overthinking

We badly need more public loos – let’s stop being embarrassed about asking for them

The UK has lost up to half of its public toilets in a decade – it’s affecting our quality of life, says Oliver Keens, and Victorian niceties aren’t helping

Monday 06 May 2024 06:58 BST
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To pee or not to pee: the UK’s public toilet situation is in serious need of improvement
To pee or not to pee: the UK’s public toilet situation is in serious need of improvement (Getty/iStock)

In my twenties, I used to go clubbing in a wild and wacky underground venue in a converted Victorian lavatory. Now I’m in my forties, I’m starting to wish it was a working toilet again. I remembered that place after reading the inspiring story of Amsterdam resident Geerte Piening. Back in 2015, she was fined for public urination as a 21-year-old, after being caught short leaving a bar late one night. She gamely fought her fine and campaigned on the issue to the point where finally this week – a mere nine years later – the city has agreed to spend millions on opening new toilets by October.

The fact that Piening had to campaign for so long on this issue is sad. It takes a brave and motivated person to have their name permanently linked to a small release of urine in an alleyway in the mid-2010s. It’s also sad that Piening’s plight was a clear case of gendered inequality. The city has 35 public urinals for men but only three loos accessible for women. Her nearest was more than a mile away. In 2017, a judge shockingly told Piening that she should have attempted to use a men’s urinal rather than pee in the street. This led to an event where a couple of hundred women did just that, to make a point about the crass unsuitability of such a suggestion.

What makes Geerte Piening such a hero to me is that she pursued an issue that not only takes the piss, but by rights should boil the piss of every UK citizen too. The state of our public toilets is a sad and sorry joke. In 2018, the number of public conveniences was measured to have dropped by 39 per cent in the previous 20 years. Some estimates go further, claiming we’ve lost 50 per cent in the past decade. Much of our experience is the same: we rarely expect them to be open and operational, even if we find one. Especially in seaside locations, where they are habitually closed, off-season, to save on costs. Major cities are just as bad. You can spend hours in central London trying in vain to spend a penny, admiring the history of civilisation at places like the British Museum or the Museum of London while simultaneously being unable to find so much as a Roman latrine as you travel between them.

As with so many austerity measures hitting local councils, those already in need are affected the most. For example, more and more charities and organisations for the elderly, such as Wales Seniors Forum last week, are reporting cases of dehydration as seniors avoid drinking anything when they leave the house. Those with weak bladders and IBS sufferers are prevented from having a normal, active life. The same problem affects gig-economy workers such as delivery drivers – when was the last time you offered your loo to the van-based person dropping off your parcels? And then there are shocking cases such as that of British Paralympic athlete Anne Wafula Strike, who was forced to endure the ultimate indignity after being told her three-hour journey was on a train without a disabled loo.

Our lack of public toilets frequently puts the law-abiding, socially conscious majority in a moral tailspin. Literally, what are we meant to do if we’re caught short? My local council fines people £150 if they are caught weeing in a park – a park that has no working loos. Does that mean children are barred? In practice, yes. Take it from me, based on the looks we get as a family in an extreme predicament, we’ve somehow reached a place where it’s more socially acceptable for a dog to wee against a tree than it is for a three-year-old human. Is it any wonder that incontinence products are increasingly found in supermarkets? Sales of adult nappies overtook those of baby nappies for the first time in 2020.

Objectively, our lack of loos should be a hot-button topic – a perennial on 5Live phone-ins, the subject of thousands of online petitions and a surefire campaign pledge from every political party. Yet despite the fact that access to sanitation is a human right enshrined by the United Nations, I think a very basic factor stops us from getting anywhere with this: shame. We tragically can’t get over the childish connotations of poo and wee.

Despite the fact that – in the words of the genuinely excellent kids’ book Everybody Poos by Japanese author Taro Gomi – we as a society are somehow still weird, stuffy and borderline Victorian about bodily discharge. We don’t develop our narratives about ablutions beyond those we form at school. We are childish, in short – and this trickles down to policy.

I have a lot of sympathy for councillors, who would probably rather be photographed opening a swanky tech hub than appear in the local press next to a U-bend. They know the captions will be unflattering, the comments section brimming with jibes. If we genuinely want councils to put their very slender resources into loos, flattery not mockery will surely work better. I’m prepared to publicly post that my councillor is the greatest public servant since Nye Bevan and the most dynamic statesman since JFK if they reopen the loos next to my nearest playground.

Urine for a treat: a modern public toilet
Urine for a treat: a modern public toilet (Getty)

The need for some radical change here is palpable. We cannot carry on like this. My personal urge would be for authorities to invest more in “consumption rooms” for drug takers (as have been trialled in Scotland), which among their many benefits would take the antisocial burden away from loos. But perhaps even more radical would be if we, as a nation, could have a collective moment where we finally get over our immaturity and learn to respect, appreciate and – dare I say – love the loo a bit more. Something’s got to give; they can’t expect us to wait any longer.

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