‘Closing public toilets will save money, reduce drug dealing and stop vandalism.’
If you read the local paper where you live, you may well have come across a headline like this. With massive spending cuts looming, many local councils are planning the closure of their public toilets. The British Toilet Association is expecting at least 1000 public toilets to be closed in the next year. That’s on top of the 40 per cent decline we have seen over the last decade.
It is true that public toilets don’t come cheap – upwards of £25,000 a year for toilets with an attendant. And it is also true that some toilets – particularly unattended ones – can attract graffiti and anti-social behaviour.
Closure can seem like an easy win for councils – a way to save money and deal with undesirable behaviour at the same time. But hang on a minute…
For many people – older people in particular, but not exclusively – clean and accessible public toilets make the difference between being able to go out (for a shopping trip, to visit the library or the park) and being stuck at home.
Who hasn’t been glad of a public toilet at some point in their lives? But it’s a simple fact of life that as we age we tend to suffer from medical conditions which mean we need the loo more often – or have to take medication which has the same effect.
Many older people are forced to plan their outings quite carefully around the availability of toilets. In a survey for Help the Aged in 2006, 52 per cent of respondents said that lack of a public toilet had stopped them going out as often as they would like.
Public toilets can really make the difference between an active life and possible social isolation for some people. Councils need to recognise that investment in toilets will bring long term benefits for older people’s health and well-being.
The previous government considered, but failed to implement, a proposal that provision of public toilets should be a statutory duty of local councils. I think that was a missed opportunity.
Given the current government’s commitment to localism, that idea seems unlikely to make a come back. But the transfer of responsibility for public health to local authorities proposed in the Health and Social Care Bill has the potential to help councils see the wider benefits of investment in toilets.
And older people aren’t taking these closures sitting down. [Apologies! – almost the only toilet pun in the piece] Last week I visited Leeds Older People’s Forum to help them plan a campaign to improve toilet provision in Leeds city centre. They have gathered evidence that many older people are put off coming in to the city to shop because of the lack of toilets. Leeds plans to be a city for all ages – but without adequate toilets, this just won’t happen.
It is high time we stopped taking the p… and started taking public toilets seriously in this country.