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Public toilets in Britain disappear as spending cuts bite

Staff Writer | November 30, 2017
"Spending a penny" in Britain is becoming harder with more than half of the country's public toilets closed in the past few years.
London public toilet
Britain   Spending a penny
Even more toilets face closure in the next few years as town and city councils face average 20 percent cuts in grants from the national government, Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association (BTA), told Xinhua.

The British expression of "spending a penny" dates back to the days when entering a water closet cost a penny, while men using urinals did not have to pay. Generations of women complained they paid, while the opposite sex could "spend a penny" or use a public toilet without paying.

While the law in Britain permits local councils to provide public toilets, there is no obligation for them to make such provision, Martin said.

"There is no statutory duty on local authorities in Britain to provide public toilets, so with spending cuts councils are giving priority to services they are legally required to offer. That puts public toilets at risk and we expect to see more closing," he said.

The law making urinals free was only repealed a few years ago, said Martin, paving the way for charges to be introduced.

Even though there is now provision for councils to charge a fee for people to visit public toilets, it has not halted their decline.

"One problem is that councils have to pay business rates on toilets and this makes them uneconomic. We have been fighting for the government to lift these charges," said Martin.

The problem in Britain is that a lot of public toilets were built in back streets, unlike parts of mainland Europe where they are often in prominent, visible locations, Martin noted.

BTA research has shown that people are more likely to head to shopping or leisure areas that offer good quality public toilets.

"Some local authorities are supporting Community Toilet Schemes with local businesses offered incentives to allow people to use their toilets. This has helped, but there are some issues, such as the facilities only available during opening hours of the businesses," Martin said.

Against the national trend, Oxford City Council invested more than $800,000 in its toilets, with 10 toilets winning a gold standard category.

Councillor John Tanner, the city council's board member for Cleaner, Greener Oxford, said: "In 2012, the people of Oxford told the city council they wanted their money invested in the city's public toilets. The city council launched a program to improve the public toilets and now, you could say, we are flushed with success."