry (my most uncomfortable walk without a public toilet was in York - it is still vivid in my memory).

Mark - I'm glad you're running this local campaign and wish you the best of luck. Public toilets are part of the identity of seaside towns.

Rachael - it doesn't surprise me that Westminster of all councils are doing that.

One additional point I thought of - perhaps the growth in coffee shops in the UK goes hand in hand with the demise of the public toilet. How often have we all gone in to a coffee shop and bought something just to use the loo?