In a move that is billed as both saving costs and improving facilities, Stockport Council are planning to introduce a “Community Toilet Scheme”. This will involve closing current council-run public toilets and allowing the public to use existing toilets in business premises, for which the owners will receive an annual fee. On the face of it, it sounds like a win-win situation, but in reality it may prove much more problematical.
For a start, how many businesses actually have toilet facilities that are actually extensive or robust enough to cope with being heavily used by members of the public? How many have nappy-changing facilities or proper disabled provision? And, in general, toilets are tucked away at the back of the premises so can only be accessed by walking through areas where public access may cause a problem.
Inevitably the spotlight is likely to fall on pubs and restaurants, but a major problem there is that many do not open until 11 am or midday, whereas in a town centre there is a demand for public toilets from 9 am or even earlier. And it will need to be properly publicised, with signposts erected and maps produced and distributed through libraries, doctors’ surgeries and information centres. It’s no use just putting a little sticker in the window.
Perhaps it could work in a rural area where the only users will be a few motorists, cyclists and ramblers, but you can see it leading to all kinds of problems in large towns and cities. Will business owners really want to expose themselves to all the problems associated with public toilets such as drug use, sexual activity, theft of supplies, soiling, vandalism and graffiti? At present, a business owner can control the people who use his facilities, but if they are thrown open to the public this will no longer be possible. How much would the licensee of a town-centre pub think he needed to be paid to justify all the extra work and hassle? Many town-centre pubs, of course, currently have notices on the door saying “Our toilets are for customer use only”.
If it works, good luck to them, but I have serious doubts that it will prove a success, and in the longer term will just lead to a further erosion of already inadequate public toilet provision. The number of declared “community toilets” will never be sufficient and will be whittled away year by year. While it is not a statutory duty on councils to provide public toilets, surely businesses in town and village centres have a reasonable expectation when they pay their business rates that part of them will be used to provide such facilities alongside pavements and streetlighting. And can we be sure that before cutting expenditure on services that are actually used by people on a day-to-day basis, Stockport Council have eliminated all the politically correct non-jobs such as lesbian outreach workers and five-a-day co-ordinators?