Lose-loos situation: the demise of public toilets in the UK

According to estimates, the UK has lost 50% of its public toilets in the past decade

Boarded-up public toilets
Many public toilets never reopened after the Covid-19 pandemic
(Image credit: Gary Colet Photography)

The UK is in the midst of a public toilet crisis, with the closure of hundreds of public loos over the past decade made worse by toilet shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With many public toilets now permanently closed and council budgets for street cleaning under pressure, public toileting or “wild toileting” has become a commonplace nuisance, from the streets of London’s Soho to the races at Cheltenham, reported The Guardian.

Like “an antisocial version of wild swimming”, wild toileting has become a “growing concern”, said the paper, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of the UK’s already dwindling supply of public toilets, “many never to reopen”.

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How bad have the closures got?

Speaking to The Guardian, Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association, estimated that the UK has lost 50% of its public toilets in the past decade. Meanwhile, the costs of cleaning public spaces have risen, and according to a report by the Association for Public Service Excellence, public satisfaction with cleaning is at its lowest in five years.

In recent years, many politicians have “called for a renewed focus on public toilets, with limited success”. This year, a proposal by the Green Party to spend £20m on new toilets at underground stations was rejected by Labour London assembly members.

In 2016 the BBC reported that “at least 1,782 facilities have closed across the UK in the last decade”, while about half of the public toilets in London had been closed.

What is the effect on society?

The issue of inadequate public toilets has been highlighted in recent years by the Cheltenham Festival, which attracts some 250,000 people each year. Residents have complained of festival-goers urinating outside their homes and businesses, despite the availability of temporary toilets set up for the festival.

Councillors this year declared a “war on wee”, said The Times, offering hydrophobic paint to local residents and visitors to paint their properties, in an attempt to discourage public urination.

The closure of public toilets can also have a significant impact on people’s health, especially those with medical conditions that necessitate frequent toilet use.

A 2019 report from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), entitled Taking the P***, 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.

Is there a solution?

The lack of a specific right to access public toilets, and the absence of a legal obligation for local authorities to provide them, has resulted in a haphazard approach to maintaining public facilities. Social media accounts such as London Loo Codes are attempting to improve access to toilets in the city by maintaining an open database of access codes to WCs in restaurants, cafes and public buildings across the capital.

But while businesses are not required to provide toilets for non-customers, workplaces must provide facilities for staff, and establishments offering goods or services to the public must ensure equal access for disabled individuals.

The Guardian reported in 2021 that some councils have transferred ownership of public toilets to local parish and town councils or community organisations “as a way of keeping them open while simultaneously saving money”.

At the time, however, Jyotsna Vohra, the RSPH’s director of public policy, warned that community schemes would not address inequalities that were being caused by the closures. “The only way to achieve parity of access would be through appropriate legislation, backed with adequate funding,” she told the paper.

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