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Where did all our public toilets go?

Published 16th February, 2024 by Neil Nixon

Where did all our public toilets go?

Washrooms have been closing down all over the country – and the pandemic has only sped things up. But why is this the case? When was the 'golden age' of public toilets, and will we ever see a return to those days? Essity’s Lee Radzki traces the history of away-from-home washrooms and considers where we are now.

The number of public toilets in the UK has decreased by 14% since 2018/2019, according to a report. Cost constraints have been at least partly responsible for around a quarter of the closures while anti-social behaviour, arson and vandalism have led to 20 per cent of them being put out of service.

Released in summer 2023 under the Freedom of Information Act, the report for the Liberal Democrats also revealed that the number of public toilets in the UK will fall by 50% within 25 years if the current trend continues.

COVID-19 hastened the decline when it led to large numbers of toilets being locked and shuttered. Around 800 UK facilities closed during the winter of 2020-2021 alone according to the Lockdown Loo website – and many of these never reopened.

Today’s public toilet shortage was highlighted in an exhibition staged last summer. The Rise and Decline of Newcastle’s Public Toilets charted the history of local loos in the city and revealed that Newcastle boasted 40 toilets in the 1890s – a figure that had doubled to 80 by the mid-20th century. However, by 2023 the number of public facilities in Newcastle had plummeted to precisely zero. And complaints about toilet closures have been occurring in many other towns and cities around the country. So what has occurred to change our lavatory landscape so drastically?

Public toilets first sprang up in the UK in the mid 19th century for two main reasons: public health and the Great Exhibition. When a devastating cholera outbreak in 1848-49 killed around 52,000 people the need for flushing toilets and sewers suddenly became a priority. So the health authorities introduced public loos in many built-up areas, and the First Public Health Act of 1848 provided a framework for local authorities to open conveniences.

The Great Exhibition was staged a few years later in 1851. Its aim was to flaunt the nation’s wealth and influence and huge crowds were expected to attend the event at the new Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. But there was one small problem: the venue had no toilets which meant people were unlikely to linger for long at the exhibition. So lavatories were incorporated into the building’s design, each with its own chain-operated flush and an outside slot where a penny could be deposited to pay for its use.

The toilets were so successful that 675,000 pennies were spent during the course of the six-month exhibition. The concept caught on and public lavatories soon opened in towns and cities throughout Britain. Known as Public Waiting Rooms, these were often built underground with a glass brick embedded in the pavement to provide light. Councils gained greater power to operate these facilities after the 1875 Public Health Act which allowed local authorities to buy, create and repair sewers and control water supplies.

The tradition of providing away-from-home facilities became firmly established and as the 20th century progressed, washrooms were routinely provided in commercial establishments such as hotels, restaurants, bars, offices and shopping centres as well as in town centres and parks.

So the 20th century could arguably be considered the 'golden age' of public toilets. However, it must be remembered that in the early part of the century many houses still had no inside facilities of their own - merely an outhouse in the back yard. So public washrooms were more of a necessity than they are now.

Today it is expected that toilets will be available at every public event whether it is an exhibition, sports match, music festival or dramatic performance. And now that diseases such as cholera are under control there is arguably less need to provide public toilets in every town, park or village. In any case, toilets are expensive to equip and maintain – particularly when cases of misuse and abuse are high.

Reports of washroom vandalism in public areas and in schools have proliferated since the pandemic. And in autumn 2021, a TikTok craze prompted school students worldwide to rip off washroom dispensers, break mirrors and smash sinks and urinals and post images of this destruction on to social media. The “Devious Licks” challenge led to millions of pounds’ worth of damage being carried out in washrooms worldwide.

So while there may be good reasons for some facilities remaining closed, the lack of public toilets is still having a major impact on people’s lives. And many of them are only too willing to voice their concerns when their toilet provision is taken away.

Edinburgh residents recently staged a protest over the lack of loos in their area claiming it was having a negative effect on accessibility. Members of the Living Rent tenants’ union in Edinburgh said the dearth of facilities was deterring one in five people from venturing out of their homes and also impacting on people with medical conditions. A few years back more than 3000 people in Cleethorpes signed a petition demanding that more toilets be introduced along the town’s beachfront. And back in Newcastle, activists recently lobbied councilors to demand accessible, clean and safe toilets in their public spaces.

Councils can help to cut costs and deter vandals by installing durable fixtures and systems that have been designed to reduce maintenance and resist damage. Robust, sturdy dispensers are harder to rip off the walls than flimsy ones, for example, and if these are also lockable they will restrict people’s access to the product inside.

Long-lasting systems will prevent run-outs and reduce labour costs while digital systems – such as Tork Vision Cleaning – will reduce the number of physical inspections that cleaning staff need to make. Tork Vision Cleaning connects washroom dispensers and people-counters allowing operatives to check on refill and cleaning requirements remotely via a smartphone or tablet.

There has been some good news about public toilets over recent months. The UK government recently invested £7 million in the provision of new Changing Places toilets around the country. These provide accessible facilities incorporating equipment such as hoists, adult-sized changing benches and space for carers.

London Bridge Station is due to receive a second set of public toilets in an upgrade reported to cost £4.8 million. And major washroom refurbishments have taken place up and down the country in various locations including East Devon, Doncaster and Felixstowe.

So perhaps we are finally turning a corner as we gain an understanding of the true value that public washrooms provide. And it could be that another 'golden age' is just around the corner.

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