No choice but to charge entry for public toilets

Washroom/Toilet Icons.

Charging for public facilities could be on the cards - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was on family outings as a boy that I first became aware of a difference in lifestyles between men and women. When in need of a pee, the male side of the family would descend into a basement urinal where the air was so rank with disinfectant that it made our eyes water.

Above our heads were glass bricks, through which we’d see the soles of pedestrians’ shoes passing overhead. There was then a finely balanced decision about washing hands. On the one hand we knew we should. On the other, in the age before electric air dryers, the option was a filthy towel on a roller or the back of our own trousers.

For the females of the party, however, there were different arrangements. Male loos were configured as little more than a wall and a trough. Women had private cubicles. I imagine they welcomed this, but for this luxury they had to “pay a penny”. As I grew up this became a 2p, then a 5p, then a 10p. Until eventually the practice seemed to stop.

With the disappearance of the lavatory attendant and the whole world of “Carry On At Your Convenience” coin entry became no longer viable, and so loos, for a while, became free. That was until railway stations and anywhere else where demand outstripped supply installed little turnstiles and it went up to 20p for both men and women.

At East Devon District Council we are required in law to deliver either mandatory services, such as waste collection, or discretionary services which include – to everyone’s amazement including my own – public toilets. Historically, the council has opted to do the clearly obvious thing and keep the loos up and running. Of course it has.

The problem now is that the Conservative administrations which were in power at EDDC for more than 40 years liked boasting of a low council tax. The consequence is that since 2014 they have not spent a penny (sic) on the district’s loos, many of which are in dire need of urgent maintenance. Sometimes a legacy is a good thing, but the kind of legacy which the Tories have bequeathed to my administration is pretty toxic.

Now the issue can no longer be kicked down the road. In Whitehall, their Conservative masters have reduced direct grants to district councils to zero, whilst loading us with extra responsibilities. I mention this because every now and then I get a (usually polite) letter from a reader urging me to divorce national and local politics.

With respect, I cannot. District Councils are the Cinderellas to the Ugly Sisters of national government. We get that in East Devon, and like Cinderella we’re not just going to sit and take it – we have to react.

Therefore, in order to restore and keep the public loos going there is now no choice financially but to charge for use. It’s probably going to have to be about 40p to go in, using a contactless system, with careful provision made for the tiny number of people who do not have contactless bank cards. Ironically, we will be back to the days of “paying a penny” which, I am told, should be £1 with inflation, so hopefully people will understand the need for less than half that.

All this will take a year or two to implement. For our very high-use loos this will be matched by a £3 million investment in bringing them into C21st condition. For other loos we are looking to work with local businesses for joint enterprises. Many blocks are in excellent locations and the buildings could easily be repurposed to enable a business to be run there too. Other locations could be suitable for taking over by parish or town councils.
If all pull together, we can do it. The alternative is closures, and surely none of us wants that?