… The Coalition

November 12, 2010 at 11:30 am 4 comments

An official response from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) on public toilets!

This is the new government’s position, in response to my long (and in hindsight, slightly insane) email to my local MP, which, being 5 pages, none of you are going to read, so I’ll just say that the recommendations that the response refers to as ‘Ms Knight’s proposals’ were actually the recommendations of the 2008 DCLG Select Committee that I just happen to agree with.

I thought maybe, just maybe, the new government would reconsider the previous rejection of the Select Committee recommendations (actually I didn’t, but figured that I shouldn’t leave any stone unturned).

But their position on public toilets is remarkable identical to the old government’s position. Finally something they all agree on!

Dear Jane, (Jane Ellison, MP for Battersea, Balham and Wandsworth)

Thank you for your letter of 20 September, addressed to Bob Neill MP, enclosing email correspondence from your constituent, Ms Gail Knight, of (my home address), about the provision of public toilets. I have been asked to reply.

We believe that local authorities and communities should decide for themselves how best to run their local services and amenities, and that decentralisation and the redistribution of power, rather than control from Whitehall, is the way to make changes and to build the Big Society. The introduction of the Localism Bill will help this by shifting power from the State back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils.

I note what Ms Knight says about placing a duty on local authorities to develop public toilet strategies and developing a national toilet database, but I think that her proposals would run contrary to localism principles, place new burdens on local authorities and increase levels of bureaucracy.

It is right that local people should be able to hold local authorities to account over decisions taken on their behalf. Transparency is the foundation of accountability and we are challenging local authorities to give easy access to a wide range of data including service information. I understand that a considerable amount of public information about public toilets is already publicly available via local authority and other privately provided websites.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Stunell MP

Here’s why I disagree:

DUTY: Yes, any duty imposed by government on local authorities could be “an additional burden”. However the burdens and bureaucracy imposed on local authorities should be reduced in areas that are over legislated and over complicated.

Not public toilets, which is an entirely burden free provision – in fact a voluntary provision! Don’t penalise public toilet provision by not even placing a duty on local authorities to have a public toilet strategy, which they can decide themselves via local consultation, just because other areas of local government need simplifying.

DATA: With regard to the database, it still strikes me as weird that no one knows where all the public toilets are. There are national lists for schools, health services, even post boxes, but no one person knows the whereabouts of the nation’s loos.

And since the Audit Committee stopped collecting data in 2000 no one even knows how many there are (The best national info you can get is from the OpenStreetMap project).
So for any future developments for toilet finding, such as an Iphone App or Web page with a search function, or printed maps and guidebook info that cross local authority boundaries, it’s, well, not possible.

The apps that exist rely on the public to submit information, which no site seems to moderate so often they may include Cafe Nero which might have a code on the door, but never the cafe that’s received £600 from the council to open it’s toilets to the public through a Community Toilet Scheme.

– and finally, “a considerable amount of of public information about public toilets is already publicly available via local authority and other privately provided websites.”

A considerable amount? or  THREE?!

Three local authority websites.

One is Brent, a .kml file available through data.gov.uk or the London Datastore at data.london.gov.uk, as well as Brent.gov.uk
One is Sutton, at sutton.gov.uk, although this is only disabled-access toilets.
and One is Wandsworth, because I live there and received it via our open-data-loving local councillor. The local authority haven’t decided to make it open, so it’s not on their website, but it is on the coucillor’s website, here.

The plus side of all this is we can now officially give up on national government intervention!
Phew. At least we know where we stand.

Now, back to that local government open data…


Entry filed under: Politics. Tags: , , , , , , .

… Planning … Public Consultation

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Cousins  |  November 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    I am going to disagree and support the government (probably not much of a surprise). The fundamental principle is that the national government should direct local government as little as possible. If we are required to have a public toilet strategy, what other strategies will we be required to have? And who will miss out because of a strategy we don’t have?

    One of the very real frustrations of the last few decades has been the prescriptive approach of national government towards local government. We have effectively been agents for the national agenda, and are struggling to come to terms with our new-found freedom. (I’d stress I’m not making a political point there, the Tories were just as centralising before ’97 and both Tory and Labour governments used their powers to turn around a lot of failing authorities.)

    My view is that it is for local government to respond to the people they serve; either by having something in place to begin, or addressing it when the issue is raised. Having a situation in which councils serve their people because it’s the right thing to do rather than because they have been told is a far better system of democracy.

    One of the reasons I like this blog (other than the occasional mention and consequent ego boost!) is that is raising an issue that, if I’m honest, I’d never really thought about. It makes me, as an elected representative, think about how we address the need. I’m not sure if what we do would match your ideal, but I suspect that I’m far better informed, and far more sympathetic, as a consequence of your challenge than I ever would be from a strategy we’d been made to write.

    Of course, the problem is when a borough doesn’t have someone like you raising the issue – but isn’t the better solution empowering people to challenge their local councils?

  • 2. gailknight  |  November 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    You make a good point, and I respect your views since you actually work in and with local government whereas I do not.

    However the argument that you and both current and past governments have made; that if we do X for the issue of public toilets then we’ll have to do X for everything; is very frustrating from the perspective of the single-issue campaigner. Why does it become my problem, to the detriment of the service I’m trying to improve, that “if you give one child a sweet you have to give all the children a sweet”? It comes across as a failing of common sense in the political system, or worse, an excuse.

    I agree with your localism points, and it’s totally relevant since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to public toilet design and provision – it must respond to local needs.

    But the absence of any legal duty on councils to provide public toilets seems publicly viewed as a historical oversight rather than an intentional position, that’s justified now as a political stance. By maintaining the status quo there’s a very real chance (since it’s happened before) that, faced with huge budget cuts, the voluntary public toilet provision will (almost must) be the first to go.

    Except in Wandsworth. Glad to have you on board!

  • 3. James Cousins  |  November 13, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I possibly pitched it wrong. What I probably should have said (and amounts to the same thing) is that when everything is a priority nothing is, or when everything has a strategy nothing has.

    Your argument against still stands against that line, mind you. And I do recognise the imperfection of the current set-up, but am eternally optimistic that we might get to a stage where local government is responsive and driven by local people rather than central government.

  • 4. … ? « Public Toilets and …  |  February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    […] and Parliamentrary Under Secretary of State Andrew Stunell MP replied. His reply can be read here. It was not […]


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