Rose George: Why we must have relief from the toilet barbarians

I NEED the toilet. But I am standing outside Leeds Town Hall at 6:30pm. Where can I go? There are public toilets in some shopping centres (St John’s, not Merrion Centre), but they are closed by now.

There are pubs and restaurants, but maybe I’m embarrassed to go in them just to use the toilet. I am English, after all. There are the toilets in the train station, but they cost money. The bus station ones are free, but they’re a mile’s walk away. The market toilets closed at 5.30pm. In fact, standing outside the magnificent Town Hall in the fifth-largest city in the country, my options are minimal to zero.

So I do what thousands of people must do, and hold it in and wait, in considerable discomfort. Older people; children, the disabled; the incontinent suffer most – 53 per cent of older people surveyd by Help the Aged said they didn’t leave their homes for fear of finding the loo. But the lack of public conveniences damages us all.

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How does a modern, thriving city forget about something as vital as public conveniences? Because it can. Providing toilets for its citizens is not a statutory requirement of any local authority, so they are often the first budgetary inconvenience to suffer when cuts bite. Manchester last year closed all its public toilets except one (oddly enough, it was the nearest to the Town Hall).

Kirklees Council is now considering closing all unattended public toilets, according to a recent impact statement. The impact on the council would be “adverse publicity”, the document reads; but cost savings would be £53,000. And what of the citizens of Mirfield, Batley, Birstall and Heckmondwike? They can use the manned toilets in Dewsbury and Cleckheaton. They’ll manage, because people do.

We are adaptable, and that’s what local authorities rely on when they close public toilets. Last year, the UN declared access to sanitation and water to be a human right. Only not of an early evening in most town centres in this highly developed country. But where is the protest? People object to the removal of rubbish collection, but not about the glaring absence of a more vital waste disposal service.

It wasn’t always like this. Henry VII provided citizens with a House of Easement, perched conveniently over the Thames. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, George Jennings installed public toilets that were scoffed at, but 850,000 paid a penny to use them. The Victorian era was the golden age of public necessaries, as Scots rightly call them: public conveniences were numerous, but also cared for, with copper pipes and marble tiles.

Why? Because they considered a necessary part of a civilised society, paid for or not. Yet good toilets are appreciated. They can be tourist attractions, such as the Victorian ones on the Isle of Rothesay in Scotland. I stopped at Ferrybridge services the other day. Not only were they clean, but cared for, with fresh flowers in vases.

And that is why public conveniences are going down the pan: because they are no longer considered public necessaries, but luxuries. It is a rot that reaches elsewhere: sift through the comments of school-children on the website of Bog Standard – a charity campaigning for better school toilets – and read reports of toilets locked for most of the day; toilet access only with a medical pass; toilets where bullies thrive.

No wonder a quarter of children in a London School of Hygiene survey in 2010 said they avoided their school toilets. That’s six to eight hours without a toilet. The damage this causes is biological but also moral. It’s daft to tell school children they are respected and then give them a filthy, scary toilet that tells them the opposite.

Yet public toilets are worth the expense on many levels, including economic. An Australian study calculated that towns with decent public toilets brought in 20 more car-loads of (money-spending) tourists a day. Department stores know that they need to have good toilets to attract customers. But Leeds Art Gallery’s new shop has nice new toilets that are only accessible if you ask for a security code. That’s hardly a convenience.

Elsewhere in the world, things are different. In Japan, which 70 years ago was famed for its filthy public toilets, decent, accessible toilets are now found every 250 metres in many major cities. Even in China, where I found the worst toilet I’ve ever seen, the 2008 Olympics planning committee made providing clean toilets a priority.

When I asked why, the planning official looked bemused: “Because that is civilized.” But in the UK, where 50 per cent of public toilets have closed in the last 10 years, councils rely on our adaptability – and McDonalds – to avoid providing public necessaries. The toilet barbarians aren’t just at the gates, but half-way through.