Posts tagged ‘Central Government’
“A 28% reduction in public toilets since 2000, in England and Wales.”
That’s my headline, now an explanation of all the data and assumptions that lead me to it.
Public toilets are subject to business rates, so the valuation office agency has details on all public toilets along with their rateable value. This was recently mentioned in a regular toilet-enthusiasts email conversation, along with the suggestion of using the data to calculate the number of closures, after the Prime Minister said in 2015 that he’d look into exempting public toilets from business rates to save them from closure.
Where’s the data from?
I’ve collated valuation office agency figures from 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.
The figures for 2000 and 2002-2004 were recorded in Hansard in 2005.
- 2000: 6087 toilets
- 2002: 5882 toilets
- 2003: 5701 toilets
- 2004: 5539 toilets
[analysis of provisional Valuation Office Agency Data. Data as at 1 October 2000, and 1 April for 2002, 2003 and 2004]
The figure for 2008 is given in a Parliamentary Question from 2008.
- 2008: 5084 toilets (30 Jan 2008)
The data for 2012 I received in an email from another toilet enthusiast.
- 2012: 4626 toilets (Dec 2012)
The data from 2016 I copy/pasted into Excel from 107 pages of Valuation Office Agency search results (fun times).
- 2016: 4383 toilets (March 2016)
From the 2016 data, as I had the full dataset rather than just the total number, I could interrogate the data. I deleted any results that were themselves listed as ‘deleted’ in the rateable value column rather than as a value (which I’d assume the figures for other years also do; certainly the 2012 data does not include any toilets marked ‘deleted’). Even then, there are toilets listed as ‘under reconstruction’, ‘derelict’, ‘closed’; however these are relatively few (~40) once the ‘deleted’ data is removed.
Here’s an ugly graph of the data showing the 28% decline between 2000-2016:
What does the data include?
The Valuation Office Agency rating manual for ‘public conveniences’ states this relates to “all types of public convenience provide for use by the general public (with or without payment). For the avoidance of doubt it is not relevant to the valuation of public toilets forming part of larger hereditaments.”
Rateable values are also applied to automatic public conveniences (‘superloos’) and free-standing urinals – although there’s only 1 urinal listed in the 2016 data.
So how many of England and Wales ‘public’ toilets are included?
Certainly community toilet schemes are not, nor are supermarkets or department stores, or train or tube stations (except Green Park, oddly). It does include some bus stations, but not others.
Where I live in Walthamstow (E17) it lists toilets in the shopping precinct (there are actually two sets but listed as one) and toilets at a suburban station that I’m not aware exist, but it doesn’t include the bus station or park, let alone the library, museum or community toilet scheme. Where I used to live in Battersea (SW11) it doesn’t list any, but again there are three sets of toilets in Battersea Park and at least one set in a cemetery, as well as libraries, department stores, train stations..
So it’s tricky to say how far away this is the absolute value for ‘public’ toilets. More expertise would also been needed (from the valuation office agency themselves perhaps) to know for certain how the previous years’ figures were compiled to be sure they are comparable to 2012 and 2016. What it does show very clearly (assuming definitions have not significantly changed) is that public toilets have significantly declined.
Other sources of data
The 2008 Communities and Local Government Select Committee Report, The Provision of Public Toilets, states that ‘Valuation Office Agency data on the number of toilets with a rateable value shows a decrease from 5,410 toilets in 2000 to 4,423 in 2008, a reduction of 987 or 16 per cent.’
Although it is not stated, this data must be for England only, in which case it’s not too far off the numbers given for Jan 2000 in Hansard (5342 for England alone).
The same report also states the number of toilets listed in the Ordnance Survey Points of Interest database. ‘This identifies around 9,800 public toilets in England in 2007. These are public toilets that are visible from outside, so do not include public toilets inside buildings such as train stations or shopping centres’ It also points out that disabled toilets are exempt from business rates.
I’m so annoyed.. or elated.. I’m not sure.
I just made a fully-functioning Toilet Map for England & Wales in just over an hour.
Click the image to try out this map of 1611 loos:
This is because over 80 of the 406 councils responsible for toilets now publish public toilet open data, thanks to the Local Government Association (LGA) Local Government Open Data Incentive Scheme, open to councils in England & Wales.
By developing a standard, the toilet data contains extra details that people need to meet their needs (open, accessible to them, attended, free, etc..). It also means it’s incredibly easy to use the data, as it can all be combined into 1 dataset from 80+.
To put this map in context:
The first toilet map I made, in 2010, was a Google Map of 56 Public and Community Toilets in Wandsworth. It took me 5 hours and a trip to a cemetery.
The second, The Great British Public Toilet Map of 10000 toilets, has taken 3.5 years (so far), several thousand pounds, and the combined effort of developers, enthusiasts and hundreds of members of public.
The map above I made with no skill whatsoever:
- I downloaded the .csv file containing all the data from http://schemas.opendata.esd.org.uk/PublicToilets (by clicking the ‘1’ at the bottom of the page).
- I opened this in Excel and went ‘ooo!’.
- I then uploaded the dataset to CartoDB using a free trial.
- I clicked ‘View map’ and selected the 2 columns containing the Latitude and Longitude infomation from a drop-down list.
That didn’t take an hour. That took about 10 minutes. However it only showed a few hundred toilets, yet there were over a thousand rows of info in the .csv file.
On closer inspection, I found that the Lat & Long columns were a mix of Lat / Long and Northings/Eastings. So for those toilets that had the latter, I pasted the Northings/Eastings into a different column. I then found a site to convert them by googling ‘convert northings eastings into lat long’ – I used gridreferencefinder.com. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it wouldn’t be much work to use the Ordnance Survey’s own converter instead. I then used a VLookup function in Excel to enter in the corresponding Lat/Long for each Northing/Easting. I was quite pleased with this, but I could have used Copy/Paste.
I then uploaded this dataset, tided up the new map using the nice CartoDB interface and picked out which details would be shown when you click on each toilet. I’m still reeling at how easy it is.
Now, The Great British Public Toilet Map has 10000 toilets, 10 x the amount shown on this map, or listed on the LGA site and data.gov.uk.
This just serves to show the potential of more councils, and other providers (train stations, service stations, shopping centres) joining up to publish standard public toilet open data (or any open data), that could help the public or improve a public service, especially for those that need them most.
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:
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. (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)
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?
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.
Councils have a statutory obligation to respond to FOI requests within 20 days. Our Research Assistants Lizzie and Billie were tasked with sending out the FOI requests to the councils, as part of our current work on the project, funded by the Nominet Trust.
They identified 405 district councils and unitary authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the public toilet (and community toilet scheme) information on each council’s website was sufficient, they recorded this data. However if it was non-existent, or so brief that it was useless (e.g. “We have 6 public toilets.”), they sent FOI requests, working through the UK region by region. In total they sent 314 FOI requests.
As luck would have it, someone (Jonathan Roberts) had already made FOI requests to 31 councils for information about their public facilities, including toilets, including many in Wales, through the website What Do They Know?, so they only had to follow up on a few of these.
Lizzie wrote our request based on the advice from that site and feedback from Owen Boswarva following a previous blog post. Our request can be read at the end of this post.
Did it work? At last count, We had responses from 199 councils, equivalent to a response rate of 63%, in excess of our 50% target.
We were still waiting for a reply from 115 councils. A few had been chased 4 times as the 20-day period had passed without response. Of those that replied, the majority have sent data (or a pdf of data). A minority have directed us to the information already on their website. A couple have sent links to pre-existing open data. At least 1 council asked us to foot the bill, requesting £450 for the data to be collected. We declined.
Next we have to unpick what we can actually do with the data.
Whilst The Great British Public Toilet Map is a non-commercial use, the map does have to be sustainable, so we need the option to use the data for commercial purposes too.
Guidance shared by @_datapreneur about Section 102 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 says that datasets have to be made available for re-use, including for commercial purposes, if certain conditions are met.
Does the toilet data fit this description? I think it does. So long as the council ‘own’ the data it is theirs to release for re-use.
An exception would be Ordnance Survey location data. I’m also not sure about toilets provided by a third company, e.g. the Superloos. Could they ‘own the rights’ to the information about their opening hours, rather than the councils, for example? Is that even practical? At what point is information simply in the public domain?
At least one council has decided to share the information under EIR (Environmental Information Regulations) instead of the FOI Act, which makes things different again.
And what about the councils who specifically said it could only be used by The Great British Public Toilet Map, and for non-commercial gain? If they had no right to, are we ignoring them at our peril?
My next task it to get to the bottom of these questions, hopefully in a way which doesn’t involve extensive back-and-forth email conversations with 300 separate councils.
Suggestions, as always, are extremely welcome.
Dear ### Council,
We are writing to request details of your public toilet provision. We intend to use this information as open data for the Great British Public Toilet Map. This is a project started by the Royal College of Art and funded by the Nominet Trust to make it easier for people, in particular those with reduced continence, to find toilets.
Please treat this as a request for information under both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and under the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005, we request a dataset that covers all your toilet provision including public, library, parks and associated offices (one- stop offices for council tax payment etc). In short any toilet provision you offer to members of the public including those under any community toilet scheme you may have in operation. The specific data we require, if held by the Council, is:
– the longitude and latitude / postcode / exact location
– Opening times
– If there is a cost to use the facility
– Male / female
– Disabled access (including RADAR scheme)
– Baby changing (male and/or female)
– specialist provision such as urinals and/or squatting toilets
We request that this data is provided to us via email and if possible in a spreadsheet (XLS) format. We also request that this data is provided under licence that allows reuse, ideally the Open Government Licence.
Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter,
The Great British Public Toilet Map
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.