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?
Then I went to a seminar by the Women’s Design Service about public toilets and saw how much frustration (or anger even) there still was that public toilets are being closed all over the country with nothing suitable being provided instead. I’m not normally one to link to the Daily Mail, but this article by an Incontinence Specialist summarised the need for public toilets from a health & well-being perspective wonderfully.
There are good reasons why some older public toilet blocks are closed down, and sometimes there is better provision to be found in ‘privately’ provided facilities (shopping centres, for example). However that shouldn’t absolve the local government from responsibility for the service. The role of local government would be to ensure that this provision exists (through planning requirements for example) and that it is, as the petition says, ‘suitable for all’.
To be honest I still don’t know what other effects a legal requirement would have on local councils (other than a sense that it would be.. annoying). From an outsider’s perspective, when councils make cuts they will inevitably have to start with a voluntary provision (a ‘nice-to-have’!) before anything else. What I don’t know is whether there would be a better budget for toilets in the first place if they were a statutory requirement. How does that work? Would councils get more money from central government to help cover it? Or would they just have to cut something else?
The e-petition itself is a peculiar business. It was created by a group of toilet enthusiasts / researchers / experts who are now trying to promote it (voluntarily, and with no money) to get more signatures.
In theory, any petition with 100000 signatures is debated in parliament. Consequently it feels more like a marketing competition than a reflection of public opinion, as before you find 100000 people who agree with you, you first have to reach 100000 people. We’re not succeeding here. Does it matter?
The good news is that our petition currently has the second highest number of signatures of all the petitions to the Department of Communities and Local Government, so in that regard it should get on someone’s radar.
To be honest I feel that the real prize of a petition is an increased awareness of an issue and a recognition of public support, rather than a magic number. So far 3000 people have signed it. That’s 3000 people that we don’t know that agree with us. Wow!
Petitions may be an ‘easy’ form of participation; it doesn’t show any great sense of commitment from those 3000 to the cause, but then ‘easy participation’ is not a bad thing! Nor should anyone be flippant about the strength of someone’s support just because they’ve ‘only’ signed a petition.
Have you ever signed a petition that you didn’t believe in?
Here’s a not-very-pretty graph of signature numbers, so far.