Historically speaking, political anxiety over public toilets has tended to centre on the ‘toilet’ aspect: the closed cubicles, the exposed bodies, the potential both hold for illicit activity among those labelled ‘deviant’ by the pearl-clutching powers that be. After ten years of austerity and a pandemic, though, it’s the ‘public’ part—in terms of both access and ownership—that’s under open threat.
The lack of toilets in Britain has been made discomfortingly clear in the last year by the closure of for-profit public spaces, and with them, the café, pub, and shopping centre loos we’ve come to rely on. 450 public facilities have also been shut in the name of infection control, despite central government asking councils to keep them open.
It only takes a minute of squatting in the undergrowth to realise how necessary stalls and seats are. Their absence has caused problems ranging from anxiety to mess to the effective enforced isolation of those who need built facilities because, for example, they have a disability or a medical condition, or they’re on their period.
But Covid only exacerbated a problem years in the making. In 2018, the BBC reported that almost 700 local authority-run facilities in the UK had closed since 2010—one in eight—with some areas particularly badly hit: Cornwall Council, for example, had stopped maintaining 94 percent of its toilets. The Local Government Association spokesperson interviewed in the report said budget cuts had led to some ‘tough choices’, and it’s hard to imagine that things have got much better since.
With Tory MPs and right-wing papers taking up the cause, the problem hasn’t entirely passed central government by. The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill, which this week passed its third reading in the Lords, is its answer: a proposal to keep public toilets in England and Wales open by exempting them from the business rates that otherwise cost councils around £8 million (an average of £2000 per facility) per year.
The bill has its merits: we should all be asking how we ended up in a situation in which free public toilets are taxed while certain multinationals effectively aren’t. But there’s also a question of scale. As Conservative MP Steve Double pointed out in Kent Live, while £2000 can make a difference to parish councils with budgets in the tens of thousands, a saving of £8 million across the country simply isn’t that much – not when annual core funding for local government is currently £15 billion less than it was in 2010.
Public toilets cost money to run. They need electricity, water, paper; the people who clean and maintain them need to be (better) paid. Cutting the business rates is just lip service when the providers of those toilets continue to be bankrupted at a much higher level.
While doing the sums, it’s worth remembering that conversations about toilets are not just about cold cash: they’re also about control. The question of who gets to piss outside the home quickly becomes one of who gets to exist in the public space, a phenomenon known in feminist history as the ‘urinary leash’.
Prior to industrialisation, the confinement of women to the domestic sphere was compounded by the fact that most public toilets only served the needs of men. (Some of the first women’s public toilets in Britain were recently given listed status in recognition of their liberatory role.) A similar problem existed in the US’s segregated southern states, where black people, barred from using toilets reserved for whites, often had to plan long road trips around where and when they’d be able to use the bathroom.
We’re still a long way from a post-leash UK. People with disabilities continue to be constrained by the lack of both decent public toilets and, more seriously, truly accessible toilets that serve diverse needs; trans people report being subjected to such intense aggression in public toilets that they’re put off using them even when they’re there.
When free facilities close, making access to a bathroom contingent on buying a coffee or a pint, the affected group expands to include all those who can’t afford to fork out three quid every time they need a piss. Time that can be spent outside the home becomes limited; movements are restricted. The endpoint is that the poor and the marginalised are functionally banished from public space in anything other than short bursts, while the wealthy and able-bodied get to enjoy it at their leisure – the ultimate neoliberal utopia.
The truth that the pay-to-piss model works hard to cover up is that toilets are the most explicit of all social levellers. They might live in mansions, drive flashy cars, and wear expensive suits, but the events that take place in a stall expose the base humanity of the upper classes who style themselves divine: as Michel de Montaigne put it, ‘kings and philosophers shit – and so do ladies.’
Before grand philosophical questions, though, comes one of basic empathy. In May 2016, Salford Now ran a story about a 75-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease who had wet himself in public while unable to find a public toilet, after four shops turned him away. He wasn’t an anomaly. The local press is full of stories like his.
The point to be made by socialists isn’t that staff should be more sympathetic to those who come in looking for help—particularly when workers’ toilet access is itself being policed—as true as that might be. Rather, it’s that we should have the infrastructure in place to ensure we don’t rely on profit-oriented businesses to serve our most basic needs. Put another way, it’s not only that the man was denied access – it’s that in a half-decent society he wouldn’t have to ask permission to piss in the first place.
Everyone should have access to decent toilets, in private or in public, without condition, when the need arises. The fact that that statement has to be made on this rich little island in 2021 is evidence of something gone very wrong.