Article first published in the ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in Autumn 2009

Walled up Edwardian Gents urinal in Kendal

When you’ve got to go …

I emerged from the bushes and adjusted my attire as the others caught up with me. The icy wind whipped across the top of a running tide that was filling the Bay. I fastened up my coat and regretted that strong cup of tea that I’d enjoyed earlier that morning.  All those ingredients – the cold, the water, and the tea – had combined with one inevitable consequence.  I could see my intended target only five hundred yards ahead of me along the Promenade but I‘d failed to reach it even with that final sprint.  The lady surveyor from Railtrack smiled understandingly and murmured something about her husband getting up during the night. The Parks Manager said,

‘The phosphates will do that tree some good’.

 I’d long ago ceased to be embarrassed about such events although I was a little relieved to recall that the CCTV cameras hadn’t yet been set up. Grange-over-Sands Promenade on a cold day is no place to go for a meeting when the first public convenience is boarded up and the second one is just too far to reach in time.  Not if you possess a bladder that gives the impression of having all the storage capacity of a clenched fist.

History tells us that the Romans introduced us to lead plumbing and the British raised public health to an art form.  That combination of porcelain and copper became a thing of beauty as the British exported it to the world via the Empire. Now the steady disappearance of the public convenience, like the steam train and national conscription before it, marks the final nail in the coffin of that Empire. Tim Farron, our local MP, had spotted this trend and had tabled a rather appropriately-named ‘early day motion’ in Parliament deploring the closure of public lavatories over recent years, asking the Government to make resources available to local authorities to provide more.  Perhaps he’d had All-Bran for breakfast that morning.

I’ve become rather fond of the Council’s public conveniences over my twenty years in South Lakeland. They come in all shapes and sizes. The Council has 44 of them, scattered across our 155,000 hectares.  They serve the locals and the tourists alike and I’ve visited every one of them in my time as the Council’s surveyor, often in a professional capacity… to inspect repairs or measure up for disposal … but mostly because I know where they are when I need them. Some of them are extremely popular, like the one at the edge of Bowness Bay in Windermere where the coach-trippers queue out of the door and along the path in summer (in all weathers).  Others are less well used but serve a community need, like the one frequented by ‘cottagers’ at Aldingham (so I’m told). I’ll never understand why Fulham FC fans travel there from London just for a comfort break. We used to have more public conveniences but successive cuts have trimmed them down over recent years. And that saddens me because losing any one of them is like losing an old and dependable friend. I drive past some of the ones that we’ve sold on my trips around the district. Certainly they go for good uses – the rural Art Gallery at Goadsbarrow, the souvenir shop in Hawkshead, the canoe store (that doubles as a secret weekend cottage in breach of planning) at Newby Bridge, and the burger bar by the bridge at Kendal (I’m never tempted to eat there). They are testament to the versatility and durability of the properties. But they should have remained as toilets.

I can understand why the Council is sometimes forced to sell them off. Public Conveniences are costly to run.  They are not a statutory service so the Council receives no financial help from the Government. Converting them to comply with DDA requirements is a very expensive exercise.  However, it still came as a bit of a disappointment recently when NPS Property Consultants Ltd was asked to carry out a review of all the Council’s public conveniences for the purpose of achieving savings.  That would surely mean a lot more old friends disappearing and a serious re-planning of my journeys across any part of the district. Nevertheless NPS embarked upon the exercise with its usual professionalism  – a fee is a fee after all.

Speaking of London, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time down there lately. I can’t say that I’m overly fond of the place – it’s full of cutthroats, thieves and bankers – but my daughters live there and they seem to like it. I can stop with them simply for the offer of a spot of decorating or DIY.  As I’ve wandered around the place I’ve noticed the serious absence of public conveniences and the city is so crowded and so lacking in vegetation that you can’t simply nip into the bushes like you can in Grange.  To be honest, judging by the strange sights that I’ve observed, I don’t think anyone would react if I urinated down the full length of the white line in the centre of Tooting Broadway on a Saturday night.  However, modesty forbids a country boy from engaging in such exhibitionism. I need a tree at least.

It seems that the continental practice of visiting a pub or a shop or a public building to use the toilet has now become established practice in London.  And, let’s face it, what happens in London today is bound to find its way to the provinces tomorrow so I suppose I should just get used to it, especially as I seem to need to go more regularly than I used to. However, not being a city slicker, I find this rather difficult – I always feel that I’m obliged to buy something in return. Of course if the guilt forces me to buy the cheapest beverage in Costa Coffee and drink it just so that I can visit the Gents with a clear conscience then the exercise becomes self defeating.  Within half an hour I’m back again for another visit.

The Public Conveniences Review methodology was quite straightforward. We surveyed condition, DDA compliance, running costs and local context.  Data gathering was a large part of the exercise. A typical basic survey sheet is shown as an example. We devised another for DDA compliance and numerous spreadsheets and charts for organising and comparing each facility.  From the data we could benchmark the performance of the individual toilets against established criteria – running costs, location, footfall, condition and lifecycle costs. Footfall was particularly tricky, as conducting a head count outside 44 toilets over any period of time would have been quite expensive.  Also it might have aroused some unwarranted concern amongst the customers. We overcame that by a simple, cheap and rather ingenious method, which will remain secret unless anyone wants to commission NPS to carry out a similar study for a very reasonable fee.

go-2-2My most memorable experience of London came about on the Underground.  There are simply no public conveniences down there that I can find. I suppose the practicalities of pumping from depth rule them out. What did they do in the Blitz – take a bucket with them I suppose?  With that live rail you’d have to be careful where you aimed.  It had to happen at the Elephant and Castle, a station so deep within the bowels of the Earth that I’m sure it has a connecting door to a back street in Sydney that lets all those Aussies through.  I’d broken my journey and left my wife on the platform whilst I dashed via ramps, lifts and stairs to the shopping centre on the surface.  There I side-stepped into Tescos via a rear fire exit that had been conveniently crashed open by an exiting shoplifter only to find that the Manager and the Security Guard that challenged me weren’t too interested in my urgent problem. A dancing explanation eventually convinced them but they didn’t have a toilet that I could use. I sprinted out, through the front door this time, and into the shopping mall where, following shouted directions from a newspaper vendor, I raced to the top floor to spot the public facilities at the far end.  By now I was running flat out at Olympic pace (Boris take note of this speciality event for 2012). Seeing the 20p sign and the empty attendant’s booth from a distance, I fumbled in my pockets to find nothing less than a pound coin. Without breaking stride I leapt the turnstile in one bound and bounced inside off the doorpost to slump against a vacant urinal, alternately sucking in air and sighing with relief. The large, lady attendant leant on her mop and admired my style as I pivoted against the wall on my forehead and stretched out to offer her the pound coin with my free hand. She was still laughing when I left.  I now have a map of the “Public Conveniences on the Underground” (N.B. they are all at surface level – none at the Elephant and Castle) obtained from the Transport for London website and a bag of 20p coins packed into my London survival kit ready for my next visit.

As part of the review we also looked at what other authorities were doing and came across a variety of methods, which enabled us to establish a number of options ranging across:

  • Status quo
  • Close and dispose and use the receipts to fund other options
  • Enable others to provide the service through leasing, grants, parish precepts or arrangements with private suppliers (automatic self cleaning superloos)
  • Partnerships
  • Part sales of some to fund investment in those retained
  • Identifying alternative forms of income to support funding
  • Introducing pay or controlled access systems
  • A combination of any or all of the above
  • Simply cease providing any service whatsoever.

To simplify what could have become an overly complex process of evaluation of all that data we devised a traffic light system to identify:

  • Red 15 toilets that might be considered for possible closure because of remote location, low footfall and expensive to maintain and upgrade
  • Amber 23 toilets that demonstrated room for improvement and where alternative arrangements should actively be pursued (e.g. partnerships)
  • Green 6 toilets clearly in strong demand, offering a significantly high quality service in key locations and where, subject to any necessary investment, should be retained.

From an existing annual cost of £790,000 we estimated that savings of £481,000 per annum could be achieved but initially that would be offset by the need for £100,000 per annum investment in the retained ones over a 5 year period. The Council’s target had been £430,000 per annum savings so, pretty roughly, we could achieve it in the long run.

The results were reported to the Council. That produced Cabinet resolutions to note the results and consult the public regarding:

  • Transfer of all considered public conveniences to Parish/Town Councils
  • Partnership 50/50 arrangements on all public conveniences
  • Partnership 50/50 arrangements on all public conveniences not identified for retention
  • Phased transfers based on option study recommendations
  • Retaining and improving facilities as identified in the report and
  • Introducing appropriate community schemes

Not one of those resolutions was reported in the local press.  The headline said it all

 “We can’t ‘loos’ public toilets vows Council.”

However from that exercise we discovered a new service to offer to the Members called ‘blame the consultant’.  Normally NPS never warrants a mention in the reporting of Council business.  On this occasion the threatened closures as ‘recommended by NPS’ gained prominent mention on the front page.  I suppose all publicity is good publicity.

I fear that, slowly over the years, the number of Public Conveniences will be whittled down, if you forgive the expression. Like London, they will all disappear, to be replaced by subsidised arrangements with village pubs and shopping centres, until they are forgotten about.  The Empire’s just about gone now – we might as well get it over with for good, lock that door in the Elephant and Castle, return Australia to the Abos and ship all those convicts back home to Birmingham where they came from.

However, I’ve played my part in preserving a bit of that Empire for posterity.  In the post climate-change future, Tony Robinson’s descendant will return to dig beneath the mudslide from the mother of all tsunamis that will surely sweep across Lake Windermere and down the valley to bury Kendal. In one compelling episode of the intergalactic series of Earth Time Team, young Tony will expose, from opposite the site of County Hall on Windermere Road, a perfectly-formed Edwardian gents urinal, preserved behind its walled up door and window (see photo).  That former SLDC public convenience, in its original condition, will emerge like a butterfly as evidence that Britain once ruled the world.   A record of a better time, when due consideration was paid to the needs of gentlemen of advancing years. And they’ll probably find a skeleton leaning on the urinal when they open it.

©David Lewis Pogson 2009