There is a huge deficit of toilet provision for women. Photo: Getty
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The politics of sanitation: why we urgently need more public toilets

Elderly people, disabled people, people with carers, women and children all have their lives limited by the UK’s lack of public toilets. We need to talk about this unseen sanitation crisis.

Question: what does everyone do, at least eight times a day?

Give in?

Answer: go to the toilet.

Yet although we all do it, we don’t talk about it. The politics of sanitation is about everything, proclaims Britain’s pioneering toilet campaigner, Prof Clara Greed. Humans do it where they can, anywhere and everywhere: we do it up Mount Everest, all over India’s mighty railways; we poison Rio’s Guarabara Bay – the city says it won’t be able to clean it up in time for the 2016 Olympics; our stuff ends up in “flying toilets” – poo in plastic bags floating in Africa’s Lake Victoria or landing on the rooves and pathways of slums and shanty towns everywhere. A third of the world’s people don’t have access to sustainable sanitation.

Toilets have been debated at parliamentary hearings, contested on college campuses, and toilet agit prop in Chinese cities got feminists arrested this year for “picking quarrels”: they’d occupied the gents to draw attention to the seemingly global phenomenon of queues outside the ladies. 

Toilets are a mark of modernity, they locate the most private needs and dilemmas in the public realm. They are among the first public places encountered by children – toddling along a boulevard, high street, lane, mall or gracht, infant flanneurs suddenly need to go the toilet. It is always sudden. If it is only a wee, then a tree, or a kerb, or a doorway might do, but what if it is not? What if it’s a number two – poo, scheiss, merde, kakka? A child, so small, so desperate, but where to go?

My childhood was punctuated by these dramas. When our little brother just had to go, where could his sisters or his mother could take him? A stinky pissoir in Paris, a krul in Amsterdam, designed only with men in mind? Or England’s underground dungeon designated “gents” or “ladies”.

Toilets have been on my mind ever since. Children’s entry to the public world is choreographed around gendered signs indicating welcome or prohibition.

Now there is a crisis: we are losing our public toilets. A 2008 report from the Communities and Local Government committee, The Provision of Public Toilets, noted that the absence of a legal duty, plus privatisation and cuts produces protracted decline. “This decline needs to be addressed,” said the committee. It is not addressed. 

The doyenne of toilet politics, Prof Clara Greed reckons Britain lost 40 per cent of its public toilets in the decade before the 2010 coalition. Since then, Age UK reports, English cities have lost another 20 per cent. 

Clara Greed, professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, ignited a wave of “toiletology” with her book on public toilets in 2003. She describes this loss as an assault on citizens’ rights: toilets are vital to accessible, equal and sustainable cities. “All dimensions of human life are components of the toilet agenda – gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, class., disability.” She insists that toilets should not be seen as “money down the drain”, not a burden but a benefit.

Ironically, the decline of public toilets has shadowed the rise of global cities and the rise of flourishing nighttime economies and, inevitably, pissed people pissing in the streets.

In Amsterdam, it is estimated that every year a dozen or so men lose their lives whilst “wild plassen” – peeing in the canals. Holland improvised mobile plastic urinals that look like they belong on a Doctor Who set to address the problem of “indiscriminate urination”. A Dutch company, Urilift, invented pop-up toilets – pods connected to underground utilities that rise at night and sink during the day. Urilift commercial director Wim Hermans tells me that pop ups were designed for drinkers, or rather: “Men. I can’t say it more beautifully than that - men are the problem.”

The fate of the public toilet is the antithesis of the nineteenth century urban revolution when pissoirs spread across Paris after Napoleon commissioned Baron Haussman to re-design the capital, and Britain’s 1875 Public Health Act made the provision of public toilets and sanitation an emblem of civic pride. 

But they were always gendered and the beneficiaries were men, says Prof Greed: fewer than half were for women, even though women take longer and have more complex sanitary needs, from undoing clothing to menstruation. She calculates that we need a ratio of two to one in favour of women to create equal access. “Women are likely to outnumber men in ratio of 65 to 35 in shopping areas and up to 80 to 20 in busy shopping malls,” yet in town centres at “best” (in rare instances) provision is likely to be half and half, “and more typically, on a 70 to 30 ratio in favour of men”. Women’s toilet time is compounded by menstruation – a quarter of women may be menstruating at any one time.

Clara Greed explains that the 1936 Public Health Act, which allows (but does not mandate) local authorities to provide public toilets, permitted them to charge fees “other than for urinals”. So, toilets for women were seen as a “special burden”, until the 2010 Equality Act allowed charging both men and women.

Westminster Council was one of the first to introduce pop ups in Britain: it installed temporary urinals and pop ups in the West End. The council has handed over all of its public toilets to a private contractor, but it still has statutory equality duties. Has it performed an equality impact assessment? Has it audited the various needs of women, men, children, able bodied and disabled? Four attempts to get a response from Westminster have yielded no answer.

Why do urinals persist? And why are they so stinky? “Rancid!” says Ray Martin, a toilet enthusiast and director of the British Toilet Association. “Urinals are anathema,” he says. He first started thinking about toilets when he suddenly became a widower 28 years ago, with two young daughters: “I had to take them with me into the gents. That’s what put toilets on my agenda.”

The stink problem is not much men, or even urine, it is the uric acid crystals that loiter in urinals and don’t get sealed off in the alternative toilet s-bend. (Uric acid from promiscuous urinators around Trafalgar Square has apparently eroded some of the National Gallery’s masonry.)

Germany is pioneering a movement to make men sit to pee – stehpinklers v sitzpinklers. Unsurprisingly it met manly resistance which this year was vindicated by a court ruling against a landlord who wanted to withhold part of a tenant’s deposit because of uric acid damage to the marble floor. It was only a partial victory for stehpinklers, however – the judge sympathised with the landlord, but cautioned that tenants should be forewarned.

In the US, the gendering of toilets is inscribed in planning laws, and remains totemic for Republican and religious right ideologies of separate spheres, identities and powers. For a quarter of a century “potty parity” has been promoted by an equalities lawyer with a marvelous monicker, John Banzhaf III, and by architecture professor Kathryn Anthony, whose focus is family-friendly toilets for both men and women, toilets that accommodate carers, and equality based on time as well as quality of space. Anthony’s trigger happened in the last week of her late husband’s life: wheelchair-bound, he needed help, but she could not take him to the men’s room, and he couldn’t go to the women’s room.

The eminent US equalities lawyer Mary Ann Case writes that despite decades of equalities activism, “public toilets are among the very few sex-segregated spaces remaining in our culture” that are governed by law. That’s what led Case into the politics of toilets.

Clara Greed, too, was provoked by both the persistence of segregation and the huge deficit of provision for women. 

Sex separation is idiosyncratic, however: it is most robustly enforced in large public arenas, sports facilities, schools, colleges and shopping arcades and stations, while unisex toilets are universal on planes, trains and, of course, in homes.

One of Britain’s toilet and urban design scholars, Jo Ann Bichard, research fellow at the Royal College of Art, discovered complex relationships to strangers and intimates when she studied women’s use of space and Turkish baths: “We called it naked ethnography,” she says. That took her to toilets. “We allow everyone into private toilets,” says Bichard, but in public buildings and men and women are directed through different doors. “On planes I sit next to a man and think I might die with you! He uses the same toilet as I do.” Yet put Bichard and that man in a college, shopping centre, or cinema and they are steered in different directions. If gender neutral toilets are ok in small places and homes, why not in shops, universities, theatres and the high street? 

Mary Ann Case believes that the “time for integrating toilets has come”. It would “relieve the anxieties” of the transgendered, parents and children, or people who need carers, and it would also detonate the prevailing demand that we all “self-segregate by handing a gendered sign on ourselves”. 

Case resists the idea of women-only toilets as safe spaces – women can be raped anywhere. Clara Greed, however, argues that women still “need their own space”, for good reason some women, particularly the elderly and those who have experience violence, just don’t want to give it up. 

For a decade conflict has been growing on some university campuses in the US over sexed toilets and transgender access to women’s toilets. In Britain, however, there is (with the exception of Brighton) no national transgender toilet strategy, and several prominent transwomen campaigners insisted to me that they experienced no problem of access, “toilet reform? I’ve never even heard it mentioned”, said one trans campaigner, “and I’ve never had a problem”.

But there is a problem and it confronts everyone – exponential decline in public provision. In 2011 Royal College of Art designer Gail Knight (who collaborates with Jo Ann Bichard) launched a public participation website to create The Great British Public Toilet Map. It came out of her work on ageing: next to dementia, incontinence is elderly people’s greatest fear. It is a dread that keeps them stuck at home.

Sanitation – and the lack of it – is an occupational hazard for cabbies, street vendors, truckers, couriers and homeless who, like everyone else, average at least eight visits per day, or about 2,500 per year. Businesswoman Gillian Kemp launched the Truckers Toilets Campaign after overhearing two women drivers discussing the difficulties of finding toilets while on the road: truckers are refused access by clients and some resort to a “bucket and chuck it” approach, and women drivers have to cope with periods, too. “Lorry drivers are not treated with respect,” says Kemp. “We expect 24-hour deliveries, but we don’t think about the needs of the person delivering.”

Like most of the “toileteers”, she advocates a statutory obligation. In 2012 France embarked on a programme of free and adequate public toilets. But not Britain. The former Conservative communities minister, Eric Pickles, refused to support statutory obligation. 

Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts and Destinations Association, told the Parliamentary committee that public toilets cost local authorities £100m per year, but they earn back a meagre £4.5m in charges. “Frankly, it costs as much as to collect a 20p, cart it, count it, account for it as it does to collect it.”

The solution is obvious, says Clara Greed: make provision a public duty, “more public toilets and more space”. Even disabled toilets – seemingly the apogee – are an illusion of perfection. A decade ago Jo Anne Bichard and her colleague Gail Knight researched 101 disabled cubicles, “Not one followed the regulations,” says Bichard.

“There’s an artificial divide between able and disabled: public toilet design is awful for everybody,”  protests Clara Greed. More people travel in buggies than wheelchairs, and able bodied people have to navigate what she calls a “three-point turn” to get into a narrow cubicle already occupied by a mega toilet roll holder and sanitary bin.

Contemplating what would make toilets accessible to all now confronts not only the need to accommodate “companion carers” but the impact of a global world with diverse manners and rituals: standing vs sitting, sitting vs squatting. Europeans on both sides of the sitting-standing war may think they are sanitation pioneers, but sitting on a toilet is as weird to much of the world’s people as squatting appears to the rest; then there’s and wiping vs washing: to much of the world, wiping with paper rather than washing just seems filthy. 

The best model for all is a mix of gender-specific spaces and safe unisex disabled toilets with baby-changing facilities. Gents may like urinals or the open air, but single cubicles, capacious if not fragrant, work for everybody.

Beatrix Campbell is a writer, broadcaster, campaigner and playwright.
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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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