Now cross your legs: Britain's public lavatories are vanishing fast

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The Independent Online

Name a lavatory Emerald Isle and you might expect to be derided. Public conveniences rarely invite allusions to precious stones or sun-kissed atolls. Those on Notting Hill's Westbourne Grove are an exception. Housed alongside a florist in a building designed with the sleek lines of a Victorian steam yacht, they are some of the more inviting loos in London.

Walk inside and the cubicles and urinals are nothing out of the ordinary. But clean and fully functioning public lavatories are becoming rare in our towns and cities. This week's news that Manchester is to slash its number of conveniences from 17 to just one came as the British Toilet Association predicted that up to 1,000 are likely to close across the country this year.

While some conveniences have recently been celebrating wins in the association's Loo of the Year Awards, its director, Richard Chisnell, predicts the decline will continue. "The floodgates are now open," he said. "We have lost 30 to 40 per cent of our public toilets in the past 10 years and we estimate there are only 4,000 left. There are more sexy things in life than a public toilet but we all need to go for a pee."

Britain's first purpose-built public toilet opened in Aldwych outside the High Court in 1852, but their numbers in big cities are dwindling fast, with barely any left in Birmingham and Liverpool. According to Mr Chisnell, who set up the BTA in 1999, more people visit the City of Westminster's toilets each year than visit London theatres. He believes people are willing to pay to use them, and is trying to persuade politicians that the creation of new community lavatories is a potential vote winner.

The Emerald Isle provides a model that could keep the nation's loos flushing. Under an arrangement devised by local residents, the flower kiosk was included in the design to channel rent towards the upkeep of the lavatories, and the employment of a full-time attendant.

The building's architect, Piers Gough, said: "Public loos are a necessary part of a civilised world. They should be something that gives civic pride, as well as something that provides some income and other things such as benches and rest spaces."

Mr Gough said the florist had made the toilet a memorable landmark credited with helping to revitalise the area. The full-time attendant, who works six days a week and starts at 5am on Saturday mornings, works hard to ensure that they are kept clean – and her efforts are certainly popular with cab drivers.

One said "I've not found many elsewhere," he said. "What do you do? You either destroy your kidneys or end up peeing in the street."

Loos worth spending a penny on

Island of Bute

The Victorian loos on the pier at Rothesay are the jewel in the sanitarian's crown. They were due to be smashed to smithereens before they were restored and thank goodness – the 18 urinals surrounded by black marble were built in 1899 during Rothesay's tourism heyday. They are now attracting visitors again.

South End Green, Hampstead

Heralded by decorative cast iron arches above ground, the underground gents at South End Green in Hampstead are of palatial proportions beneath the sod. Recently in danger of being made redundant, they were saved; in part thanks to Heritage Lottery money being granted, as Joe Orton's "cottaging" had been filmed amidst their splendour.

Westbourne Grove

The loos at Westbourne Grove have become so successful they have become a local landmark – with the added bonus of bulging blooms at the flower shop next door. A local resident ran an architecture competition and even put in £10,000 of his own money to make it happen. The sweeping glass canopy above a stretched wedge of turquoise tiles are a delight.


One of several new conveniences around the New Forest, and designed by John Pardey Architects, the loos on the promenade at Milford seem to soar towards the horizon like a seagull. The covered stone entrance protects visitors from the worst of the weather while the bench helps them enjoy the best. They are not only convenient but lift the spirits, too.

Market place, Kingston-upon-Hull

One of the few public loos in the country to be listed, the underground conveniences at Hull are more than 100 years old. They include eight slate stalls with marble and glass cisterns and four cubicles with part-fluted Ionic columns between the doors.

Armadillo, Cambridge

Part of a big programme by Cambridge City Council to improve its public conveniences, the loos on Midsummer Common have been nicknamed the Armadillo thanks to its copper-domed room. In a nod to the ground's past, it also includes a "pinder room" traditionally used as a place to keep tools belonging to the man, or pinder, who used to tend the cattle who grazed on the common.