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Time for a rethink on public loos

I recently spoke with a national broadsheet journalist about disinvestment in public toilets at a time when awareness and interest in public health and active travel is at an all-time high, and our conversation quickly veered away from the policy issues underlying the issue and towards the language used to communicate it. “You can’t get media attention with the word ‘toilet’”, he cautioned. “It’s the yuck factor”.

Well, if that’s all it takes to get attention, let’s all agree a common vernacular. Loos it is.

So on to policy. Why aren’t there enough public loos in London?

Caroline Russell, London Assembly member and chair of the Assembly’s Health Committee, commissioned a report last year on loos in London which was published in November, and fittingly, on World Toilet Day. Entitled The Toilet Paper: Improving London’s Loos it identified some serious concerns about both the quantity and quality of London’s loos.

The Committee surveyed 3,504 Londoners and found that 91.3% of respondents do not feel toilet provision is adequate to meet their needs. Results also revealed that finding a restroom was even harder if you have a disability or long-term health condition.

And nearly all respondents agreed that public toilets are integral to making the capital accessible, inclusive, and economically viable.

12 recommendations were made which focused on the Mayor’s duty to provide facilities, methods for ensuring access and ways to improve provision using current data on population and health inequalities.

Ms Russell said

“it is clear from the Health Committee investigation that Londoners have grave concerns about the city’s public toilets being wiped out. The lack of toilets in London is a public inconvenience and closures are worsening the problem.

“It is simply not acceptable that people are purposefully dehydrating themselves over concerns that they might not be able to find a loo when away from home. Some even feel they cannot leave the house at all.

“Our findings should serve as a wake-up call that having no place to go, can have serious physical and mental health consequences.

“Londoners are being let down by a lack of loos. We need to see enhanced leadership and accountability at national, regional and local level to improve the chronic lack of decent public toilet provision in our city. Public toilets are not just a convenience – they’re a necessity.”

So where do we go from here? It’s time for a rethink about how we provide and access public loos, and here are three ideas to get the ball rolling:

1. Integrate the provision of public loos into the planning application and approval process. In larger schemes, this could be a required element of the Health Impact Assessment, demonstrating how the provision of public loos will promote public health, active travel and reduce health inequalities

2. incentivise new providers. Not just the usual suspects like cafes and pubs who have been hit hard during the pandemic, but the companies that have prospered and stand to benefit from investment in local communities. Amazon, for example, increasingly dominates our local roads with its delivery vans – and wouldn’t their own drivers benefit from wide and consistent availability of loos? The same goes for Deliveroo and Uber. And what about the energy providers who are gaining licenses to provide charging points for EVs across our communities?

3. leverage existing digital tools and develop new ones based on local population data. Apps like Loocations have been a lifesaver for many during the pandemic, and by tracking accessible loos in realtime – and showing the many that have closed -- have demonstrated the need for better provision.

The situation is likely to remain unchanged unless communities work together to demonstrate both need and the opportunities that providing public loos can bring. Who’s up for a pan-London campaign?

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

21 March 2022


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