Picture of Caroline Russell Green Assembly Member in front of screen saying Lets Talk About Toilets at event of same name

Let’s Talk About Toilets

Event hosted at the London Assembly by Caroline Russell and Age UK London on 25th November 2022

Having taken an active interest in this subject for some years, I was pleased to attend this meeting, convened by the influential GLA and Age UK London. The fundamental principle is that toilet provision is a public health issue but the marked decline in availability, crucial for many older people, has increased. This has made social isolation worse as many don’t feel sufficiently confident to venture out if unclear about the availability of loos. This is significant because we know that social isolation is a key factor in mental ill health. 

Not everyone will be aware that for nearly 20 years, various groups have been campaigning for toilet provision and improvement. Although provision became more pressing during Covid and lockdowns/restrictions, many used this is an excuse to close toilets and not reopen them. A key factor, but this can’t be an excuse, is that funding from central government is so poor that local authorities deprioritise provision and maintenance. Although the decline of public toilets has been taking place over time, Covid restrictions and lockdowns very much drew attention to the lack of availability because with cafes, pubs and many public buildings being closed. There was also mention of some good examples (eg the loo in Highgate Village square) and ‘toilet deserts’ eg Tottenham.  

The event 

It was initially dismaying to find City Hall had moved to a docklands location and it wasn’t helpful that initial signage by the station evaporated beyond the main road. There are so many concrete and glass constructions around there that it wasn’t clear which building it was, but once inside the meeting was very well organized. We were even served an impressive ‘afternoon tea’ half way through, comprising little sandwiches and various cakes attractively displayed on stands. Of course, toilets are fine there, though one attendee complained about them being gender neutral (an increasing trend) and another that the design wasn’t suitable for people with disabilities.  

On arrival there were some documents available for us to pick up, all of which reflected the considerable amount of work which has taken place in recent years, much of it under the radar and which deserves to be much better known.  

  1. London Loos – several ‘in-focus briefings’ by Age UK London summarizing the main planning, development and public information issues, community toilet schemes and toilet strategies for councils.  
  1. The toilet paper: the London Assembly Health Committee’s three principles for improving public toilet provision in London (November 2021), covering duty, directions, data and 12 recommendations. The first of these is ‘The government should make the provision of public toilets a statutory duty for local authorities’. This is important because we have the first, it’s important because we have the Mayor’s Strategy Spatial Development Strategy, The London Plan, which other policies should be consistent with. Surely ‘statutory’ is the operative word: without this interventions could well not happen.  
  2. London Loos – the views of older Londoners by Age UK London (September 2022), summarizing the results of a survey of almost 600 older Londoners. The report contains recommendations for councils.  

We were also invited to put our responses on large post-its to key questions, such as ‘what are the essentials in loo provision’. What crops up regularly is poor maintenance: of the three main elements (water, soap and towels/dryer) one or more is often not working. 

Following a welcome and introduction from the host, Assembly Member Caroline Russell, who identified her own campaigning history and noted that the recently opened Elizabeth Line hub, Bond Street, was designed without toilets, we heard from five speakers about various aspects of this challenge. Abigail Wood (CEO of Age UK London) described the useful local campaign groups, including Haringey’s, the importance of working with local media and calling on councils to take action.  

Gerontologist Dr John Miles described his longstanding work in KOVE (Kilburn Older Voices Exchange), which has been very active including producing a film (For Your Convenience) and pointing out that maps don’t keep pace with availability. He noted the production in July 2020 of the Toilet Manifesto for London, which emphasized the importance of working with other community groups (Haringey Over 50s Forum was cited). A key problem is often that no one department takes overall responsibility. 

Gail Ramster of the Royal College of Arts’ Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design spoke about their Engaged campaign, including the Great British Public Toilet Map, which nets 220k website visits a year. It’s crowdfunded, run by volunteers, has a feedback mechanism and users can edit entries. (Sounds a bit like Loo-ipedia!). 

Next up was Cornelius McAfee, an Islington resident who showed some striking slides. One was (he recently walked Hadrian’s Wall and described some of the exhibits at the Roman forts along that path) Roman lavatories, which were considered advanced for the time. Appalling were his photos of one Islington facility (mostly the automated coin operated ones) after another which were listed on the council’s website but which were mostly out of service. This level of ignorance and inaccuracy are surely quite unacceptable. This reminded me that the major loos on Marylebone Road (Westminster Council) were closed when I passed last weekend: that’s a very busy area near Baker Street station. 

The final speaker was Margit Physant, a member of the Toilet Manifesto for London Group, who’d conducted a Twitter poll with the hashtag #CrappyToilets, which netted a good but depressing response. A frequent finding is the unpleasant state of many public toilets when one can find them in the first place. Margit highlighted that many ‘accessible toilets’ are in fact inaccessible with a lack of staff training resulting on accessible toilets used as ad-hoc storage cupboards rendering them inaccessible. You can find Margit on twitter here. 

Question and answer session 

After tea questions were taken. Topics covered included: the lack of toilets on Kilburn High Road; concern about privacy issues in the increasing number of gender neutral toilets (including those in City Hall – though it was pointed out that each cubicle had its own basin/dryer etc.). 

I asked about local authorities’ excuses for inaction because of lack of government funding; whether replacement of loos is more economic than refurbishment; lack of up-to-date information on location and functionality of loos; the delay on the Mayor’s Age-friendly Action Plan; and fears of anti-social behaviour in loos being used as an excuse/deterrent for their provision and improvement.  

This was a very useful meeting – I hope the first of a series. It’s clear there is much work to do and this should be by the authorities concerned and not just local activists, in my view. The intention is to keep up the pressure on those in positions to influence outcomes and build up community involvement via local groups. Thanks are due to Caroline Russell and Age UK London for carrying out and supporting so much of this work. To be continued!!   

All presentations from the event can be found here.


Rosalyn Byfield

Roslyn Byfield is a psychodynamic therapist in private practice, with a longstanding interest in the wider field of mental health and the damage it sustains from socio-political phenomena such as incompetent and/or corrupt government and institutions. She is also very active in her local U3a and a member of Haringey Over 50s Forum and Keep our NHS Public. During lockdown she compiled a list of toilets in the borough of Haringey (and further afield) to enable U3a members and others to better plan walks etc without being 'caught short'. She feels strongly that public toilets need to be provided as a norm, especially important in the older age group, and is keen to work with others to make progress in this area.

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