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.