Dr Judith Harvey: An urgent need for public conveniences

31st March 2024 by Dr Judith Harvey

Dr Judith Harvey: An urgent need for public conveniences

“Zenski isn’t the gentski”. Dithering desperately outside the toilets on a Croatian railway station last year I recalled the mantra from a long-ago family holiday in Dubrovnik. That was how we remembered which toilet we should use.

At least we found a public convenience. That’s something which can be a challenge in this country. Thomas Crapper introduced modern plumbing and Joseph Bazalgette engineered London’s sewerage. Both would be appalled to find out how the standards they made possible in Victorian times have been neglected.

In 2006 the London Assembly’s report on the state of the capital’s toilets was wittily titled ‘An Urgent Need’. Forty percent of public toilets in London had closed since 1999. Only 400 were still open. Staff who used to keep an eye on them were axed to save money. Public conveniences were dirty, unsafe, vandalised and often inaccessible, especially to anyone with a disability or a pushchair. Some were known venues for cottaging. No wonder people avoided using them. Men used the street, walls, letterboxes. Women crossed their legs and looked around for a pub or store. Rather than risk an undignified accident, elderly and disabled people would stay at home, so compromising their independence and quality of life. The situation in other cities wasn’t quite so bad, but everywhere public toilets were closing. The report asked, “What would foreigners visiting London for the Olympics think?”.

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