Friday, 3 June 2016

Has "spending a penny" become too expensive for the UK's councils?

As they say, "When you've got to go, you've got to go" and we all take for granted being able to get to a toilet in good time when nature calls. However, in recent years, you may have noticed that public facilities have been mysteriously disappearing.

In the last decade, ever-tightening council budgets have been responsible for the closure of at least 1782 facilities across the UK. Data obtained by the BBC from 331 out of 435 councils contacted shows that 22 councils, including Manchester, Stockport and Tamworth, now only have one public toilet, with the best served areas often in popular tourist destinations. Reasons cited for closure of public facilities include the need to rid areas of antisocial hubs, with WCs becoming beacons for drug-taking, sex and vandalism, and the Disability Discrimination Act under the argument that the majority of toilets are inaccessible to those with additional access requirements.

In a bid by councils to save money, WCs are being sold to private businesses, which transform them into all manner of amenities, from wine bars to night clubs. One Clapham wine bar was revamped under the condition that unsuspecting members of the public who wander in to "spend a penny" are allowed to use the facilities without the need to buy anything.

But a lack of public toilets can have significant social and health repercussions. Elderly rights groups say that the closure of facilities can lead to social isolation of the aged, who may begin to avoid going out due to a fear of getting caught short. Campaigners also argue that being desperate to go to the toilet and holding a full bladder can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

In 2014, the British Toilet Association released the Great British Toilet map, showing facilities across the UK at train stations, community toilet schemes, shopping centres and libraries. Another measure designed to combat the UK's lack of loos is the "Can't Wait Card" - a national membership scheme for people with bladder or bowel problems which states that the holder has a medical condition and needs to use a toilet quickly. In the capital, the "Open London" scheme allows members of the public to use facilities in M&S, John Lewis, Tesco and Asda without the obligation to spend a penny.

From "the bathroom" to "the loo", we have many different names for the toilet, however, the need for convenient access to facilities is a universal one. It's clear that the decline of the public toilet could have serious implications, especially for the dignity and wellbeing of society's most vulnerable groups, and that in all likelihood the problem is only going to get worse unless serious action is taken. Other concerns raised as part of the debate include a possible threat to public health, with the risk that a lack of facilities will lead people to relieve themselves in the street instead. Let's hope the issue is addressed before the UK's councils "pull the chain" on our WCs for good...

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