Why we need to talk about toilets

Closed public toilet

In Public toilets, Public Health, Sanitation

Toilets and toileting habits are amongst the top taboo subjects for us Brits. Talking publicly about issues such as incontinence, the need to urinate (or heaven forbid), have a bowel movement, is met with a silent wall of shame. But talk about it we must. The UK is facing a crippling problem when it comes to a lack of public lavatories and it’s having a big impact on the majority of the population.

Did you know that in the UK:

  • The average person urinates between six and eight times a day. But if you're drinking plenty, it's not abnormal to go as many as 10 times a day.
  • NHS numbers show that between 3 and 6 million people have some degree of urinary incontinence.
  • Bladder problems affect more than 200m people worldwide according to the World Health Organization.
  • According to figures from Incontinence UK, women are five times more likely to suffer urinary incontinence than men – mostly due to stress factors such as childbirth and menopause.
  • Additionally, studies suggest that constipation and bowel incontinence affect between 3% and 15% of the population.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men over 65 experience incontinence issues (Age UK).
  • Over a 1/4 million people need a ‘Changing Places toilet’ to enable them to get out and about and enjoy the day-to-day activities many of us take for granted - there are around 1154 Changing Places toilets in the UK. (Changing Places)
  • There is no legal requirement for councils to provide public toilets.
  • Likewise, there is no legal requirement for businesses to provide toilets to non-paying customers, or even for restaurants to provide baby changing facilities.
  • Public toilets allow people to engage in normal activities such as shopping and socializing, visiting new places and to be active in their communities.
  • The number of public toilet facilities has fallen by 40% from 2004-2014 and has continued to decline. (British Toilet Association).
  • At least 673 public toilets across the UK have stopped being maintained by major councils (unitary, borough, district, and city) since 2010. (BBC Reality Check)

Cuts to public toilets affect a significant proportion of the population, including women, the elderly, the disabled, those with medical conditions and those with babies and young children. We should all be outraged that funding for these vital facilities is being pulled and that the public lavatory is in decline, but yet we seem to be largely unaware of the issue (until it’s our local lav that’s gone).

Economic and public health impact of the decline of public toilets

Kevin, Wellman, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE) points out, “The provision of public toilets impacts on economic and public health issues, let alone the social and emotional wellbeing of individuals. It is not my belief that local councils want to close these facilities. However, they currently have no legal requirement to provide public toilets, and so when budgets need to be cut and tough choices made, these facilities are in danger.”

Often the cost of running public conveniences will be passed onto smaller parish/town councils, or community groups, but if no alternative funding can be sourced, these facilities will ultimately close.

“It is a short-sighted cost saving” continues Kevin. “Toilets are vital to local communities and economies - allowing people to access and spend money at our high streets and tourist attractions - who may otherwise be unable to visit without adequate facilities. The impact of the ‘grey pound’ alone on local economics should not be underestimated – its total worth across the UK estimated at £215 billion - then add to this the fact that you are alienating not just the elderly, but vast swathes of society who will choose to stay indoors instead, and you can immediately see the damage to both our local community and economy.”

Public toilets also serve the important role of protecting public health. If local business cannot provide alternative toileting facilities, there are very real concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease. “There’s no doubt that without public toilets, the cleanliness of our streets and public places will be compromised. You also need to remember that it's not just the toilets themselves that protect the public health - hand washing stops the spread of germs and bacteria, as does the correct disposal of nappies and sanitary items too - so we need adequate public access to a range of sanitary facilities too.”

The social and emotional impact of the decline in public toilets

For many, access to clean and well-maintained public lavatories makes the difference between being isolated indoors, to being able to leave the house to complete basic everyday tasks or meet up with friends. Older people find themselves increasingly isolated and lonely due to incontinence issues and the anxiety of not being able to find a public toilet.

This strikes all generations, including the parents needing somewhere clean (with the relevant sanitary facilities – nappy bins etc) to change their new-born baby, through to those with disabilities or health issues requiring accessible toilets to keep their dignity and independence intact. Being caught short has very real implications on both physical and mental health.

“Public toilets should not be a luxury, they are a necessity, indeed they are a lifeline to many in our communities. Public toilets provide dignity, independence, and safety. They fulfil a basic human need.”

“It is often the most vulnerable in society who are affected by closures and with the population expanding, the demand for public toilets will only increase. With the public’s help we can help raise awareness and show local councils how valued their toilet facilities really are” continued Kevin.

Love your local Lav

And so, with World Toilet Day taking place on 19 November, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering is calling on Government and councils across the nation to recognise the importance of public toilets. In particular, it is urging councils to find the funds to keep these vital facilities open.

Kevin said, "I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement in the Autumn Budget that business rates will be cut for public toilets. This is a step in the right direction if it encourages more businesses to open up their facilities to the public. However, to push the onus onto businesses will not stop the closure of council run facilities."

The CIPHE's ‘Love your local lav’ campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the importance of public lavatories, and you can get involved too by helping to spread the word via social media. Either share the CIPHE’s posts or create your own by using the hashtag #LoveYourLocalLav and #SaveTheLoo. We’d love to see posts explaining why your local public facilities make a difference to you. Don’t forget to tag in your local council too!

Follow us on Twitter at @CIPHE

Follow us on Facebook

Or follow us on LinkedIn