By Clare Delmar, London Society Trustee
In observance of World Toilet Day on Sunday, and following a spirited panel discussion which I chaired last week on behalf of the London Society convening commercial, community and political leaders representing interests in medicine, property development, disability, transport, building, public health and ageing, I can confidently report that not only do we need to talk about toilets, but many of us actually want to talk about them.
Despite what my journalist friend insists is an overriding “yuck factor” that puts off all discussion on the issue, these Londoners were keen to come out on a dark and rainy evening to listen, learn and mobilise to improve the provision of public toilets.
In the rancorous and polarised world we inhabit, and in a city where the development of our built environment so often polarises local communities, surely this is the low hanging fruit that we must all grab to move forward as an urban society in the 21st century.
After all, public toilets underpin public health, and without our health, we have nothing.
Underpinning last week’s discussion was a wealth of evidence on the current state of public toilet provision in London and its impact on Londoners.
The Greater London Assembly surveyed over 3,000 Londoners in 2021 on public toilet provision, with the headline finding that more than 90% of respondents felt that public toilet provision is inadequate to meet their needs.
The survey also revealed that finding a restroom was even harder if you have a disability or long-term health condition. The Assembly’s Health Committee which authored a report of the survey’s findings, aptly titled The Toilet Paper, stated “Our findings should serve as a wake-up call that having no place to go, can have serious physical and mental health consequences.”
Age UK surveyed older Londoners last year which revealed that 9 out of 10 respondents have considered toilet provision before making a journey to a particular place. Those surveyed said, not surprisingly, that inadequate facilities mean older people don’t go out – which they suggest is discriminatory, and probably not very smart in an ageing society. Indeed, in the Chief Medical Officer’s recent annual report which focused on health in an ageing society, Professor Chris Whitty highlighted public toilets as a factor in keeping older people physically active in their local communities:
“The built environment is an important facilitator of active transport which involves physical activity, such as walking and cycling. Active transport can bring social and physical benefits, but a poorly designed built environment can present perceived and real safety problems for older adults walking and cycling. Older adults have reported report various factors that impact on access to their wider neighbourhood including lack of seating and public toilets”
Even the Economist has entered the fray over public toilets, pithily citing the decline in these essential public services since the glory days of Thomas Crapper.
“Since 1848 councils have been allowed to provide public toilets, but no law obliges them to. Many have closed, since to keep toilets open is costly for councils: Healthmatic, a company that builds and manages public toilets, puts the price of a very busy public one at £60,000-80,000 a year. Though that is perhaps cheaper than the alternative: Westminster spends £950k a year cleaning up after public urination”
So we have an opportunity not just to improve provision of public toilets but to grab the issue as low-hanging fruit amongst a growing array of challenges to our public health and social cohesion - it’s something that most everyone agrees on and in these divided times that’s got real value.
Opportunities like this are few and far between, and even more impactful with a forthcoming mayoral election.
Last week’s discussion generated a wide range of constructive and innovative ideas on how to improve provision of public toilets, several which I’ll briefly summarise.
Accepting the variability in commitment and capability amongst London’s boroughs, discussion focused on shifting responsibility of toilet provision to other statutory bodies including the private sector.
Caroline Russell, one of our panellists and author of the GLA’s aforementioned “Toilet Paper”, believes TfL as provider of transport and developer of places has a responsibility to provide public toilets, and has recently created a map of TfL facilities highlighting “loo deserts”. Despite recent setbacks she is doggedly seeking a mayoral commitment to funding accessible public toilets at all TfL stations.
Respect to Bristol City Council and its recently drafted Local Plan which includes provision for public toilets. Aiming for final approval and implementation in 2025, the Plan supports the use of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to require developers of “front-facing buildings” to provide public toilets. Could this be replicated on the London Plan?
It was acknowledged that London is replete with Victorian-era toilets, many of which have long closed or rebirthed into hipster bars – and this presented an opportunity which London Borough of Haringey has taken with Historic England to relaunch the Bruce Grove Public Toilets.
Aside from the obvious roundup of London’s hotels, pubs, cafes and shops – which, as Age UK discovered in their survey, many Londoners are hesitant or uncomfortable to use - two other commercial operators were suggested as possible providers of public toilets. One was the humble corner shop, the flagbearer for local communities, which over the years has been morphing into an array of new functions. These include parcel delivery collection from the likes of Amazon, whose fleet of drivers clock up the miles and hours often at the expense of their bladders – and health. Could, would Amazon invest in public toilets for both its drivers and customers at the local corner shop?
One of the key challenges to providing public toilets is the maintenance required to keep them clean, safe and accessible. “In the old days…” began one of last week’s commenters, “we had attendants in public toilets. Working in a toilet wasn’t seen as undignified”. Could we return to the mentality of that era? What about giving homeless people shelter and a job via the humble public loo? Perhaps some rethinking about the role and purpose of the Loo of the Year Award would shift minds in this regard.
The Tokyo Toilet project was cited with enthusiasm (and envy) as it not only provides clean, safe and accessible public toilets throughout Tokyo but is inspired and supported by a city-wide belief that toilets are a symbol of Japan’s “world-renowned hospitality culture”. Could we create similar sentiment – and manifestations of this – here in London? Also discussed was New York City’s recent initiative to provide public toilets (“bathrooms”) in every “zip code (neighbourhood), every public building and to maintain a public portal for information on locations and maintenance conditions.
Public toilet need can only be met equitably and economically with provision at scale, and the role of oversight was discussed at length. Commissions or Ombudsmen networks were suggested, as was the practicality of funding provision through a tourist tax.
As London’s oldest civic society, the London Society is committed to continuing this discussion and building momentum to producing a manifesto for next year’s mayoral election on the provision of public toilets. We see it as a timely and important London-wide conversation, and a convergence of interests in placemaking, public health and health equity.
We welcome insight and input from the architecture and design community. Come join the conversation. Let’s all talk about toilets.
If you have any comments, ideas or know of interesting toilet schemes, send us an email