January 9, 2019
The first public toilet appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park and for a penny the visitor received not just the use of the facilities but a fresh towel, a comb and a shoeshine into the bargain (recommendedfrom COSS) And over the next 150 years, the public toilet flourished as an institution. But with budget cuts of recent years it increasingly falls to the community to keep their public loos open. Some are rising to the challenge. The folk on Cumbrae have even made their ‘Cumbrae Cludgies’ a visitor attraction.
I can still remember the stench of the public lavatories that graced the high street of the Aberdeenshire town I grew up in, the putrid blend of age-old urine and oxygen-starved cigarette smoke seemingly etched onto my olfactory memory forever.
Thankfully neither the block nor its split-seated stainless steel bowls survived much beyond the 1980s, with the building they were housed in bulldozed to make way for a shiny new supermarket during my teenage years. Not that we were left loo-less for long, with no thoroughly modern, Presto-toting town centre being thought complete in those heady days unless it boasted a brand spanking new toilet block too. Complete with bleach-wielding attendant, of course.
Fast forward to 2019, however, and those well-tended toilets are facing an uncertain future, with Aberdeenshire Council last year transferring responsibility for them to a local heritage group as part of a cost-cutting drive. The group has vowed to keep them running for the foreseeable future, with a community-spirited local cleaner and a couple of helpers stepping in to provide their services free of charge.
The situation is far from unique. Research published in this newspaper last month showed that across Scotland the number of public toilets has reduced by 20 per cent in the past five years, with a third of the 724 that remain expected to be sold off or closed in the coming months. In towns and villages across the country solutions are being found, with local authorities paying small sums to local businesses in return for public access to their facilities in a so-called ‘comfort partnership’ arrangement.
As in my home town, other community groups have taken full responsibility for their local loos, with the Cumbrae Community Development Company – aka The Cumbrae Cludgies – proving just how successful community ownership can be after taking over management of the island’s six public toilets in 2016. Millport has been judged Hidden Scotland’s most beautiful town and its Newton Beach one of Keep Scotland Beautiful’s best beaches since, with its gleaming toilets helping clinch the awards.
Yet despite the stellar work being done by Cumbrae ‘Cludgie Cleaner’ Suki McGregor, who not only ensures the facilities are kept pristine but promotes the island in YouTube videos too, the group has turned to crowdfunding in a bid to raise the £10,000 needed for its survival. Running toilets is an expensive business, you see.
But is it an expensive business that the public should pay for from the good of its heart through donations of time or money, or should our publicly funded bodies continue to foot the bill? A decade on from the advent of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Age of Austerity, we all know money is tight, but I’m still willing to argue it’s the latter.
It goes without saying that the loss of public toilets sends a negative message to the visitors our rural communities depend on in order to thrive. It’s one thing throwing money at advertising campaigns whose romanticised vision of our hills, glens, food and drink is designed to lure tourists in, but if they can’t access even the most basic of services once they get here they’re hardly likely to give us a glowing review.
And if welcoming holiday-makers isn’t your thing, think on this: without easy access to a public loo many elderly members of our communities, whose social interactions have already been curtailed by the automation of pension payments, the closure of local banks and the soaring cost of a cup of tea, may well give up on venturing down the town altogether. Consigning the elderly or infirm to their homes rather than finding ways of ensuring they can remain a part of the community is hardly the mark of a civilised society.
And that, really, is the crux: far from being a simple inconvenience, the loss of public lavatories serves as a reminder of just how uncivilised our society has become. From streets smeared with dog dirt to towns left without libraries, the symptoms are everywhere. The narrative might be that by closing toilets councils are cutting back on a service they are not legally obliged to provide, but the wider story is that after a decade’s worth of austerity-led budget cuts we have been reduced to accepting the budget version of civic life.
The latest manifestation is the introduction of fees for school music tuition, a move that is to be derided not just because it separates out the rich from the poor but because it implies that only the former are deserving of enriching experiences. In West Lothian alone, 1,000 school kids have dropped out of music lessons since an annual fee of £345 was introduced. If that isn’t a wake-up call that austerity isn’t working, what is?
On its website the Cumbrae Community Development Company states that “a community that cares about its public toilets sends out a strong message about the type of community it is”. Our communities keep sending that message, about their toilets and so much more. It’s time that those in power started to listen.