Toilets: A Matter of Inconvenience


Yesterday I mentioned my mother’s pragmatic yet blunt advice on choosing when to embark on an epic travelling adventure: “before you need to worry about finding a toilet”.

It’s funny and it makes for an good anecdote but toilets are also an important Public Health issue. (For those of you reading this while eating, don’t worry, I’m not planning a graphic article).

Much is being written about the link between poor sanitation and women’s safety: when there is the risk of being attacked because there are no indoor toilets. I’m not going to focus on that aspect this time. I’m focusing on the UK.

We’ve got hundreds of euphemisms to avoid mentioning the actual word: bathroom, restroom, lav, bog, throne, cloakroom, powder room, washroom, dunny, amenities, facilities, convenience… the list goes on. We’re squeamish and yet we all use them several times a day.

When you’re out and about, especially in unfamiliar settings, it’s not always clear where you might find a loo. In the countryside, there’s always the possibility of nipping behind a bush – easier if you’re a man than for a woman. In towns and cities, fewer bushes and it’s not always clear where the facilities are or what state they might be in.

There are a few tried and tested safe bets for a clean toilet… railway stations, bus stations, large department stores (Debenhams has always been reliable) and usually supermarkets (though Camden Sainsbury’s caused me to break out in a cold sweat when I discovered they DIDN’T have a loo on Sunday).

It’s that type of anxiety that prevents people from living their lives as they choose. If you are worried about being able to find a loo in time, regardless of whether you have a health condition or disability that makes this an issue in the first place, it’s going to make you feel less confident about going out.

This is potentially going to reduce how often you do go out and can lead to social isolation. We know that loneliness can have as great an impact on people’s health and wellbeing as smoking.

The BBC has mapped the provision of toilets as maintained by Local Authorities and found a decline in the numbers across the UK. Some councils have put schemes such as Community Toilets in place where local businesses sign up to provide access to toilets, sometimes but not always, for a fee.

It’s a good idea but the information isn’t always easily accessible, I found my local council’s list buried in a PDF on their site. Am I organised enough to download this to my phone before I go out? Possibly. Will I remember to keep it updated? I’ll get back to you.

An excellent resource which seems to have gone live in Autumn 2018 is the Great British Toilet Map. Load up the website, allow it to find your location and voila! It will show you where your nearest toilet is. It turns out that there are five within 1.5km of my house that I had no idea about – in local cafes and in the local library. For anyone who thinks that might be poor provision, that’s more than I expected.

For people with disabilities, access to appropriate facilities is a key issue. The Changing Places Campaign highlight that over a quarter of a million people in the UK need access to a Changing Places toilet – one with more room, more light, the right equipment – but there are only around a 1,320 (at the time of writing) in the UK.

The Campaign also has a map which you can use for instant help, a bit like the Great British Toilet Map. However, if you sign up for a free account, you can also save your favourite toilets and the best routes to get to them.

So there are tools to help find toilets but not everyone knows about and if you’re not using a smart phone, how do you find this information especially if you are out and about? A 2016 Office of National Statistics (ONS) report suggested that 5% of 55-64 year olds did not have a mobile phone, rising to almost 10% of 65-74 year olds and around 30% of the over 75s. (This was a PDF report without a working link).

So, we have a physical and a virtual issue here – a lack of public amenities and a digital inclusion gap – combining to create a potential issue for health and well being. Definitely a matter of inconvenience.

EDIT: Best Place for Public Toilets

As this is a blog focused on travel, where do I think the best provision of public toilets is? I’ve seen and used some horrors in Italy, Russia and India but I was really impressed by Funchal in Madeira. Plentiful provision, clean and FREE. Is this driven by providing good facilities for the residents or is it driven by tourism? The island has a reputation for being a holiday destination for older people so have they catered for their needs? And why aren’t we catering to our residents’ needs? The UK has an ageing population after all.

  • Featured photo… in my view, the smartest public toilets in the Lake District. These street art covered conveniences are in Keswick.
Categories: Public HealthTags: , , , , , ,

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