Inconvenienced: how the cuts have hit public toilets

Over the past decade, nearly half of the country’s public toilets have been closed. David Dunnico considers how their disappearance affects the public space

June 1, 2014 · 6 min read

Greater Manchester Police are on the trail of people relieving themselves after dark in city centre streets. Those caught short face a choice – mop it up or pay an £80 fine. Local politicians have waded in to support the police, but many of the people the police and politicians are supposed to serve are critical, blaming those same politicians for closing the city’s public toilets, leaving people with no alternative but to use the streets.

It’s not the first time the police have used spending a penny to make a pound. In a 2005 blitz, they issued 124 £80 fixed penalties, even though in Manchester it’s not actually against the law to urinate in a public place. To get around this inconvenience, police have been calling it a public order offence, akin to violence or intimidation.

A lack of public conveniences is not just a problem in Manchester. Over the past decade, nearly half of the country’s public loos have been closed. Visitor surveys say a lack of public conveniences in city centres is one of the top three complaints, and the charity Help the Aged says more than half of older people stay at home for fear of not being able to find a toilet.

Even before the current round of cuts, Manchester was closing its public toilets. There is now just one, albeit a ‘changing place’ – a fully accessible toilet that includes the space and equipment so people with physical impairments can use the facilities.

Another ‘changing place’ will be sited in the newly refurbished central library – right next door to the existing one. Ironically, many of the loos that have been closed have signs directing the desperate to the nearest library, many of which have also been closed. There’s a tendency in Manchester to protect grand civic schemes such as the £150 million refurbishment of the central library and the town hall extension and abandon the provision of basic council services in the places people live.

Ten years ago, an internal council report was reviewing what was needed ‘for Manchester’s toilet provision to be perceived as best in class and [to] provide users with good quality facilities, which are placed in the right locations, accessible to everyone and maintain the dignity of all users regardless of ability’. The same report estimated that Manchester needed 340 female toilets, 180 male toilets and 39 unisex cubicles. At the time they provided 20 female toilets, 20 male toilets and seven unisex facilities. In their own words this was ‘a major shortfall’, but they closed them all and hoped the private sector would spend their pennies on providing services.

Privatised pissing

In 2010, the council and pro-business group Cityco launched the City Loos scheme. This aimed to get shops to take down their ‘toilets are for the use of patrons only’ signs and replace them with the scheme’s purple ‘You’re welcome to use our facilities’ notices. City centre spokesperson Councillor Pat Karney said, ‘Public toilets tend to attract vandalism and other anti-social behaviour, so this is a better solution.’ Some argued a better solution would have been to keep the toilet attendants who had long since been redeployed.

Councillor Karney went on: ‘This marks a real cultural change for shoppers and visitors to the city.’ He was right, but in a way he probably didn’t mean. It is another example of the privatisation of public space. Councils in London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere have literally given away parts of their cities to private companies, who redevelop the land and run it independently.

This usually means security guards enforcing a rule of ‘if you can’t or won’t spend, you’ve no business being here’. It’s the phenomenon of ‘malls without walls’ detailed in Anna Minton’s book Ground Control: fear and happiness in the 21st-century city. City centres are seen only as a place to shop and consume. To be there for anything else is seen as ‘suspicious’ or ‘anti-social’. Students of shopping centre design will recognise how seating in public spaces, for example, is kept to an uncomfortable, uncovered minimum – discouraging sitting and talking, encouraging walking and spending. Indeed Manchester city council unwittingly reinforces this notion of the city by calling its citizens, residents and council taxpayers ‘customers’.

Over the past four years, despite talk of having 30-plus, Manchester’s original eight City Loos scheme participants have stubbornly remained at just eight. Two of these, the Museum of Science and Industry and the People’s History Museum, aren’t even shops (and are the only two that display the ‘use our facilities’ notices). A further two are shopping centres, the ailing Triangle/Corn Exchange and the Arndale (once itself dubbed ‘superloo’ after its tiled facade). Both used to charge to use their loos until the Trafford Centre opened and didn’t.

The others, Debenhams, Kendals, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, are just the sort of department stores people have always nipped into to spend a penny and spend the next half an hour finding their way out again via the tills. Other shops are less beneficent. Starbucks doesn’t see why it should pay tax, or provide loos for people who haven’t filled their bladders with lattes. They’ve effectively told the council to ‘piss off’, and they close just as the bars and clubs that drive the city’s night-time economy open for business.

Keep holding on

The police and civic leaders have said people should use the facilities in the bars they are drinking in before leaving, but after last orders few establishments will let people in to use their toilets. And this argument ignores the time it takes to get something to eat or travel home on public transport. It completely disregards the issues older people in particular face ‘holding on’ and again denies the possibility that anyone has a valid reason for being in the city other than to consume.

The council had experimented with four continental style plastic pissoirs (dubbed ‘piss daleks’), placed at weekends in Piccadilly Gardens. There was no similar provision for women, even though the council’s own equality assessment reckoned they needed ‘at least twice as many facilities as men’. When full, the pissoirs were transported over the Pennines to Sheffield to be ‘decanted’. The experiment, which cost £23,000, ended in May 2011 without being evaluated. Now people are left to follow police Inspector Phil Spurgeon’s advice and ‘tie a knot in it’.

In Paris, home of the pissoir, the streets are washed by water trucks every night. Here in Manchester, and in many of the country’s towns and cities, they are awash with urine. The Romans and Victorians could meet the basic human need of providing toilets, but it seems we cannot. n

David Dunnico is a documentary photographer from Manchester. This article is based on his psychogeography column in Manchester listings magazine Now Then.

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