For a brief and wonderful period in the early 2010s, I peed like a king at King’s Cross station. After purchasing a first-class ticket because it was only a few quid more than a regular offering, I discovered that the toilets for the station’s first-class waiting room sit outside, not inside, the lounge. I didn’t have to prove I was a premium passenger to use the premium loos; I was able to walk straight in without having to show my ticket. For years afterwards I bypassed the station’s regular 30p lavatories by heading to its first-class porcelain thrones.
My brave, courageous and revolutionary act of class warfare came to an end a few years ago when they started stationing a member of staff outside to check tickets. (A legacy at last!) Thankfully, Network Rail last year decided to scrap toilet charges in its stations, despite annually collecting around £5m from people paying to use them. At the time, its chief executive Mark Carne said that it is “quite wrong to penalise people when they are in discomfort”.
And yet, throughout our towns and cities, many public places still have de facto toilet charges, with cafés and bookshops placing keypad door locks on their loos and providing the combination code only on receipts given to customers. This would perhaps be understandable were it not for a dramatic decline in alternative options; between 2006 and 2016, at least 1,782 council-run public toilets were closed. In contrast, there are 237 branches of Pret a Manger in London alone.
In this environment, I am far from the only “revolootionary”. In January 2020, a Twitter account named “London Loo Codes” appeared – it now has over 5,000 followers. The account tweets out the combination codes for toilets across the capital and also alerts its followers as to whether the facilities are accessible or gender neutral. Want to pee in the Pret on Horseferry Road in Westminster? Type in “2905”.
Over the past month, Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road has changed its code from “C6780Z” to “C395YZ” to “C1739Z”, seemingly in an ongoing battle with the account.
London Loo Codes was created by 33-year-old Sophie and 28-year-old Merlin, who met as mature students studying at Birkbeck, the University of London. They used to keep track of loo codes in their notebooks, but the inspiration for the Twitter account came in the first week of January. Sophie was in a chain café desperate for the toilet and asked if she could have the code before she ordered her tea – staff insisted she had to buy something first.
“Not everyone who needs to use the loo can afford a coffee,” Sophie tells me. “As the number of people sleeping rough increases, we feel it’s conducive to basic human dignity to afford these people acc-ess to clean loos without the demand of a purchase, or the ostracisation of being turned away.”
The account grew quickly and has now shared over 150 codes in total. “It almost immediately took on a life of its own, which we think really highlights just how relatable this problem is,” Sophie says. The codes are collected via anonymous submissions (anyone can send a message to the account on Twitter) and added to an online London Loo Codes spreadsheet. Sophie says sending in a combination is a small way for people to feel like they’re campaigning for change.
Toilets are easy to trivialise or make jokes about, but they are far from apolitical. Sophie and Merlin are aware of the issues surrounding access to public toilets – they cite NHS estimates that between three and six million people in the UK experience some degree of urinary incontinence and note that people with a variety of chronic conditions are greatly affected by a decline in public facilities. Their account tweets about accessibility so that those with disabilities can find the easiest, nearest and safest loos.
Yet it is homelessness that the pair remain most passionate about, feeling that other media coverage of their initiative has ignored the issue. Sophie hopes their account will highlight the plight of rough sleepers in the capital, whose numbers increased by nearly 20 per cent between 2018 and 2019. She believes that a progressive society “cannot be one that forces some of its most marginalised members to urinate in the street – an offence for which they can then be fined”.
Take a step back and you can see how dystopian it is to suggest that large multibillion-pound corporations can’t cope with non-customers popping in to pee. It’s inhumane to price people out of using toilets, or even to force them to hop up and down in a queue to buy a biscuit before they can relieve themselves. Public space is being swallowed up by corporations, and those same corporations put a price on basic human dignity.
Sophie and Merlin hope that chain stores will “embrace their commitment to the community” by opening up their toilets to all, but they’ve faced some criticism. They have noticed that some places on their list have started updating their codes daily. “We’re anxious not to have made life more difficult for people who might have already had the pre-existing codes to begin with, but we’re hopeful that our push for greater policy change and the removal of codes on doors will result in a great long-term benefit.”
Though Sophie and Merlin remain focused on London, they encourage others to take action. Similar Twitter accounts have sprung up in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, Reading, Sheffield, and even Toronto and Seattle. As I write, there are more than 30 people checking the London Loo Codes online spreadsheet – that’s 30 less people caught short, one hopes.
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose