He's not the only one looking for a loo

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The Independent Online

As a compatriot, you don't have to believe every detail of Pavlos Joseph's defence of how he encountered David Beckham in the England dressing-room in Cape Town to find at least one element of his story grimly plausible: the bit where he says: "My name's Pavlos and I'm just looking for a toilet."

In many of our towns and cities, "just looking for a toilet" has become a frustrating, sometimes agonising and often expensive, experience. In Oxford recently, but it might have been almost anywhere, I dropped into a store on the way to the station in the hope of finding some tights and also, if I'm honest, a loo. I seemed to remember that this British Home Stores had a café, and if it had a café, then surely it also had a loo? Upstairs, said café was packing up for the evening. But there was the familiar, and by now very welcome, sign pointing to the opposite corner of the store.

But that was not the end of my quest. The door turned out to have a combination lock and a notice to the effect that restaurant customers could ask for the combination at the till. For the rest of us – well, the implied answer was, as my brother was once told by an unsympathetic master, "tie a knot in it".

A member of staff strolled by. I asked, with some indignation, why ordinary customers like me were being deprived of what was, after all, a fairly basic facility. To which the reply was "instructions from head office; don't ask me". Then someone more senior came along, and opened the door for another loo-seeker, so I requested, and was granted, the same indulgence. But the explanation she gave for this public inconvenience cast the locked door in a rather different light.

BHS, she said, was one of the few stores still to have customer toilets at all. This was well enough known that even before opening time, coachloads – as she told it – of visitors were queuing to get in; once in, they made a beeline for the facilities. At other times, people used the loos to take or trade drugs and conceal stolen goods; vandalism was routine.

Now you could counter some of this by having an attendant who expects a tip, as in stores elsewhere in Europe. But day-trippers are a different problem, and one that reflects the growing view of hard-pressed local councils that public toilets are a luxury they can't afford to provide, even if, as in Oxford, tourism is a money-spinner.

It is almost two years now since a parliamentary committee called on local authorities to increase toilet provision, after a decade in which the number of public loos had declined by almost half, and free loos become virtually extinct. A scheme to subsidise shops and pubs to open their facilities has not been well supported. But the real difficulty is that local authorities are not required to provide public toilets, even if, like London and Oxford, they throng with tourists.

Their mentality was summed up in some surreal exchanges last week between the founder of easyJet, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and lawyers at London's High Court. At stake was what constituted a "core activity" for an airline. While Sir Stelios denied easyJet had any plans – such as Ryanair has mooted – to charge for using toilets, he argued that, for an airline, lavatories could be defined as a service that was "ancillary" rather than "core". For an airline maybe that is true – but for people, whether they are passengers, tourists or simply local shoppers, absolutely not.

There is a better day to honour the troops

This Saturday is Armed Forces Day and we should use it, says the Prime Minister, fresh from his Afghanistan trip, to express appreciation of our military "more loudly and more proudly". Maybe we should. Parades, parties and all sorts of other wholesome family events are being planned to honour the troops and raise funds.

But I can't help feeling that this newly designated day – it was introduced only last year – has been manufactured to bridge a gulf between military and civilians that, if it exists at all, was entirely of the (previous) government's own making. It was not a shortage of official days that alienated the public – we also have Remembrance Day, now commemorated on the Sunday and on 11 November, and VE Day – but a particular war that the public could not support. Even then, people have, by and large, shown an admirable ability to mistrust the mission while respecting the troops. The crowds who regularly turn out at Wootton Bassett are the proof.

If the Government is serious about mending civilian-military relations, why doesn't it revert to the one commemoration – Remembrance Day – that commands universal respect, move all the ceremonies to 11 November, and declare the day a public holiday, regardless of where in the week it falls? There is no point in half-heartedly observing several dates if we can put out the flags once a year and mean it.

A Two-Jags legacy worth renouncing

If the new government is still in repeal mode after today's Budget – and I hope it will be – it could do far worse than abolish the three-mile long express lane on the London-bound M4. The John Prescott Memorial Bus Lane – for it was he who created it, after getting stuck en route from Heathrow once too often – is invariably empty, while the rest of us sit in queues which can reach back to Maidenhead.

If lines of buses and taxis suggested visitors impatient to hit the capital's shops, maybe the lane could be justified, but there aren't. What is more, it recently emerged that the lane is barely enforced. After that revelation, I had rather hoped that a citizens' revolt would have ended the agony. But on Sunday, with the bus lane all but empty, it took an hour to complete the last leg into London, and I was too much of a law-abiding wimp to risk a fine.