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Jenny McCartney

The smelly, snobbish death of the English public toilet

In England, people dislike talking about lavatories in public. So soon, they will have no public lavatories

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

I blame Nancy Mitford: she made the English so frightened of saying ‘toilet’ that now they have hardly any left — of the public variety, that is, the sort that traditionally proved so useful to anyone who wanted to do a daring thing like leaving the house.

I’m quite happy with ‘toilet’ personally, being from Belfast, where pretending to be ‘U’ is a greater source of potential embarrassment than simply being ‘Non-U’ like everyone else. Still, once the waspish Miss Mitford tagged talk of the ‘toilet’ or the ‘lavatory’ as an unshakeable indicator of one’s place in the class system, I can see why many people preferred to shut up about the subject altogether.

Not any more. The conspiracy of silence is being eroded by urgent necessity. Ordinary citizens have woken up to the fact that, one by one, our public conveniences are being stolen from us by cash-strapped councils desperate to save every last penny, rather than encourage the nation to spend one in a timely and hygienic fashion. Last year, the British Toilets Association estimated that 40 per cent of Britain’s public toilets had shut in the past decade. Since the public conveniences closed in Daymer Bay, Cornwall, even the delights of David Cameron’s favourite holiday destination have been imperilled by misplaced urine. Michael Somers, of Trebetherick Residents’ Association, warned that ‘already, some people have been relieving themselves in the sand dunes’ in winter, and that he dreaded to think what might arrive in high season. Mr Somers said he had spoken to Mr Cameron, who supported the campaign to keep the amenities open. I don’t wish to worry Mr Somers further, but the Prime Minister has been proclaiming support for public toilets for a while, and things have only got worse.

Mrs Gillian Kemp, the genial campaigner behind Public Toilets UK, told me: ‘We want the provision of public toilets to be a legal requirement. At the moment, councils don’t have to provide them. Yet not having them is a cost to the population as a whole.’ Public toilets are still wrongly subject to business tax, she says. And when she campaigns for them on behalf of truckers, she is ‘passed from pillar to post’ between ministerial departments.


Now the blight of threatened destruction has crept near me. A decade ago, when we first moved to Highgate, I was delighted to stumble across the public convenience in Pond Square. It looked like a tiny house from a fairy-tale, and contained something miraculous: an attendant, in a small room separated from the facilities by a frosted glass door. The place smelled reassuringly of disinfectant, its sparkling cubicles were well-stocked with paper, and one even had a working nappy–change table. Everything about it spoke loudly and warmly of civic responsibility.

At the time, I was pushing a six-month-old baby in a buggy, and there are few more potent arguments for well-maintained public conveniences than young children. Any trip involving those aged between zero and five, in particular, will be fraught with imminent emergencies of the most stressful kind. Knowing this, the wise parent — who once could grab a bunch of keys and race out of the door — will stand bellowing before departure: ‘Does anyone need the toilet?’ It rarely works. If the children can speak, they will deny that they need to go. Precisely halfway between your home and your destination, they will confess the situation has changed.

Who else might be particularly grateful for a public loo? All of those who might find it tricky to ‘hang on’: the elderly, pregnant women, men with prostate trouble, people with gut disorders, bus drivers, taxi drivers, or someone who recklessly drank a cup of tea before leaving the house. Any of us, really: the human body is undiscriminating in its basic requirements. And the Pond Square toilets are used by over 88,000 people each year, according to a study by Camden council.

Nonetheless, Councillor Meric Apak, Camden’s cabinet member for environment and sustainability, has recently proposed that the council should close the Pond Square toilets, along with two other fine facilities. In a ruling beyond satire, last autumn Camden also introduced ‘wee fees’ which let it fine anyone caught urinating on the street £100. I am not a fan of public urination — which, unsurprisingly, seems to be on the rise — but it appears illogical to launch a crackdown at the same time as shutting public toilets. The council is pinning its hopes on local businesses joining a scheme that lets people use their toilets without buying anything. A pilot ‘Community Toilet Scheme’ has already swung into action down the road in Kentish Town, where it has a proud total of one signatory.

I do hope that Mr Apak doesn’t one day find himself in the fix that befell Jackie Burns, the red-faced deputy leader of South Lanarkshire council, who oversaw the closure of his local public toilets only later to be fined £40 for urinating on the street. In any case, the locals — as represented by the Highgate Society — are putting up a spirited protest. What has happened everywhere else in the UK still might not happen here. It’s odd, really: we’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, as we keep on hearing in the Brexit debate, and we’re rapidly sliding towards medieval forms of public sanitation.

The Highgate protestors have made many powerful points, but I think one angle in particular might be worth pursuing. The homely style of Edwardian conveniences like the one in Pond Square inspired the term ‘cottaging’, the practice whereby gay men sought out sex with strangers. The beautifully tiled loos in South End Green in Hampstead — also on the council’s hit-list — were the favoured pick-up point of the playwright Joe Orton.

You see, if only Camden council could be persuaded to keep these places open as historic monuments to a vanishing aspect of gay culture, perhaps the general public might still be permitted to sneak in under the radar, and carry out our necessary, unmentionable business undisturbed.

Mary Wakefield is away on maternity leave.


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