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On world toilet day, let’s review the UK‘s record

Today is World Toilet Day – a United Nations Observance that celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. The initiative is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation shortfalls and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.

A decade out from that target, the need for good sanitation has never been so stark. During a pandemic, we have had it drummed into us that regular handwashing is fundamental to beating COVID-19. Without good sanitation facilities, good hand-hygiene is impossible, and a host of other public health risks are heightened.
It would be churlish to suggest that in the UK we endure anywhere near the same access-to-toilet problems faced in many parts of the developing world. Very few people in the UK lack decent sanitation within there own homes. But a growing number of commentators including the RSPH believe our complacency about toilet provision means we are falling way short of excellence.

This is most evident in the backward steps that have been taken in the last ten years in public toilet provision.  In the last few decades, cash-strapped councils have been closing toilets at a rapid rate. During austerity, between 2010 and 2018 councils closed 13 per cent of surviving public toilets and 37 local authorities were left with none. In the early days of municipal responsibility, loos were an essential public good. But as a “discretionary” council service, like so many other services they have faced the chop. Yet there is nothing discretionary about needing to go, especially for those in, particularly vulnerable groups.

I am due to chair a roundtable on this very issue early in December which I hope will make some meaningful recommendations to policymakers. Before I do – full disclosure – when I was a Councillor I was part of an administration that closed the main toilet complex in Stoke-on-Trent city centre. It was the height of austerity; the loos were a notoriously hated grot-spot, and we were myopic about needing to pass a legally balanced budget.

Herein lies the problem. Public toilets are the responsibility of councils that are trying to spin too many plates with too few sticks. They are viewed in the same category as flower beds, notice boards and street furniture – when really, they should be regarded as essential social infrastructure. Essential enough to warrant a UN-backed World Toilet Day.


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