In Pillow talk, I mentioned what looked like an interesting initiative by Camden Council to enroll retailers and others in the Kentish Town area in a scheme to allow public access to their toilets free of charge. The Council has put up a Web page outlining the scheme.
I recognize that public toilets are not everyone’s favourite topic, but in a civilized society they are of the greatest importance. I remember years ago hearing the complaints of a French family on a visit to Britain that all the public toilets in the town where they were staying were closed on Sundays. Like them, I wondered why: do our bowels and bladders cease to function on Sunday? Of course not. In these more enlightened times, one would have expected the situation to improve but is this so?
Over the last 20 years or so, I have witnessed closure of public toilets on a massive scale. This is outrageous, though I do accept that there are genuine problems. First of all, they cost money and someone has to foot the bill. If the toilets are free, then it is probably the local borough council that bears the cost.
Then, there is vandalism. Unfortunately, we live in an age when people, either out of disaffection or resentment, like to damage public property. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing a bus shelter with the glass smashed out or a damaged phone kiosk. I sympathize with councils that decide they can no longer afford the endless cost of repairing toilets and charging it to tax-payers. The easy – and perhaps, from their point of view, only – solution is to close them down.
It isn’t only damage that causes problems, however. I remember going into a public toilet in a quiet suburb and finding half a dozen men just standing there waiting. This was my introduction to the ignoble art of “cottaging“. The situation made me feel rather self-conscious and anxious but nature was not to be denied so I answered the call as quickly as possible and left.
Another problem is use of toilets by drug users and dealers. Many pubs and cafes in Central London nowadays have keypad locks on the toilet doors. You have to ask the staff for the number, which is changed at least every day. This is to prevent people sneaking into the toilet to “shoot up” or to trade drugs. It doesn’t stop here, though: a number of places I have visited have locked iron bars in place to prevent you lifting the lid on the toilet cistern. What people might try to hide in there I can only guess.
What about manning public toilets, then? Surely the presence of staff would discourage unwanted behaviour as well as providing manpower to keep the place clean? This is certainly done in some areas though I have the impression that the staff (usually consisting of exactly one operative) spend most of their time locked in the small office, occasionally emerging to ply the mop and bucket. Their presence does provide some improvement but I imagine that they also come under threat as well. Staffing, of course, adds to the cost of running the toilet and, again, the place is likely to be shut outside normal working hours.
In London and other cities, we increasingly see toilets that, though public, require payment. The cost is generally between 20p and 30p, though it can be higher. These toilets are usually staffed and kept clean. I have no idea of the economics of running such a toilet, whether it pays for itself or needs a subsidy, but I can tell you that on many occasions one such has been a welcome sight!
Increasingly, the solution adopted is to provide mechanical toilets. This is a small booth in the street and you insert a coin to be admitted. After use (assuming the thing actually works), the toilet automatically cleans itself. Unsurprisingly, there have been accidents, and I have never used such a toilet nor have any plans to do so.
Then we come to that strange innovation, pop-up urinals. Hidden during the day, these rise at night in time to catch revellers on the way home or to the next watering hole, unable to contain themselves any longer. The bad news is that these are for men only. I don’t know what women are supposed to do. Maybe female revellers drink less or hold it better. Nonetheless, it seems a rather sexist solution.
So what is the hapless citizen, caught in a toilet desert, expected to do? The obvious solution is to repair to a pub or other establishment and to use its facilities. Unsurprisingly, and for much the same reasons that have made public toilets unpopular with borough councils, such establishments generally do not take kindly to outsiders using their toilets. Most places these days display big notices declaring “TOILETS FOR USE OF CUSTOMERS ONLY”, so you may feel obliged to buy a drink or to try to sneak past the staff when their attention is otherwise engaged. Not a happy situation when you are “caught short”.
Other countries take a more practical view. As I mentioned, in the Netherlands, you can go into any cafe, restaurant or bar and use the toilet, as long as you drop the appropriate small payment into the plate provided. Endearingly, no one looks after this money as they would here: there is usually just a table with a plate on it and a little notice politely asking for 25 Euro cents. In London, it wouldn’t be long before some oik emptied the plate into his pocket on the way out. That is why I was cheered by Camden Council’s initiative. Who knows – perhaps it will catch on and spread and we will no longer have to clench our teeth, put off whatever we were doing and anxiously rush around looking for a toilet. I certainly hope so.