Covid-19 has exposed the UK’s public toilet crisis

The rise of outdoor socialising has exposed a previously hidden problem: the UK has privatised its toilets.

NewStatesman, July, 5, 2020
Jonn Elledge

Near to my home in east London there is a park. Near to that park, there is a pub, which has been offering takeaway beers and cocktails, plus a number of supermarkets which offer much the same and, hey, why don’t we just go there it’s cheaper. Inside that park there is no toilet. There is, however, a wood, which borders the park on two sides.

So it is that, on sunny evenings of late, along with the local families, football teams and so forth, the park has been stuffed with young Londoners enjoying a socially-distanced drink. And on one evening recently, one of them went into the woods, under the ostensible impression that, the further into the trees he went, the less visible he was, found himself a set of railings against which to do his business, and didn’t notice that he was urinating out of the park and into the street, a position from which he was visible not just to passers-by like myself, but almost certainly to anyone on board the trains departing the London Overground station over the road.

At which point I did what any true born Londoner would do: ignored him, crossed the street and decided to treat it as a funny anecdote, rather than a horrifying story about what is, let’s be clear about this, a drunk man, pissing in the street.

As spring has turned to summer, with no end of the Covid-19 crisis conceivable, let alone in sight, one of the coping strategies employed by urbanites who live with friends or partners or alone has been to move their social lives outside. We’ve had a run of good weather, and it’s relatively hard to spread the virus outside, and there’s only so long that people who live alone, or in cramped homes shared with strangers, can be expected to cut themselves off from all forms of social contact without suffering complete emotional collapse. And so parks and riversides have begun to take on the role once played by pubs.

And by and large, it’s worked pretty well. In London at least (I can no longer remember the last time I left it to check on anywhere else), most people have kept their distance and taken their rubbish away with them afterwards. Civilisation has not collapsed. This is lucky because, even though the pubs began to reopen on Saturday (4 July), they’ll have severe constraints on their capacity, and many people will likely prefer to avoid enclosed spaces anyway. The park drinks phenomenon will persist for a while.

But there’s a problem, inadvertently highlighted by our drunken friend: the UK has privatised its toilets. In the late 19th century, the “nuisances” that drained directly into rivers or streets were replaced by hygiene-conscious councils with veritable palaces of public convenience, proper loos hooked up to the new-fangled water and sewage systems. They charged, yes (the phrase “spend a penny” was once literal); but once upon a time, according to a brilliantly titled report from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), Taking the P***: The Decline of the Great British Public Toilet, many also had a free cubicle available for those who found themselves caught short. Toilet facilities were a public good.

As the 20th century wore on, however, and council budgets were increasingly strained, local authorities began outsourcing their toilets to private contractors, or simply selling them off. (One in another, trendier part of east London ended up as a nightclub, Public Life; the property was later put up for sale for a cool £990,000.) Austerity made things worse: between 2010 and 2018, BBC research found, councils closed 13 per cent of surviving public toilets; 37 were left with none at all.

This worked fine, as there were generally other facilities available, in shopping centres, stations or pubs; right up until a few weeks ago, when suddenly many of those other facilities weren’t available after all, but large numbers of people still needed them.

It’s at roughly that point that a drunk man somewhere in east London found himself pissing through a railing, and the Evening Standard declared it the “summer of the Shewee”, after sales of the device, which does exactly what you think, spiked by 700 per cent.

The collapse in public toilet provision is not a new problem: that RSPH report, which found that a fifth of British people had found their movements restricted by concern about inadequate toilet facilities, dates from May 2019. But lockdown, and the rise of outdoor socialising that’s accompanied it, has shone a light on both how far public toilet provision has declined, and on how the effects of this problem are, Sheewee sales notwithstanding, gendered.

So perhaps, when this is all over, we can have a conversation about how we can fix this. Some little luxuries in life are worth spending a penny on.

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.