Community Toilets – the poor relation or a real asset to public toilet provision?

Two minute read…

While on holiday in the Canary Islands some years ago I enjoyed the fact that it is common practice for the public to go into any café or restaurant and use their toilet without challenge.

Sadly, not so here. Reasonably smartly dressed people with a degree of self-confidence can get away with walking into some places to use their toilets.  McDonald’s is fairly relaxed about non-customers using their facilities but this is not the case with most businesses and some even display notices pointing out that toilets are for customers only.

As each and every one of us use toilets, there is a need for public toilets. This is the responsibility of local authorities and it is very costly.  The figure of £60K has been quoted for managing and maintaining a staffed public toilet for a year. Local authorities have experienced funding cuts in recent years so it is not surprising that many are looking for cheaper alternatives.

Community Toilets – which is when a local authority pay a shop or café to make their toilets available to anyone not just their own customers – is much cheaper and are growing in popularity in London.

Recent research for Age UK London revealed that nearly half of London boroughs have a Community Toilet Scheme or are in the process of setting one up. Most of them are paying somewhere between £500 and £1000 a year to local businesses to provide a community toilet. For this comparatively modest lay-out, local authorities are freed from the burden of cleaning and maintenance.

A Community Toilet Scheme can only be successful if local residents as well as visitors are aware that they have the right to use them without feeling obliged to purchase anything and they can locate them when they need them.

Community toilet providers usually have a sticker in the window and in some areas there are street signs indicating nearby toilets. London boroughs will also provide information about toilets on their website. However, this is woefully inadequate.

When I am out and about in London and need a toilet, I am uninclined to first try to work out which borough I happen to be in and then go onto their website to find the nearest toilet. When people are looking for a toilet they do not care whether it is a community toilet, a public toilet or just an establishment that does not mind people walking in only to use their facilities.

This is where a generic toilet map comes in handy.  A good example is the Great British Public Toilet Map which currently maps nearly 1600 toilets in London. It has a filter function so it is easy to find a particular facility such as an accessible toilet. Apart from being simple to use, another advantage is that anyone can very easily add a toilet or edit an entry so it is more likely to be up-to-date.

Community toilets cannot totally replace public toilets. There is a need to deal with the night-time economy as well as for additional provision in popular tourist spots and in areas with periodic high activity such as football matches or festivals.

In conclusion, community toilets can play an important part in local public toilet provision as long as members of the public are aware that they have a right to use them and know how to find them.


Margit Physant

Margit Physant is now retired having worked for decades in public health roles. She represents older Londoners on the Healthy Ageing Network and is a member of the Toilet Manifesto for London Group. The opinions expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter @loos4London

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