Leading Article: Flush with profit, but no Ladies or Gents

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SIR Samuel Morton Peto may be better remembered for erecting Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, but he went on to answer a more pressing need when he constructed the first public lavatory in 1852. Victorian town planners took public relief seriously. Their modern successors, by contrast, seem bent on smashing the cistern, letting conveniences deterioriate until nobody dares use them.

Local authorities might as well have colluded with vandals, such has been the neglect they have tolerated, making closure and sale inevitable. Most such lavatories have not been replaced. Few, in any case, make provision for changing nappies and the other needs families might have. So parents with children, elderly and disabled people face serious problems if they are caught short in the street.

John Major, who stirred the Tory party conference in 1992 with a passionate call for more motorway loos, might have been expected to take up the issue. The Prime Minister has stayed silent.

Instead, Jon Owen Jones, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, will today present legislation requiring councils to provide more lavatories, especially for women. Adding insult to injury, the Ladies demands payment, while Gents run by councils are legally required to be free. This discrimination, apparently springing from the need to dissuade men from urinating in the street, would be abolished by the legislation.

But Mr Jones's Bill is only part of the answer. There can be no return to the heyday of the Victorian convenience, whose elegance and design demonstrated how close was cleanliness to Godliness. These places became bleak, sordid and even dangerous, partly because they were separated from any other activity. Rather than returning to this model, councils should now be entitled to require that supermarkets, multi-storey car parks and other such modern adjuncts to life cater for basic needs.

It is outrageous that Marks & Spencer stores attract so much business, yet usually give customers and their children little option but to cross their fingers or legs until they reach home. It is said that the management of an establishment can be judged by the state of its lavatories. By this criterion, such shops fail. Their faithful customers consume their products, yet quite unfairly have nowhere to deposit the final distillation thereof.