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Let’s talk toilets

Posted: 6th November 2018

Kevin Wellman


Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE)

Did you know it’s World Toilet Day on 19th November? Traditionally we’d use the day to highlight the plight of a lack of sanitation in third world countries – its impact on economic and social growth, public health and the threat of disease (which should have been long eradicated).

However, there is an increasing epidemic on our own shores when it comes to public toilet provision. The steady de-funding and closure of public lavatories should be a nationwide scandal, yet we seem to have buried our heads in the sand.

I understand it in some ways - toilets and toileting habits are amongst the top taboo subjects for us Brits - so we expect to be met with a wall of embarrassed silence if the topics of incontinence, the need to urinate or (heaven forbid) take a bowel movement crop up. But talk about it we must.

Did you know that in the UK:

  • The average person urinates between six and eight times a day. But if you're drinking plenty, it's not abnormal to go as many as 10 times a day.
  • NHS numbers show that between three and six million people have some degree of urinary incontinence.
  • According to figures from Incontinence UK, women are five times more likely to suffer urinary incontinence than men – mostly due to stress factors such as childbirth and menopause.
  • Additionally, studies suggest that constipation and bowel incontinence affects between 3% and 15% of the population.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men over 65 experience incontinence issues (Age UK).
  • Over a 1/4 million people need a ‘Changing Places toilet’ to enable them to get out and about and enjoy the day-to-day activities most of us take for granted - there are around 1154 Changing Places toilets in the UK. (Changing Places)
  • There is no legal requirement for councils to provide public toilets or for businesses to provide toilets to non-paying customers.
  • The number of public toilet facilities fell by 40% from 2004-2014 and has continued to decline. (British Toilet Association)
  • At least 673 public toilets across the UK have stopped being maintained by major councils (unitary, borough, district and city) since 2010. (BBC Reality Check)

Cuts to public toilets affect a significant proportion of the population, including women, the elderly, the disabled, those with medical conditions and those with babies and young children.

I don’t believe local councils want to close these facilities. However, they currently have no legal requirement to provide public toilets so, when budgets are cut and tough choices made, these facilities are naturally in danger.

Often, the cost of running public conveniences will be passed onto smaller parish/town councils or community groups, but if no alternative funding can be sourced, these facilities will ultimately close. It is then down to good-natured local businesses to open their doors.

It is a shortsighted cost saving. Toilets are vital to local communities and economies. They allow people who may otherwise be unable to visit, to access and spend money at our high streets and tourist attractions. The impact of the ‘grey pound’ (worth some £215 billion to the UK economy) should not be underestimated. Put simply, a lack of public toilets alienates not just the elderly, but vast swathes of society who will choose to stay indoors.

Public toilets also serve the important role of protecting public health. If local business cannot provide alternative toileting facilities the cleanliness of our streets and public places will be compromised. It’s not just toilets - hand washing stops the spread of germs and bacteria, as does the correct disposal of nappies and sanitary items - we need public access to a full range of sanitary facilities to keep our communities safe.

Being caught short has very real implications on both physical and mental health. For those who know they need frequent toilets stops, the anxiety of not being able to find adequate facilities can be crippling and deeply isolating. The feelings of shame and guilt (should the worse happen) often reach unbearable levels.

This strikes all generations, including the parents needing somewhere clean and well equipped to change their newborn baby, through to those with disabilities or health issues requiring accessible toilets to keep their dignity and independence intact.

It is often the most vulnerable in society who are affected by closures and with the population expanding, the demand for public toilets will only increase. Public toilets provide dignity, independence and safety. They are not a luxury, they are a necessity.

With World Toilet Day taking place on 19th November, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering has been calling on Government and councils to recognise the importance of public toilets and improve funding to keep these vital facilities open. I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement in the Autumn Budget that business rates will be cut for public toilets. This is a step in the right direction if it encourages more businesses to open up their facilities to the public. However, to push the onus onto businesses will not stop the closure of council run facilities.

It’s infinitely important that those of us in construction - town planners, architects, consultants etc - know the value and impact public toilets have on society and champion their worth. We have to start facing up to some uncomfortable issues and start talking toilets. If we don’t, it will have a devastating impact for many years to come.

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Contributor: Kevin Wellman is the Chief Executive Officer for the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering