This morning, an email through a very active public toilets mailing-list led me to look at Age-Friendly Cities publications. One report called The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook by the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing contained this strangely familiar statistic:The statistic implies a 40% reduction between 2004 – 2014. Yet this cannot be true, as the quote has been around for as long as I can remember.
So on what evidence is it based and to which 10 years does it refer?
The 2014 BBC News article cited in An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook attributes it to the British Toilet Association (BTA).
Last year  the British Toilet Association estimated that there has been a 40% drop in the number of public toilets across the UK in the last 10 years
The BTA’s website doesn’t include a press release from 2013 to verify this. The BBC may be referring to the same quote given by the BTA on the Today programme in August 2013.
In fact the oldest BBC News article that uses this statistic is from 2007. This article seemed to imply it was from Help the Aged (now AgeUK) research, and refers not to a 10-year period but is instead ‘since 2001′ which was when the Audit Commission stopped collecting data on the number of public toilets:
[Help the Aged] wants to see the reinstatement of a national mapping exercise to determine the level of provision which, until 2001, was undertaken by the Audit Commission.
It is estimated that since 2001 toilet provision has fallen by 40%.
However this also didn’t quite pan out when I looked at Help the Aged’s excellent 2007 research publication Nowhere to Go. Whilst the report mentions the statistic in its introduction, it is not a finding from their research but again attributed to the BTA:
Until 2001 the Audit Commission carried out surveys of Britain’s public toilet provision, which showed that it was declining rapidly. Since then a campaigning organisation, the British Toilet Association, has estimated that public toilet provision has dropped a further 40 per cent to less than one public toilet for every 10,000 people in the UK, not taking visitors and tourists into account.
Nowhere to Go do produce their own findings based on over 1000 survey respondents:
80 per cent of respondents do not find it easy to find a public toilet
78 per cent of respondents found that their local public toilets are not open when they need them
The “40% reduction in public toilets..’ fact crops up again in 2007-08 in written evidence to parliament for the Communities and Local Government Select Committee report into The Provision of Public Toilets in 2007-08. Despite this being printed around the same time as Nowhere to Go,
It also features in the BTA’s 2011 response to the Greater London Authority (GLA), for their update report that looks specifically at London’s Public Toilets, but without an implied time period and emphasising the lack of data.
Has the number of publicly accessible toilets in London increased since 2006?
BTA: Despite the fact that the overall number of public toilets in the UK has declined in recent years by at least 40%, and the lack of reliable data makes it impossible to track the decline, the previous Labour Government failed to accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that ‘the Government seeks a means of collecting this data, either through requiring local authorities to provide figures from their own areas or by charging the Audit Commission with resuming its collection of accurate information on the provision of public toilets. We cannot therefore factually answer this question.
What’s interesting is that the GLA’s original 2006 report ‘An Urgent Need’ into public toilets also found a 40% decline, but this was specifically for London’s public toilets, saying that:
figures show an incredible 40 per cent decline in London’s public toilets since 1999
The GLA’s report explains how they arrived at this finding. The research compares ‘the last year for which the Audit Commission collected these statistics (1999/2000)’ which states 701 public conveniences produced by local authorities in London, with information from 2005 compiled as a response to a parliamentary question put to the Deputy Prime Minister, recorded in Hansard, which states 419 public toilets in London. This figure comes from an analysis of provisional industry and commercial data held by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). The last available data at the time was 2003-2004, which is where they get the figure of 419.
Whilst the GLA acknowledge that this is not comparing identical sources of data, they conclude that this represents a decline of 40% in the number of public toilets in London in just 5 years.
Hansard gives 5 years worth of public toilet data from the VOA, from 2000-2004. The data from 2000 estimates 500 public toilets in London for almost the same time period as the Audit Commission that estimated 701 public toilets. By the same logic, this would imply either a 30% reduction in toilets in London within one year (2000) OR more obviously, that the two organisations are using different definitions of ‘local authority public toilets’. A comparison between these two different data sources cannot be used to ascertain a decline over a period of time.
The GLA do go on to compare like-for-like, emphasising that the difference in the Valuation Office Agency figures from 2000 (500 toilets) to 2004 (419 toilets) still represents a significant 16.2% reduction in London’s public toilets in 4 years, and the largest for any region, thought significantly less than 40%. It’s also larger than the overall reduction in toilets for England (9.2% reduction) and more than double that for Wales (7.9% reduction).
This table shows data for the whole of England and some for Wales (but notably, not the whole UK) from the Valuation Office Agency as printed in Hansard, and Audit Commission data from both 1999-2000 and 2000-01 (it’s not clear why the GLA say 1999-2000 is the last year for which the Audit Commission has data – the latter showed 654 toilets for London)
The Valuation Office Agency continue to hold data on public conveniences which could be used to ascertain a % reduction in traditional public toilets in England and Wales. Their website allows you to search their 2010 database for the rateable value of property, but not to download open data of all properties of a type – say – public conveniences. Someone did send me such a file in 2012 showing 4626 toilets, however I don’t know how this was generated, for which year it is, or whether I’m even meant to have it! It does seem that these older stats are free-standing toilet blocks and so would be difficult to compare to the modern public service which encompasses toilets in other buildings such as shopping centres, public buildings or community toilet schemes.
My own count of public toilets is based on another methodology – toilets listed on council websites – and found 3447 public toilets in England in 2013 (excluding community toilet schemes). This could confirm a continued decline.. or it might just reveal how incomplete council websites are (a minority have no information on toilets at all).
Whilst I’ve not found the original research that found a 40% decline in public toilets for the UK over a 10 year period, the statistic dates from at least 2007, making it 8 years out-of-date and widely misrepresented.
The fact that BBC News articles and research publications continue to print it illustrates the complete dearth of more recent toilet data.
That might gradually change if more councils choose the publish public toilet open data. However what does it say abot the lack of attention given to public toilets – a service at risk from local government cuts because councils don’t have to provide them – when we don’t even know the extent of the current service?
Since launching The Great British Public Toilet Map, we’ve had lots of lovely comments from people who think it’s a great idea and who took the time to tell us. The majority have been from people for whom finding a toilet is a serious concern due to medical conditions or medication.
Here is a collection from emails to email@example.com, Twitter and the comment feed of The Guardian article that give first-hand insights into the importance of better toilet information to the general public.
Great idea. As someone who works outside all day a toilet stop is part of the normal routine
On behalf of all men with prostate problems – thank you.
This is much needed for Ulcerative Colitis and Crohns sufferers. It would be great to have an app so you aren’t reliant on mobile internet signal when you urgently need to go!
The Great British Public Toilet Map is genius and will take all the stress from my holiday in Scotland next month. Thank you.
This is a great idea, especially if, like me, you suffer from prostate cancer.
As someone with an ultra-sensitive bladder, I just wanted to say THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!! What a brilliant idea!
At long last an app/map that is REALLY useful, if only something like this had been available when my late father was alive, what a Godsend it would have been on days out when the first thing we had to find was the toilets!!
@GBToiletMap ‘s brilliant map shows you where you can find public toilets and lists whether they are accessible and whether they are gendered
Thank you so much for whoever came up with this idea. I do hope plenty of other people e-mail you with thanks and a hope that this app is available for long time – as you say with an aging population it will be a winner.
Hi, a great project as a Crohns sufferer it can be a nightmare getting caught short and always thinking about it when your out!!
It would be an amazing app on a phone, not only for people like me but also as a parent, often kids can’t wait and the disapproving looks I get when my little boy goes in the bushes??
It’s so important. I’m neither old nor unfortunate enough to suffer from a bladder or bowel condition, if I’m out for more than a couple of hours when on my period I absolutely need to find somewhere. The worst is always a long train journey when the toilets are out of order. I suspect a lot of women read this article and had the same thought.
I’ve suffered from Crohn’s Disease for the last 5 and a half years, so it’s fantastic to see a map like this become a reality, as it certainly makes visiting new places a heck of a lot less daunting. It’s especially important as public toilets are being closed left, right and centre, and many businesses are not always particularly welcoming to those in my situation!
The Great British Public Toilet Map launched last Wednesday 19th November on World Toilet Day*
Previous versions of the map have existed since 2011, but this is now the largest publicly accessible toilet database in the UK by some way. It has over 9500 toilets, and I’d be confident of saying that the map will help you to find toilets no matter where you live.
If for some inexplicable reason it doesn’t, you can add, edit and remove toilets until it does! We’ve had over 1000 toilets added this week.
There are also a tiny minority of locations where the data has gone a bit loopy with duplicate loos or inaccurate locations. Don’t be shy about removing those that you think are wrong, or telling us at firstname.lastname@example.org about parts of the country that may need a little attention. You’ll be doing us a huge favour.
*As well as World Toilet Day, it was also GIS Day (Geographic Information System). They might as well name it Toilet Map Day.
The toilet data deluge continues..
I don’t pretend to understand these things entirely, but it looks like two separate datasets:
- .xml called ‘Step-free Tube guide and Toilet data‘ professing to have toilet info for all Tube, Overground and DLR stations
- .csv for Toilets in Bus Stations
This delivers on one of the Mayor’s earlier commitments; that TfL would publish their Under-, Over-, Tube and Bus station toilet data
by Spring 2012; in response to the London Assembly’s 2011 report into London’s public toilets.
Thank you Transport for London! Unlike a toilet, it’s better late than never.
It never rains but it pours..
I’m still catching up on everything that’s happened in the past year, but it seems that Ordnance Survey are opening up their toilet data!
Or to be very, very, specific..
“..recently we have enabled our IP to be used in an open data release of one council’s toilet data, and if any others approach us for releasing toilet data this is likely to be on the same terms”
It’s great that OS have recognised that open toilet data is in the public interest and personally I think they deserve a really big hug.
Past posts on the OS saga:
BIG NEWS in the search for local council toilet data.
After years of emailing councils requesting open data about their toilets, it is now suddenly being published, in bulk, in a useful format.
22 datasets have already passed ‘technical review’ in the last couple of months, with 80+ in the pipeline!
22 is already about as much as I managed in 3 years…
But how? (quick answer – the Local Government Association asked them to)
and why? (quick answer – they’re paying them)
In February 2013 I made a formal request for public toilet location data via data.gov.uk.
The Open Data User Group took up this request – cogs whirred, people in meetings said ‘Toilets!”, plans were developed (OK so I don’t know the details..) and the Local open data incentive scheme was born, with public toilets as one of the three datasets it would focus on.
Managed by the Local Government Association (LGA), the Local open data incentive scheme offers up to £7000 to councils if they publish open data about key themes in a consistent format.
The current themes are public toilets, planning applications and licensing of premises. They get £2000 per theme and a bonus £1K if they do all three.
Approved data will be collated and will also appear on data.gov.uk for people to use and make maps and find toilets etc. etc.
Thank you people who made this happen for taking the request seriously, not overlooking the unsexy topic of public loos and spending your money to get better information about a vital public service.
On Friday 5th September I gave the Open Data Institute‘s weekly Lunchtime Lecture about The Great British Public Toilet Map.
You can listen again/flick through the slides to my talk ‘Excuse me, where is the toilet (data)?‘
The ODI have also written a blog post to summarise it, ‘How open data can help us all to find the toilet‘
Thank you, ODI, for inviting me to do this.