Local loos are well known for their sordid attributes; a smell discernible at 100 yards, cracked seats, absence of toilet paper and graffiti that would make Cynthia Payne blush. Additionally one never knows quite what to expect from fellow urinators: will they try to sell you drugs, or offer sexual gratification?
So descending the steps into one of London's underground Victorian lavatories is a journey undertaken only by the desperate. We'll traipse up to the fourth floor of a department store, slope into a McDonald's, dart into a pub, or dash down a back alley; anything, anything rather than having to go through the ordeal of a local authority toilet.
As for public transport lavatories - they're enough to drive you round the bend.
Yesterday the London Regional Passengers Committee published a survey of lavatory facilities at London railway stations. It concluded that 'the whole adds up to a lamentable catalogue of disgraceful amenities'. Only two-fifths of the 714 railway and Underground stations in the London region house lavatories. Of these, about half were surveyed, of which only 8 per cent were above the basic standard, 48 per cent just about met a basic standard, and 44 per cent were down the pan, 'some of them exhibiting the most squalid characteristics'.
The worst type of public convenience, arguably, is one that is closed. LRPC surveyors found that 40 London Underground and 29 British Rail facilities were not open at the time of inspection. There is no statutory provision requiring local authorities to provide toilet facilities, and strapped for cash, lavatories are - as any traveller caught short will tell you - often the first services to go.
Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by the BBC programme Here and Now has discovered that in the past ten years 771 conveniences closed in 180 councils. Another national survey conducted earlier this year by public toilet champion Jonathan Owen Jones MP, showed that at its best a local authority provides one facility per 35 men and 86 women; at its bust-a-bladder worst, one facility per 6,427 men and 11,248 women.
At last the scandal of toilet provision looks set to be flushed into the open. From next April all local authorities will have to publish Citizens' Charter details of their lavatory provision, including disabled access and baby change facilities.
'They haven't had to publish figures until now. It means that local campaigners will be able to compare,' says Susan Cunningham, coordinator of campaigning group All Mod Cons. Founded in 1985, it wants to increase the number of conveniences, extend opening hours, improve accessibility and promote higher standards. 'We would like to see more attended public conveniences. The presence of an attendant means that often the lavatories are cleaner and better maintained. It also makes users feel more secure,' says Cunningham.
Some councils are making an effort. Westminster council recently ran a 'Brighter Loo' scheme and refurbished several of its lavatories, including those at Westminster Bridge and Leicester Square. On the whole, however, the most that can be said for central London lavatories is that they are acceptable: moderately clean but never attractive. The underground facilities in Covent Garden and Broadwick Street are prime examples of mediocrity (neither have disabled access or baby-change provision).
Automatic public conveniences (APCs), which first arrived in this country from France 11 years ago, are cheap to maintain. These concrete monstrosities remain deeply unpopular: users fear that they will be trapped inside, or that the doors will swing open (they are programmed to open after 15 minutes). The self-cleaning mechanisim means that in busy locations they remain constantly wet.
'They're a disaster,' says Sue Cavanagh, a senior design officer for the Women's Design Service and co-author of At Women's Convenience, a handbook of women's public lavatories. 'Because of the fear-factor women just won't use them. Also you need to have the right coin, and because it's a mechanical facility the chances of it breaking down are pretty high. There's not enough space in them to take in a child or buggy.'
Alan Brousse, managing director of APC manufacturer JC Decaux, argues that it's just a matter of getting used to them. 'My father didn't use a lift until he was 60,' he says, explaining that there are numerous safety factors, and that they are supervised by a roving maintenance man on a motorbike.
Research indicates that it takes women twice as long to urinate as men. Women may also need lavatories more frequently during pregnancy, menstruation, and as primary carers of children. Yet consistently women have fewer facilities provided for them.
Research by the Centre for Accessible Environments showed that in 32 of the 38 buildings inspected, there was a larger number of male than female appliances. There was a huge disparity at the British Museum (41 men, 19 women), Barbican Centre (54 men, 30 women), and National Theatre (64 men, 28 women). In a public conveniences Bill proposed by Mr Jones in April, it was recommended that to achieve equality of provision, women require twice as many lavatories as men. He suggested that local authorities should be required to provide one facility per 550 women, and one per 1,100 men.
To some men this may seem grossly unfair, but to all those women queuing cross-legged outside the ladies, it's long overdue.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN
You might think you are visiting an art gallery when entering the lavatories in the Grosvenor wing of St George's Hospital, Tooting. Instead of the usual drab NHS conveniences these have such high design standards they made the front cover of The Architects' Journal and the Design Council's magazine Design. Within a tight budget of pounds 43,000, Bramante architects refurbished these main public lavatories using some innovative and unusual ideas. Most notable is the first British installation of a state-of-the-art infra-red control system. Instead of taps and flush handles, there are sensor plates and infra-red beams; the user simply waves his or her hand across the beam.
The lavatories are furbished in interesting materials such as Welsh slate, terrazzo with a tutti-frutti mix of marble chippings, and broad expanses of glass. The men's urinals are individually screened by white cloud shapes. It's such a pleasing place to pee one doctor even said 'I could live in them'.
A mention also needs to be made of Mothercare, which is leading the way in retail public conveniences. The lavatories at its newly refurbished branch at 174 Oxford Street are simply fabulous.
They're spacious, with a Mummy's Room, and for men a Parent's Room. In the former there is ample space for breast feeding and three baby change tables (one table in the Parent's Room). The toilet cubicles also each have a child's toilet. Free nappies are available and there's a bottle warming service. Cut flowers and a comment book complete the experience. One visitor wrote: 'It's nice to find somewhere that has made such an effort.'
SKIP TO THESE loos
An oasis on the toilet map. Built last year over the site of an old Victorian underground loo, Westbourne Grove is a heartening story of how public conviences can have aesthetic value, without costing the earth. Originally the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea wanted to slap up a traditional type convenience for pounds 194,000, but local residents weren't happy with the plans. They brought in their own designer, Piers Gough, to suggest an alternative for pounds 204,000. The difference was donated by a local, John Scott, probably the first time that a resident has contributed to the cost of a public building. It is an extraordinary triangular construction, covered with glorious pistachio green glazed bricks. It has a steel frame pitched roof, striking steel doors, and a purpose-built giant clock at one end. It's fairly bog standard inside, but clean and bright. A flower shop is located at the sharp end, adding to the general impression. Disabled and baby change facilities. Price 20p.
Refurbished last year by the City of Westminster as part of its 'Brighter Loo' scheme, this old Victorian underground toilet is huge, clean, bright and fiercely guarded by an attendant. Nothing very imaginative to report in terms of its aesthetic values, but it does have a relaxed atmosphere with its piped music and plastic foliage. It loses Brownie points for having pay turnstiles at the entrance - problems of access for those with children and buggies). Baby change, but no disabled facilities. 20p.
Voted 'Top Toilet' by London Regional Passengers Committee. The station was rebuilt in 1991: a tubular and glass paradise. The design of the lavatories is nothing to write home about, but they are well maintained (cleaned twice a day) and bright with white ceramic tiled walls and frosted glass doors which allow in natural light. Disabled facilities. No baby change. No fee.
The old lavatories at Paddington were a dingy den of vice, but after a pounds 1m refurbishment 18 months ago they are now the best at a main line terminus. Gleaming terrazzo steps lead down to a pink underground room for women, blue for men. They are decorated with the station's original iron pillars, and the lavatories and urinals are positioned in a pleasing circular configuration. Mirrors give a feeling of space. There are cut flowers, wash basins with infra-red taps, and shower facilities (pounds 2). An attendant is on hand. Sadly, there are turnstiles.
Free disabled facilities and baby change along platform one. 20p.
South Kensington Autoloo
If you are an autoloo user this has to be the grandest example in the capital. Standing on the green opposite the tube station, it is a colossal 20ft-tall structure in pewter, topped with a crown shaped roof decorated with lions heads. There's even a regal coat of arms over the door. Thoughtfully it opens away from the pedestrian area, providing more privacy than usual for automatic lavatories. Clean and light inside, although a little pongy. No disabled or baby change facilities. 20p.
All Mod Cons, c/o The Continence Foundation, 2 Doughty St WC1N 2PH (071-404 6875). Enclose an A4 SAE.