2024 is starting off with a bang for London’s public toilet campaigners.
As conversations came to a head (!) toward the end of last year – see the lively panel discussion held at the London Society in November – some real activity has started to take root in the early weeks of this year. Will 2024 be the year for decisions and implementation, ensuring that all Londoners have access to safe and clean public toilets?
In mid January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan approved £3million for investment in public toilets in across the TfL network. This follows several years of committed campaigning within the London Assembly led by Caroline Russell. A feasibility study on improving existing toilets and adding new facilities is expected in a few months, according to the mayor, and It is thought that stations served by the Night Tube will be prioritised, to help revellers “caught short” on their way home.
Also gearing up this month is the Soho Public Toilet Project, set up last year by the Soho Neighbourhood Forum and funded with CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) monies provided by Westminster City Council.
Project lead Mark Jenkinson of Crystal Associates commented on the impact this project is likely to have, based on the wide range of individuals and organisations being consulted:
“Although the project is predominately focused on Soho, as well as holding focus groups and surveys, during the course of the project we have so far interviewed almost 40 people from a wide range of local, national and international organisations from a wide range of stakeholder groups. These include Westminster Council and other London councils, the GLA (the Night Czar, Assembly Members , TfL and London & Partners), residents, tourists, businesses (incl. Business Improvement Districts, property developers / owners), the British and Japanese Toilet Associations, leading public toilet manufacturers and operators from home and abroad, and special interest groups and charities (incl. Age UK, Crohn's & Colitis UK, the IBS Network and The Passage)”
Another organisation that is generating impact in its campaigning for public toilets is Age UK London, which produced a comprehensive survey of older Londoners’ experience of London loos in 2022 , and has been supporting a number of campaigns across London’s 32 boroughs. Several of these are seeing real outcomes starting to develop.
Merton is an example of how dedicated local campaigning supported by a London-wide organisation is delivering results. More Loos for Merton was founded in November 2022 to campaign for improved public toilet provision in the London Borough of Merton. Since then it has:
identified over 100 local premises which have toilets (either with free access or for customers)
audited over 30 toilet facilities to check their accessibility and spoken to some local business owners regarding their views on Community Toilet Schemes (CTS)
identified sources of information about the location of local public toilets on transport, council and other websites/apps
encouraged participation in the council’s consultation about public toilets in Spring 2023
engaged with other local groups such as Age UK Merton, Merton Centre for Independent Living and Friends of St. Helier to expand our campaign
fed our audit reports into a scrutiny report produced by a local councillor following the consultation
met with the deputy leader of the council and council officials regarding implementation of the recommendation in the scrutiny report and recruitment of a project officer to relaunch Merton’s CTS
supported the council’s petition to TfL to have toilets installed at Morden Underground Station
responded to media enquiries about our campaign
Julie Johns of More Loos for Merton said, “Our campaign would not have got off the ground without Age UK London initially bringing together their local supporters with an interest in this issue. They have been an invaluable source of knowledge and expertise in terms of what is happening in other boroughs and the Greater London Assembly as well as adding credibility to our representations to the council. I have found participating in the campaign very interesting and worthwhile and achieved a sense of satisfaction from feeling that may be able to achieve some positive outcomes from our efforts”
.In the London Borough of Haringay, campaigners have been instrumental in establishing a Council Toilet strategy which will be developed collaboratively with council staff and campaigners.
Campaigners in the London Borough of Barnet have linked their campaign for public toilets to the Council’s participation in the UK Network of Age Friendly Communitiesand its Healthier High Streets initiative.
John McGeachy, head of Age UK’s London Loos Campaign, is committed to providing more support to these campaigns, which reflect the different challenges and opportunities across London’s local communities.
And the challenges are considerable.
A report produced late last year on public toilets across the UK from Victoria Plumbing revealed some sobering findings on the current and future situation across London’s boroughs, and showed that several boroughs are destined to be “loo-less” by 2028. A spokesperson for the organisation remarked that “although we expect to see public toilets in and around our towns and cities, the councils are not legally required to provide toilets for the public”, and so they have set up a petition to Parliament “to require that local authorities provide public toilets” which you can view and sign here.
What’s encouraging in these early weeks of 2024 is the direction these campaigns and initiatives are taking, linking to national conversations around public health, ageing and health equity – all of which are demonstrably important to voters in this election year. There is a clear recognition that the closure of public toilets can have a significant impact on people’s health, especially those with medical conditions that necessitate frequent toilet use.
The Royal Society for Public Health, in its 2019 report on the “decline of the great British toilet” found that for 20% of people, fear of or knowledge of a lack of facilities nearby can tie them to within a small distance of their home, acting as a “loo leash”. And for those with medical conditions requiring more frequent toilet use, this figure rises to 43%. The report also found that over half of the public restrict fluid intake due to concern over the lack of toilet facilities.
The findings suggest that not only is the lack of toilet provisions making going out in public uncomfortable, but it could also hinder the UK’s wider public health efforts, coming at a time “when public health policy is to encourage outdoor exercise, partly to reduce obesity” as well as to “keep our increasingly elderly population fit and engaged with the community”. But the “declining public toilet provision is in fact encouraging more people to stay indoors”, said the report.
As focus on London heats up for the mayoral and GLA elections in May, there is an opportunity to build on the knowledge, experience and activism around public toilets discussed above, and to build coalitions across organisations representing interests in the built environment and public health sectors to deliver the public resource that we all deserve.
Listen to Locals
8 February 2024