Loo Lament

In the current leadership race to present Tory members with headline, hardline policies, there is one issue which neither candidate has seized upon. Its inclusion on their list of pledges would tip the scales, not least because after Johnson’s Bad Egg years, the restoration of national pride is a priority. What might signal a return to the traditional civility and inclusiveness for which Britain was once known? A new public toilet in every town. Staffed every day. Cleaned every hour. This would be a remarkable legacy for a Prime Minister.

Everyone likes a decent public toilet. To denude even a small part of oneself is an act of vulnerability which requires a level of trust that few facilities can offer. Town councils have increasingly scant funds for ‘luxuries’ like a place to pee which is not a gutter or a bush; their systematic closure of libraries has only added to the lack of municipal bolt-holes. According to toiletmap.org the number of public loos in our area of Kent is paltry. Around the entire twenty-mile coast of Thanet from Reculver to Pegwell Bay - a string of beaches visited every summer by over five million tourists - is a total of twenty public toilets. One per mile doesn't sound too bad – unless you’re elderly, a child, disabled or just busting.

Last week, a long day in London exposed me to a vast, unexpected disparity between free-to-access loos. I saw how the heavy human traffic through several railway terminals was handled adeptly in their toilets by perpetual cleaning, curved floor-to-wall surfaces and attendants who monitor and regulate footfall. In comparison, the mucky, smelly lavatories in John Lewis (Oh John Lewis, how could you?), a chic Scandi coffee bar, and the privatised hellhole which is Victoria Coach Station forced me to hold on for something less grim. In this instance, wholesale crowd control won hands (pants?) down.

Returning home, I passed the ornate ironwork entrance of the Victorian public toilets built underneath the promenade of Margate's Marine Drive. Padlocked since 2019, their function has been subsumed by a row of acrid portaloos whose chemical reek wafts over the teas and icecreams consumed in the nearby beach pavilion. I applaud the architect who thought to sink the original premises below sea level. Thanet District Council blames the closure on structural problems and budget cuts so why not pass the ball back: make toilet access part of the national health agenda, at the heart of urban planning, and award it human rights status. Then fund it centrally.

The cost of the ineffective NHS Track and Trace system is regularly used as an example of state money found and then spaffed by a government quick to slip on the snake oil promises of tech companies. Conservatives say that such an interpretation is mean – We were in crisis mode! - but I’m going to be mean anyway and use it here. The scheme appears to have cost £37 billion for the first two years, an amount which is contested everywhere, so for the sake of argument let’s say that this useless piece of appery actually cost us £10 billion per year. Or as written on a coffin-sized cheque and presented to the nation by PM Johnson: Ten thousand million pounds only!

Some serviette sums: there are roughly 1300 towns and cities in the UK, a number which goes up and down according to population thresholds, but this is mental rather than categorical arithmetic. If a new public toilet costs £100k to install, £100k per year to staff and clean, and £25k to maintain, that’s £292.5 million for 1300 loos in the first year and then £162.5 million for subsequent years. With adjustments for inflation the scheme would take around thirty years to hit the £10 billion mark of T & T’s wasted cash and would - in contrast - make a useful, positive impact on every UK citizen. The chunk left over could fund a hefty staff bonus each Xmas because Toilet Resources will not be getting a stand at Careers Evening any time soon.

I realise this is a bit like playing “What would you buy if you won The Lottery?” but the pandemic has shown us that conjuring up breathtaking amounts of state money is not so fanciful after all – It could be you, Great Britain. The government just needs to identify a good reason for adding to the national debt and there you are, free money. Isn’t a high street convenience something worth bequeathing to your grandchildren, even if they do eventually pick up the tab? No-one remembers Joseph Bazalgette’s engineering achievements in railways, bridges and land reclamation because his recreation of London’s sewerage system to solve its ‘Big Stink’ problem was far more feelgood. The Tory hopeful who builds a new toilet in every town can guarantee their place in history. Now, what about a parliamentary Khazi Tsar?