There is no legal obligation on councils to provide conveniences, and closing them is often an easy way to save money when cash is short. London’s provision is now abysmal, with several boroughs no longer having any public provision at all.
All Londoners and visitors need toilets when they are out and about. The young and able-bodied may nip into the nearest pub, but this isn’t an easy option with small kids, or for some older people and Muslims. Most train and Tube stations are without toilets. Those that do have varied charges, from 50p a time at Charing Cross, to 30p at Euston, to zero at St Pancras, with no obvious rhyme or reason.
The facilities at some tourist spots shame London. At Tower Hill station, where thousands disembark daily, there are no facilities. Visitors to the Tower brave a filthy concrete tunnel which reeks of urine at night. At Westminster, the public toilets are dark, old-fashioned and none-too-clean, with no access for disabled people (a high proportion of whom have incontinence problems) or those with pushchairs. Why on earth weren’t decent facilities incorporated when the station was rebuilt for the Jubilee line?
The last mayor encouraged shops and public buildings to open their toilets to the public, and some boroughs have made a success of this strategy. Richmond, for example, pays about 100 local businesses small sums of money to take part in its “community toilet scheme”. But there are limits to this sort of provision. It depends on shops and businesses being open, so it’s not much use during evenings or weekends.
With London’s population booming, the number of older people increasing, and the night-time economy likely to grow rapidly with late running on the Tube, demand for toilets cannot be wished away. We need modern facilities which reflect our changing society – proper provision for children, those with serious mental and physical handicaps, people with religious concerns about modesty, transgender people. Some mobile free facilities may be needed in areas where crowds gather for special events, or where rough sleepers congregate.
I’m not calling for much more public spending. What we want is more from the private sector. Public toilets are often grim and unhygienic places, looked after by people who don’t enjoy their work. They should be privatised. We want entrepreneurs to set up new attractive facilities, whether incorporated into cafes and other public places, or freestanding automatic loos. We want staff who are incentivised to provide a good service. Some public subsidy may be needed, but less than people think. Paid-for toilets can bring in very substantial sums of money. Last year the revenue from toilets at Victoria station was well over £2m.
We want big companies to sponsor facilities for their advertising potential. We want toilets which you can pay for with contactless cards rather than having to search through pockets with increasing desperation for the right combination of coins. We want 24-hour opening at key locations.
Local authorities (and central government in London) can make sites available, streamline planning permissions, suspend business rates on new facilities and so on. Private business could do much more if motivated and incentivised. The new mayor has much on his agenda. But pushing this should be a priority.
This article first appeared in City AM.