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Why Are Public Toilets So Important?

We have all been there – that moment when you suddenly need to go to the toilet, only to find that there are no amenities anywhere nearby. Being ‘caught short’, as it is called, is sometimes inevitable. There are plenty of places in the world where you would be more than lucky to find a conveniently-placed lavatory. But these days, it is becoming more and more common to be left loo-less. 

Over the past twenty years, the number of public toilets in the UK has – incredibly – fallen by over a third, with the British Toilet Association reporting that 40% of public toilets have disappeared in the last decade. The average English council now just has 15 public toilets for every 12,500 people, while figures in Scotland showed last year that the number of council-owned facilities has fallen from 759 to 421. With a population in excess of 65 million, the 4,000 or so UK council-run WCs are over-run and, by dint of scarcity, can have queues resembling something you may see at the newest ride at a theme-park. 

Why have the numbers fallen so dramatically?

The answer has a lot to do with cuts to public services. Public toilets are usually shut down due to lack of funding. 

Council-run toilets can be costly to maintain. This is especially true of those that were built below ground, which are expensive to modernise or adapt for wheelchair users. Many underground toilets in more fashionable areas been sold off and transformed into bars and galleries – which can be great for a night out, but are less useful when you find yourself needing to answer the call of nature, only to discover that you will need to buy a £15, bladder-busting Mojito before you can use the toilet. With schools and roads and rubbish collections to pay for, toilets have become an easy target for council cuts – though many would argue that toilets are a vital service, answering a very basic human need. 

Many areas now rely on the growth of café and restaurant culture to cater for our toilet needs. But coffee chains typically have a single toilet and cannot serve the public at large – indeed many insist that you pick up a latte before heading to the loo.

There is also another part to the story. Councils have closed down their public WCs because – quite simply – there is nothing to stop them. The provision of public toilets is not, and never has been, mandatory. If it were a legal obligation to provide them as a public service, money would have been spent. But, as it is, that money often goes elsewhere. This is why some campaigners for greater toilet access have sought to target government, as opposed to relying on the good-will of ever-stretched councils. 

As many as one in five of people say that they now avoid going out as often as they might as a direct result of a lack of public toilets, while a YouGov survey conducted in 2017 found that 74 per cent of people believe that there are not enough public toilets. The same survey found that 59 per cent of women regularly have to queue for toilets compared to 11 per cent of men – and, understandably, are not happy about it. This can be particularly problematic for women when the still ‘taboo’ topic of menstruation and sanitary services is considered.  

Who is Affected?

Everyone is affected by the absence of public toilets. The Royal College of Art, after researching the problem in 2011, came up with ‘The Great British Toilet Map’, now the largest database of publicly accessible toilets in the UK. It displays information on 10,000 current facilities and has had more than 500,000 visitors to date. 

But not everyone can rely on leg-crossing while trying to find the nearest toilet. Access to toilets is a particularly pressing concern for disabled people and people with longstanding health issues. Over the past few years, there have been a number of high profile stories about disabled people who have been unable to access toilets on trains – including the Paralympian Wafula Strike. But with the closure of public toilets, the same problem can occur anywhere. 

Since 1981, disabled people have been able to access public toilets using the Radar key scheme, which gives disabled people independent access to more than 9,000 locked public toilets around the country. Over 400 local authorities in all parts of the country have adopted the scheme, as well as many public, voluntary and commercial organisations such as shopping centres – but often the queues can be interminably long. 

These WCs also automatically clean themselves every 20 minutes, creating further, and often excruciating, delays. Shockingly, some disabled people are having unnecessary and often very painful surgery due to the lack of public provision of toilets.

Other people disproportionately affected by the lack of public loos include those who suffer from bowel and bladder problems. Bowel diseases are on the rise in the UK. More than 300,000 people are affected by Inflammatory Bowel Disease in the UK alone, and 2 out of 10 people are affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome – though it is a condition nearly everyone is likely to encounter at some point or other. 

Both conditions can lead to people needing the toilet far more often, and with increased urgency. The same is true for many who suffer from bladder problems, with the NHS estimating that anything between 3 and 6 million people in the UK have some degree of urinary incontinence. For some acute sufferers, not going to the toilet – or waiting until you find one – is simply not an option. It can be particularly embarrassing given that British people tend to find toilet-talk difficult to cope with – it is too personal, too intimate, for public discussion.

Similar problems are faced by people who suffer from Chrons Disease (around 115,000 people in the UK) and various food allergies (which a staggering 2 million of us suffer from).  

Many people who suffer from particular health-issues and disabled people simply avoid going out due to the lack of public toilets. The same – sadly – is true of older people. Campaigners in Wales stated in 2014 that public toilets play ‘a vital role’ in helping senior citizens to get out of the home, and that older people who cannot access toilets are less likely to be involved in community life and more prone to isolation and depression. Pregnant women and parents who need to be able to change babies and young children also suffer from the absence of clean and safe public toilets, and the rising number (anything up to 165%) of homeless people on the UK streets also desperately need places to go.  

The Royal Society for Public Health concluded in a recent report (called ‘Taking the Piss’) that disabled people, women, outdoor workers and the homeless are disproportionately impacted by the absence of public toilets and that the ‘increasing decline in public toilets is a threat to health, mobility, and equality’. The same report states that three quarters of people believe that there are not enough public toilets for people to use. The British Toilet Association is only one organization seeking to preserve and increase public toilets.

So next time you find yourself in a tight spot, you may want to think about the best way decision-makers can splash out on more seats.  

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