This week, whilst trawling council papers for mention of loos, as one does, I noticed that Wandsworth Council are scrapping the budget for their Community Toilet Scheme.
They’re not scrapping the Community Toilet Scheme – they’re just not going to pay businesses to participate in it anymore.
Community Toilet Schemes (CTS) are where the council pays local businesses (shops, pubs, cafes, etc) a yearly fee in exchange for letting the public use their toilets without having to buy anything. The council has an annual contract with each business, and the business has to display a sticker in their window so that the public know that they can use their loos. They council may also make leaflets or maps, and list the businesses online.
Community Toilet Schemes are suggested by the Government as a good way to supplement a council’s existing public toilet provision, but they do seem to launch at around the same time as the council announces the closure of the public loos.
Wandsworth Council are no exception.
In 2008 they launched their CTS and spent a couple of years building it up whilst closing down their Automatic Public Conveniences, or Superloos. I struggled to care about the toilet closures. Many of the Superloos were not well used – the most expensive was costing the council £18.08 per visit – and you couldn’t pay me to go in one. The council built up their scheme responsibly, ensuring a good coverage of the borough, and that the scheme included at least one CTS participant in each location where a Superloo had been.
Prior to the CTS, Wandsworth were paying £456 000 a year for 24 Superloos.
Their current CTS, one of the largest in the country, has over 100 toilets, and pays a generous annual fee to each participant of £900. Its annual costs are £100 000.
Even with the huge annual savings already made from switching to a CTS, this is apparently still too much, so the new budget is £0.
The council report says that the scheme will stay in place, as
“many of the businesses may see the increased footfall as commercially advantageous”.
Which would be great if it was based on fact, and businesses had finally recognised that toilets are an asset to shopping areas like the high street and should be valued and promoted as such.
However I’ve just noticed the word ‘may’ in that quote: ”many of the businesses may see the increased footfall as commercially advantageous”.
May? Do they not know? Are participants even experiencing higher footfall? Have the council not asked them?
This sounds like nothing but a notion; a half-hearted justification for removing the entire budget.
Taking away the incentive of money jeopardises the whole scheme.
Firstly, if there’s no payment then there’s no need for a contract. The only way Wandsworth promote the scheme is through the stickers in the participants’ windows, which is one of the biggest problems – businesses did not comply. Previously if a business failed to comply then they were breaking their contract and the council could take away the money and chuck them out the scheme. Without the fee they’ve no contract, without a contract they can’t enforce the stickers, and without the stickers you’ve got no scheme (or “Open London” as the Mayor calls it).
It also means that you’ve got less leverage to ensure an inclusive public service, one with a good distribution of toilets, opening times and facilities (e.g. wheelchair accessibility, baby-changing). The scheme is now driven by commercial gain instead of public need. The market will decide where you wee.
Basically I was trying not to be cynical and thought maybe Wandsworth Council had done their research and had a plan, but with no money, no enforcement, no control, no promotion and no justification, it would be easy for someone to summarised that Wandsworth Council had:
1) Started a Community Toilet Scheme in order to close their public toilets,
2) Closed their Community Toilet Scheme.
But cheer up!
By cutting their entire toilet budget, Wandsworth Council have saved their residents (or ‘Wandsworth taxpayers’ as they like to say) a whopping 87p a year.
Or 2.9 wees at Clapham Junction station.
Don’t spend it all at once.
Nearly 3 months ago now I went to the annual conference of the British Toilet Association.
The BTA’s annual conference consists of a morning meeting of around 30-40 people in a hotel in Stratford.
It was one of the most useful conferences that I’d been to. The first person I spoke to was Mark Power, the architect who’d designed the new public toilet on the South Bank in London, the ‘Jubiloo’. The next was Roger Berry, the managing director of Healthmatic, one of the main providers of public toilets in the UK. Roger impressed me with his ipad full of public toilet usage statistics – footfall, fluctuation, revenus, ratings, feedback. I had found my people.
Raymond Martin of the BTA talked about the association’s consultation work with a few UK councils, and gave many interesting examples of public toilet management from around the country.
For example, a local scout group had been encouraged to ‘adopt a loo’. how this worked was that the council gave the scout group a couple of grand (I’m guessing..) to maintain the toilet, and any money left over at the end of the year they could keep. The theory was that the vandalism was being carried out by people of the scouts’ age, but that ‘peer-to-peer policing’ would be an effective way of reducing bad behaviour.
In another corner of the country, a council gave a local artist a patch on the street to sell his work, in exchange for keeping an eye on the toilets next door. Other services located at a public toilet to either maintain the toilet or provide natural surveillance included: a taxi rank, bike hire, tourist information, shop and ticket sellers.
Many toilets close due to poor maintenance and anti-social behaviour (or the fear of). ‘Design out crime’ ideas such as stainless steel toilets and UV lighting also design out legitimate use. Ideas such as these provide a more affordable way to maintain a public toilet.
We then had 2 presentations from sales people with public toilet-related products, although I can’t find the links right now so I’ll fill this in later.
I gave a 20 minute presentation about the Great British Public Toilet Map. Both Healthmatic and the BTA were supportive of the project and keen to see it develop. A representative of Visit Britain was also encouraging and we had a good gossip over lunch about the lack of government open data and the struggles of a similar project to map blue badge parking.
All in all, a good day. If I can just get the map off the ground again (translation: find more money), then the support is there to keep it going.
I can’t remember why I did this, but during the Olympics I found that if I searched Twitter for “30p London” or “30p toilet” I could enjoy over 100 sarcastic, passive-aggressive tweets from people arriving at London’s train stations and bitching about having to pay to pee.
Naturally I thought this is something worth recording, so I saved 20-30 of the best tweets and summarised their sentiments into a story using Storify. It’s called ‘A Posh Wee’, and you can read it here: http://storify.com/gaillyk/posh-wee
The Royal Parks
A few weeks later, the Royal Parks (who run 9 or so parks in London) announced that they were going to start charging 20p for their loos. I can’t say I blame them. I spoke to someone from the Royal Parks as part of our research, who said that whilst their toilets are well-used in summer, there may be no one in all day during a rainy December. The charges would help them to keep operating the facilities.
Vanessa Feltz on BBC London had a phone-in about the Royal Parks charges. I listened intently and learnt via the accompanying tweets that it wasn’t just the Royal Parks that were bringing in charges. Covent Garden public toilets had installed pay barriers! My favourite free toilet in London, charging? How could this be?
Whilst press attention focused on the parks, Westminster Council had handed more of their toilets, including Covent Garden, over to CityLoos to manage, who would be charging a princely 50p!
CityLoos have been charging 50p at 3 facilities near parliament for some years, but now they’d be taking over 9 attended, free, and in some cases 24hr public toilets in the West End.
A good day for CityLoos; a sad day for the city’s loos?
According to one of Westminster Council’s own surveys, 3 of the West End facilities each have over a million visitors a year. This number will certainly fall now that there’s a charge, and I’d love to know by how much, but it’s still an impressive cash-generator.
Is this the future of public toilets?
It is in London. In the past, local authorities haven’t been able to charge in the same way as private providers like the train stations or CityLoos because of the 1963 Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act, which prohibited the installation of turnstiles because they reduce accessibility. However the 2012 London Local Authorities Act has revoked this rule for London.
The argument presented to parliament was that the councils didn’t wish to install turnstiles as we know them, but that they wanted to install paddle-gates, such as are used at the ticket barriers at train and tube stations. Apparently, paddle-gates are also classified as ‘a type of turnstile’. Either way, any turnstile is now permitted in the capital, so expect more charges and barriers to appear.
Our research was 50-50 on whether people were for or against charges. The arguments for both can be found in a double-page spread of Publicly Accessible Toilets: An Inclusive Design Guide, which can be downloaded via the link on the right. A popular opinion on charging is “I don’t mind paying for a cleaner loo” and there is an expectation of quality when a charge is implemented.
The new toilet at the South Bank, the “Jubiloo“, is 50p a turn, and here they’ve tried to justify the cost with a quality facility.
This is a building that isn’t ashamed to be a toilet! Instead it attracts curiosity, with an attention to both architecture (by Mark Power) and atmosphere.
However the train station charges do not guarantee a nice loo, as I know from plenty of personal experience. The sheer amount of use seems to create an ongoing battle just to keep the facilities working.
Happily, charging for the toilet at a train station is not ‘the norm’. The stations that charge correspond largely with the 17 stations operated by Network Rail: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester – and 11 in London.
It transpires that the tweets that I found during the Olympics was not a blip caused by more people coming to the capital for London 2012, but a regular feature of Twitter.
Admittedly, people use Twitter to vent, so the flip-side of the argument, those that think ‘I’m quite happy to pay 30p for the ladies and appreciate the service’ are not going to tweet about it.
However, if you click on ‘30p London‘ or ‘30p toilet‘ it does reveal a certain strength of feeling, particularly amongst visitrs, and thanks to both Westminster Council and the Jubiloo, we can now enjoy ‘50p toilet‘ too!
(for views on charging from the rest of the country, try clicking ‘20p toilet‘. How’s that for regional differences?)
We’ve made a new version of the toilet map!
When I say ‘we’, I mean Neontribe, who did all of the work.
Reasons it is excellent:
It’s much better at telling you where the nearest toilet is, rather than being about council data.
It includes Transport for London data! In response to the London Assembly’s report into public toilets, the Mayor of London promised to publish TfL’s toilets (so that’s tube, overground and bus stations) as open data in Spring 2012. Hundreds more toilets for us to enjoy!
It works really well on smartphones so you can find a loo whilst out and about.
This is because Neontribe made a ‘responsive design’ webpage so that it works well on any device. You’ll see what this means if you fiddle with the size of your browser window – the website adjusts to fit, mimicking the way that it displays on different screen sizes like smartphones and tablets. If you save a shortcut to it, to your smartphone home screen, you can use it just like an app.
Things in progress:
TfL haven’t actually published their data (but they are working on it!) So we’ve used the toilet data from their 2010 ‘Tube station accessibility data’ as a placeholder. We’ll flick the switch to the new stuff as soon as it’s ready.
It’s still just London. I know, I know. We want to start adding council data from around the country, however due to the fact that they’re all in different formats and to different standards, we’d have to write a different bit of computer code for each and every one (a ‘scraper’). This is inefficient and expensive.
Since this is now a hobby for us, rather than a funded research project, the easiest thing is for me to manually rearrange some of those UK datasets into a standard format for which we already have a scraper (we’re using the one created for the London Assembly report). This does break up the seamlessness of the process, but at least it will show more toilets..
There’s other stuff that we’d like to do too, but since it is a hobby I can’t make any promises.
Is it working?
Since we initially launched the site, we’ve added facilities in Hackney and Hillingdon, the Tube’s toilets, updated Wandsworth’s and still have data to add for Redbridge and Lambeth. About half of London’s councils have received emails from members of the public asking for toilet data, through the website. It still has a button to do this, called ‘nag your council’ :)
It’s also really good for community toilet schemes, which are difficult to publicise (see Lambeth and Wandsworth in SW London). Now that we have TfL data, it shows how other datasets from non-council ‘public’ toilets could be included, like those in train stations or shopping centres.
Save it to your phone and next time you’re in town, give it a go. I’d really like to know what you think!
I’m having a belated grump about the Mayor of London’s ‘Open London‘ scheme.
Open London is a London-wide community toilet scheme, where businesses say that anyone can use their toilets without having to buy anything.
The difference between ‘Open London’ and council-level community toilet schemes is that the Mayor’s participants tend to be national chains, and they don’t get a yearly grant – it’s more a good-will thing. Nor, as far as I can tell, is there any sort of contract, which is a bit of a problem, as we shall see..
Launched in 2009, an article in the Guardian described it thus:
“Open London” stickers will be used to publicise firms willing to lend their toilets for free during opening hours without obliging individuals to make a purchase.
Many stores.. ..already allow passersby to use their loos without buying so much as a packet of chewing gum.
The trouble is that most people do not know that such facilities are open to the public – something that Johnson is trying to put right by providing information about where the nearest accessible loo is located”
However when the scheme launched, most of the participating businesses, except John Lewis I think, refused to show the sticker.
What’s more, John Lewis is the only participant where every store has a toilet. For the other main participants; ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and M&S; it depends on the store. Not even the Mayor has a list or map that shows where the Open London toilets are.
So the whole point of Open London – the sticker – has gone amiss. With that in mind, other than a 3-year-old press release, what is Open London?
In 2011 the London Assembly published their recommendations to the Mayor following their investigation into public toilets. 3 of the 5 recommendations related to Open London:
- to include GLA buildings in the scheme (rejected)
- to expand the scheme (accepted, though he claimed that ‘those major companies – which mostly feature on every major high street.. are already signed up’)
- to provide open data about the participants’ facilities (sort of accepted – he can’t compel the businesses to, but would support the London Assembly if they were to ask them)
As an Open London participant, Tesco were invited to the GLA’s Health and Public Services Committee in January 2011 to discuss all things public toilet [transcript].
Their statements seemed contradictory. Here’s a selection:
“We are very pleased to be part of the Mayor’s overall scheme.” (they actually said this eight times!)
“There is a slight reluctance to publicise the overall schemes in our windows. It is that balance of us being a business, and making sure that our stores are there to be retail outlets rather than an overall municipal toilet facility.”
“We will continue to work with the Greater London Authority, the Mayor’s office and with local authorities in terms of publicising the schemes in whatever way we can.”
“Obviously, every local authority has community facilities, town hall, libraries which have these facilities there. I cannot imagine that Barking and Dagenham or any local authority would have a big sign saying, ‘Public facilities are available in these buildings.” (plenty do, by the way..)
Summary: “We’re really happy to be mentioned in the press release saying that anyone can use our toilet, but we don’t want to put up a sign saying so, or a sign saying that this store has a toilet, but we’ll do whatever we can to help promote the scheme, except that.“
I don’t really understand the problem. There was never a suggestion of putting up a “big sign saying public toilet”. There was a green sticker saying ‘Open London’ which, frankly, meant nothing to anyone, and was therefore more subtle than most community toilet scheme stickers.
Really it amounted to little more than a supermarket having a sign outside that listed toilets amongst their facilities, which you would think they would do anyway.
However Tesco were just echoing the sentiment of other retailers, including some community toilet scheme businesses who are contractually obliged to show the sticker and still remove or hide the damn things.
Open data and Tesco
The information about which stores have toilets exists through Tesco’s online Store Locator.
Through obsessive and extensive trawling last year I found 57 Tesco stores in Greater London with toilets [data].
If Tesco were to open-up their Store Locator data, the toilet information could be incorporated in maps and apps, as would other data in the Store Locator such as the locations of Tesco’s pharmacies, cash machines, and accessibility info, which is perhaps more appealing.
Open data about privately-managed yet publicly-accessible toilets, including train stations, service stations and supermarkets, is the next big challenge after council data.
It may even be more useful as half the participants in our research project preferred and were already using these facilities rather than traditional public toilets; and easier to obtain as we’re now dealing with national datasets.
Tesco already have an API for developer use for their online shopping, so they’re not adverse to this sort of thing.
So it could be that, following their disappointing comments at the GLA Committee meeting, Tesco will turn out to be the leaders in this field, and that other providers of publicly accessible toilets will follow suit.
Emailing the Government is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
2 years ago I asked Data.gov.uk about public toilet data. An unnamed person replied. They then contacted an unnamed person at DCLG on my behalf, and relayed the conversation to me. I’ve no idea who either were, but it worked. Thanks guys!
Later in my research I emailed the generic email address at DCLG about public toilets. I had to, as it wasn’t clear which more specific department or email address public toilets would fall under (I’m not sure DCLG know). I never heard back.
I then emailed someone in DCLG responsible for public toilets (according to the person I knew in DCLG who looked it up on their database), but I didn’t hear back then either. (Don’t really blame them, to be honest)
I also emailed my MP, and she replied by post (she always does, thus using a stamp and fancy House of Commons stationery – very nice but a bit peculiar and unnecessary. I digress..). She contacted a Minister on my behalf, and then posted me a printout of his typed response. Success! And evidence that, if you’ve got 2 months to wait around, an additional level of bureaucracy works.
Earlier this month I emailed a reply to that letter from the Minister to let him know that we’d done everything that he’d suggested (somewhat coincidentally) but that the project was ending and that perhaps the government would see the potential in taking the work on instead. Someone on Twitter just said how good my letter was, so I re-read it, and you know what? They’re right. It’s here: Public Toilets and … ?
Well I’ve just received a reply in a mere 3 weeks, not from the Minister, but from someone in the Decentralisation and Neighbourhoods team. It doesn’t really reply to my letter, but it does suggest that they’d at least read it, and it tells me about the useful things that DCLG are currently up to that may assist me in my public toilet open data work (that is, if we were doing it anymore.)
Thoughtful, and helpful, and lots to think about, if a little random. I’ve published it below.
Sooo, what shall I do next?
Dear Ms Ramster,
Public Toilet Open Data
Thank you for your email of 8 February about your work in developing public toilet open data and ‘the Great British Public Toilet Map’.
I note your concerns about the availability of public toilet open data on local authority websites and agree that making more local data publicly available is important.
Did you know there’s a ‘Public Toilets Suitable For All‘ e-petition on the Government’s official website? I’ve put a link on the right if you wish to sign.
It calls for a change to the law so that local authorities are legally required to provide public toilets.
(at the moment they ‘can’ provide them, but they don’t have to).
For a long time I’d gone off this idea. The argument against this (that I’ve heard, at least) is that local authorities are more responsive to local demands than national government interference and being forced to provide something can be seen within local government as a bureaucratic burden, or a distraction, from the real work of providing services.
Translation: What’s the point?