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10-12-2010, 17:21
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Stockport Council have recently announced that, as a cost-saving measure, they are going to close all of their remaining ten public toilets (http://menmedia.co.uk/stockportexpress/news/s/1387739_stockport_closes_its_last_remaining_public _toilets_to_save_105000_a_year) (and this in a borough that twenty years ago had over thirty). This apparently will save the princely sum of £105,000 a year. However, this doesn’t mean that people will be left with no choice but to relieve themselves in the streets, as they are supposedly replacing the closed toilets with a community toilet scheme (http://www.stockport.gov.uk/services/environment/rubbishwasterecycling/environmentalcleanliness/communitytoiletscheme).

This involves opening up toilets in council buildings and – for the payment of an annual fee – those in business premises like pubs and cafés, to use by the general public. Clearly, if facilities are there, it makes sense to make them available, and in areas where public toilet usage is likely to be low it can be a “win-win” situation in expanding provision at minimal cost. I’m certainly not against it per se. It could also be a good idea for many rural pubs.

However, it really is no substitute for providing proper public toilets in busy town centres where there is plenty of pedestrian traffic. It is notable that the web page has no entries for Stockport town centre. (In practice, I know you can always pop into Wetherspoons where there is one, but a timid female pensioner might not know that, or have the confidence to)

One problem is that business hours may not correspond with those when there is a demand for toilets. Few pubs open before 11 am (and many not before noon), yet in a shopping centre you would expect a toilet to be available once the shops were open. Also, for such a scheme to be effective, it needs flag signs on lampposts saying “Dog & Duck – Toilet Available to the Public” to bring it to people’s attention (something I have seen in the Perth & Kinross district of Scotland). Window stickers are not enough.

If you were a licensee, you might think that £600 a year was a useful source of extra income in hard times. But you are effectively surrendering the right to control who comes in your pub and use your facilities, and allowing all and sundry to troop through your bars without buying anything. Once one or two unsavoury incidents have taken place you might start to question whether it’s worthwhile. If my pub was in a location with a lot of footfall past the door, I’d be wanting more like £6,000 than £600. I can’t, for example, see the Chestergate Tavern being happy to become the official toilet for Stockport Bus Station.

While the provision of public toilets by councils isn’t a statutory obligation, it is extremely important to allow people to live civilised lives and maintain a degree of dignity, and regrettably this move is all too typical of the tendency of councils to cut back services provided to the public while continuing to featherbed internal administrative departments, and all the time seek to blame it on government rather than their own inefficiencies and warped priorities. I have written before of the “bladder leash” (http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2008/10/bladder-leash.html) restricting the movements of the elderly, pregnant women, diabetics and people with a wide range of medical conditions, and this is now being applied to Stockport.

In terms of the council’s overall budget, £105,000 is a drop in the ocean, and less than the salaries of numerous senior officers. You have to wonder how many people are still on the council’s books doing non-jobs like Smoking Enforcement Officer and Five-a-Day Co-ordinator who wouldn’t be missed in the slightest if their services were dispensed with.

The lack of toilets may also be a factor encouraging people to use shopping centres like Cheadle Royal or Handforth Dean rather than tradtional district centres, thus acting directly against the council’s declared objective to get people to “shop local”. (Extortionate parking charges are another factor, of course) And don’t shop owners in those district centres have a legitimate expectation that their business rates will pay for public toilets as well as pavements and street lighting?

Surely in this age of information freely available via the Internet it should be possible to create a unified database of all public toilets showing their location, opening hours and cost (if any). The Aussies can manage it (http://www.toiletmap.gov.au/), so why can’t we? It could even be provided as an “app” for smartphones. In the days when there was a reasonable assumption that public toilets would be available in most locations, there might have been little need for this, but now they are becoming increasingly few and far between it would provide a valuable service for tourists and indeed anyone spending more than a short time out of their house or workplace.

And yes, I know it could also be used to facilitate “cottaging”, but to use that as an excuse not to provide toilets at all really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If cottaging is a problem, it needs to be dealt with on its own terms without disadvantaging legitimate users of public toilets.

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