An Urgent Need

First published in the NASGP Newsletter on 31 March 2024

“Zenski isn’t the gentski”. Dithering desperately outside the toilets on a Croatian railway station last year I recalled the mantra from a long-ago family holiday in Dubrovnik. That was how we remembered which toilet we should use. 

At least we found a public convenience. That’s something which can be a challenge in this country. Thomas Crapper introduced modern plumbing and Joseph Bazalgette engineered London’s sewerage. Both would be appalled to find out how the standards they made possible in Victorian times have been neglected.  

In 2006 the London Assembly’s report on the state of the capital’s toilets was wittily titled ‘An Urgent Need’. Forty percent of public toilets in London had closed since 1999. Only 400 were still open. Staff who used to keep an eye on them were axed to save money. Public conveniences were dirty, unsafe, vandalised and often inaccessible, especially to anyone with a disability or a pushchair. Some were known venues for cottaging. No wonder people avoided using them. Men used the street, walls, letterboxes. Women crossed their legs and looked around for a pub or store. Rather than risk an undignified accident, elderly and disabled people would stay at home, so compromising their independence and quality of life. The situation in other cities wasn’t quite so bad, but everywhere public toilets were closing. The report asked, “What would foreigners visiting London for the Olympics think?”.

It’s a surprise to learn that local authorities have no duty to provide public conveniences. They can require them at places of entertainment, and councils are empowered to require free-of-charge toilets where food and drink is sold for consumption on the premises. Pubs and restaurants must provide facilities for staff, but only for customers if they offer more than 10 seats or are selling alcohol after 11pm.

It’s a surprise to learn that local authorities have no duty to provide public conveniences.

Providing public toilets may be expensive, but clearing up after ‘micturating merrymakers’ in Soho cost nearly a million pounds a year. The report recommended that local authorities be obliged to provide toilets and planners must include them in new developments. The 1936 law which prohibited charging men for having a pee should also be changed. It takes a women three times longer to use a loo than a man, so equality demanded that the queues endured by women be ameliorated by providing more ‘ladies’. People needed maps to know where they could find a loo. And access to toilets in commercial premises should be encouraged.


Since 2006, things have improved. Most cities and towns now have maps, online and on the streets, showing where you can find a loo. Websites, of which I would say Great British Public Toilet Map is the most user-friendly and comprehensive, will tell you where you can go, when the loos are open and whether someone with a disability can use them.

And while local authority conveniences continue to close, commercial and cultural premises are offering their loos to the public. So gone are the days, one hopes, of sneaking into a museum just to use their toilets. Bristol Community Toilet Scheme promotes the benefits of good publicity and increased footfall to organisations which sign up to a six-year contract. Hopefully the deal is better than that offered

in Barcelona, where, in exchange for more pavement space for outside tables, eateries had to make their servicios available to the public. Restaurants and cafes filled up with tour groups queueing to use the loos. The ambience was ruined and the staff couldn’t get plates of food to the tables. The scheme folded.

Not all conveniences are convenient, especially if you have a disability. ‘Accessible’ loos may be locked, with impractical instructions for obtaining a key. Some now have RADAR locks which open with a RADAR key, available by application with suitable documentation through councils and charities. Or, at a cost and the risk of a dodgy key, through Amazon.

When imperial Rome was hard up, the state imposed charges for use of public facilities. The charges weren’t popular. In 2006 the London Assembly’s report found that women having to ‘spend a penny’ to do what men could do for free was unfair. There doesn’t seem to be a statutory or common agreement about charging, though paying 20p by card is less irritating than rummaging for the right coins.

Deciphering the symbols on the doors can still be a challenge in premises with arch interpretations of male and female. These gender-fluid days there is a new anxiety – how do I choose, and will I be uncomfortable with what, or who, I find inside? Is there a social formula for potential embarrassment? The pub that offers Male, Female and Undecided has an answer.

Cleanliness is still a challenge. Thomas Crapper put a picture of a bee in urinals to give men something to aim at, a strategy still quite widely used, apparently. But that’s not enough to keep toilets and their environment clean. GP practices and local councils work together on health issues. If availability and the state of public conveniences isn’t one of them, it should be. And everyone can help. The condition of the only toilet for women in a pub with pretentions to gastro was so disgusting that I collared the barman. He said he was too busy to take any action. When I pointed out how many of the clients would be using the loo and taking away an impression of filth and neglect he rang the manager. I did not have to carry out my threat that, if the loo wasn’t clean by the time I left, I would announce the state of it to everyone in the pub.

The Newcastle history is instructive. In 19th century Newcastle there were public urinals at any place where men worked, and the urine was sold to tanneries. By the end of that century women could ‘spend a penny’. By the end of the 20th century very few conveniences were still open. You can take a self-guided walking tour of closed public toilets. It covers 170 years of the city’s history, and you learn why they were closed. It’s an interesting bit of social history. As is why the council hasn’t been opening new ones. Acorn, a community group, launched a grassroots campaign. Local people made their views known and Acorn presented them to the council. Which, like all councils, is strapped by lack of money and national policies. So Newcastle has opened only one new public toilet.

Meanwhile, what happens to closed public conveniences? Entrepreneurs are converting former subterranean loos into ice-cream parlours, cafés and bars.

I don’t think I could be comfortable drinking my cappuccino where 20 years ago I had gone for a pee. Dame Joan Bakewell suggests creating niche art galleries. Duchamp’s Urinal perhaps?

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