Posts filed under ‘Politics’

..the BBC’s new toilet data

BBC Breakfast reported today that 1782 toilets had closed in the UK in the last decade, based on their FOI requests.

Data from 331 out of 435 councils also showed

  • 10 councils have no council-run toilets (Newcastle, Merthyr Tidfil, Wandsworth..)
  • 22 councils have only one (Manchester, Stockport, Tamworth..)
  • Highland Council has 127, Pembroke 73, Cornwall 65.
  • 4/5 councils have cut expenditure since 2011, with £21 million less spent in total (a reduction of 1/3)
  • 43 councils have reduced their budgets by more than 70%.

It’s very exciting to see data produced on toilet closures, considering the scale and importance of the issue. This up-to-date information is so useful when it comes to campaigning for better access to toilets.

I’m particularly obsessed interested in the data itself, particularly its accuracy, and what it says about the accuracy of other sources out there. So how does this data compare with our own analysis, over the years?

  • In 2014 we found 8 councils providing no council-run toilets from our FOI requests: Copeland, Hambleton, Bolsover, Shropshire, Breckland, North-east Derbyshire , North Dorset and Tewkesbury.  Regarding those picked out by BBC Breakfast as not having any toilets: in 2014 Newcastle then listed 7 on their website, Merthyr Tidfil had 8 (via our FOI) and Wandsworth still had their Community Toilet Scheme of 70+ facilities.
  • Our top three were Gwynedd (121 toilets), Highland (111 toilets) and City of London (92 toilets). Gwynedd and City of London both have Community Toilet Schemes within these numbers, which would account for their failure to make the BBC top 3.
  • We only consider there to be 406 or 407 councils at the tier of local government that is responsible for public toilets, not the 435 reported above which refers to all UK councils; county councils are not relevant. Nit-picking, yes, however, parish and community councils are stepping in more and more, so this issue is set to become massively more complicated. It’s unclear whether this would be picked up in the BBC data – a toilet that is no longer run by the district council would appear as a reduction in council-run facilities, so would this be therefore a ‘closure’, even if the community or parish council was now running it?
  • In terms of closures, the best data we’ve had so far came from using the Valuation Office Data for England and Wales, which lists how many toilets are eligible for business rates each year, where I found a 28% reduction in public toilets since 2000. The BBC data says 1782 toilets have closed in the UK since 2006. I have numbers from the Valuation Office Agency from 2004 and 2008 but not 2006; these show a reduction in numbers of 1156 toilets and 701 toilets respectively. However, consider that the VOA data doesn’t include Scotland or Northern Ireland. There’s also not an exact correlation between ‘council-run public toilets’ in the BBC’s report and ‘public conveniences subject to business rates’ in the VOA data. Whichever definition is used, we’ll still end up with a figure north of 1000 toilets closed in 10 years for the whole of the UK.

So, all in all we now have multiple sources of data about public toilets that seem to support each other and stand up to some gentle scrutiny. Thank you BBC for this latest report.

May 31, 2016 at 9:59 am 1 comment

..”the 40% decline in the last 10 years”

This morning an email through a very active public toilets mailing-list led me to look at publications on ‘Age-Friendly Cities’. One report called The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook by the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing contained this strangely familiar statistic:

Screenshot from An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook

Screenshot from An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook

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 [2013] 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. (BBC News, 2014)

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 research (now AgeUK), 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%. (BBC News, 2007)

However this also didn’t quite pan out when I looked at Help the Aged’s excellent 2007 research publication Nowhere to Go, to which the BBC News article was referring. 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. (Help the Aged, 2007)

Nowhere to Go does produce its 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.

(Help the Aged, 2007)

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. Despite this being printed around the same time as Nowhere to Go, the statistic now doesn’t refer to a decline ‘since 2001’, but now states ‘..in the last 10 years’, suggesting a comparison with data from 97-98. Although it is still attributed to the BTA, it doesn’t actually feature in their own written evidence to parliament. Instead it is quoted in the written evidence of the British Standards Institution (BSI):

The BTA contended that over 40% of public toilets have been closed in the last 10 years. (British Standards Institution in The Provision of Public Toilets, 2007-08)

It also features in the BTA’s written submission to the London Assembly for their 2011 update report Public Toilets in London, 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. (British Toilet Association in Evidence log – Public Toilets – Greater London Authority, 2011)

What’s interesting is that the London Assembly’s original 2006 report ‘An Urgent Need: The State of London’s 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. (London Assembly, 2006)

The London Assembly’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), and represents the number of toilets in London for the last year for which they had data – 2004.

Whilst the London Assembly 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)

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 14.06.19

Number of local authority public toilets

Comparing the Audit Commission data with Valuation Office Agency data for the whole of England for these years shows again how the latter produces a consistently lower number of public toilets. It also shows an overall decline of about 10% between 2000-2004 across England, however this time period is now over 10 years ago, so we cannot assume this has continued.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?

May 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm 3 comments

…The 756 toilets of Scotland and Northern Ireland

This follows on from the previous post, where I trawled the council websites of England and Wales and found just under 5000 public and community toilets.

I’ve quickly searched through the district and borough councils of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and can add another 756 toilets to the count, made up of 706 public toilets and 50 in community toilet schemes.

The community toilet schemes are all in Scotland, where they’re known as ‘comfort schemes’. I found 5 listed, but I expect there are more.

Northern Ireland will also have more loos, but the council websites are a disappointment for the average toilet-hunter. I only found toilets listed in 11 of 26 borough council websites, and only one passing reference to a toilet scheme.

February 13, 2014 at 7:58 pm 1 comment

The 5000 toilets of England and Wales

I’ve completed a count of public and community toilets in England and Wales, as listed on council websites.

It began last May. Spurred on by my annoyance at Wandsworth Council’s decision to stop paying businesses to be in their Community Toilet Scheme (a decision which has reduced the number of participants  from 75 to 7), I wanted to know whether other councils pay participants to be in their schemes, and how many schemes exist.

“How long can it take to Google every council?” I wondered.

Well,  I’ve just finished. (I did have a baby in between)

I decided, whilst I was searching, to also record the URL of each council’s community toilet scheme (CTS) webpage, and also their public convenience page. I also counted how many toilets there were.

A count of public and community toilets in England & Wales (.xls)

I used an ONS spreadsheet of population density to get the list of all the district and unitary authority councils for England and Wales, then googled them one by one. If Google didn’t find anything I searched the council website directly. If that did’t find anything I moved on. Consequently I’ve not done Scotland and Northern Ireland. They’ll have to wait.

The results are:

3980 public toilets

1009 community toilets

59 community toilet schemes

The vast majority of schemes pay businesses to participate, ranging from £200 to £1560 a year. Some councils are not forthcoming with the information and I have to search the minutes of the council meetings, which can affect my will to live. Sometimes I give up.

In Wales, where it seems the Welsh Government has spurred on every council to start a scheme, the going-rate is £500.

These figures are not conclusive. Sometimes I miscount. Also, they are reliant on the information being available online, and on it being up-to-date. Some councils may have lots of loos but prefer to keep it to themselves.

There are also over 1000 toilets in railway stations, a couple of hundred on the Transport for London network, and lots in service stations and shopping centres which are generally not included in these webpages. Also some councils are devolving public toilets to smaller town and parish councils, and I’m not about the google all of them.

So for England and Wales there are probably another 2000 publicly accessible toilets out there which are not included here, bringing the total up to around 7000 loos.

Good to know.  

February 7, 2014 at 5:13 pm 9 comments

.. Wandsworth’s Community Toilet Scheme

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.

CTS-sticker-Batterseasmall

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.

Finally, it means Wandsworth Council also have no budget to promote the scheme more effectively, such as through leaflets (Richmond), posters (Waltham Forest), or directional signs (Lambeth).

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.

May 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm 6 comments

… The Dept of Communities & Local Government

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.
Keep reading…

March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm Leave a comment

… e-petitions

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?
Keep reading…

February 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm Leave a comment

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