06/06/2020 10:56 BST

Public Toilets Are An Equalities Issue. Why Don't We Care?

As our coronavirus lockdown eases, we're told to go outdoors as much as you like – but don’t count on the toilets being open, Sophie Wilkinson writes.

People enjoy the hot weather on the banks of the River Wharfe in Burnsall, Yorkshire, as people flock to parks and beaches with lockdown measures eased.

If parks and open spaces are beacons of nature’s abundant beauty, their toilets are always an unworldly hideous mess. Blue-lit, mud-strewn and barely plumbed, they’re a means to a very necessary ending. Most people prefer to use the loos at pubs or nearby cafes, with all their fancy mod-cons, like toilet paper, doors that lock and dry toilet seats. Indeed, some councils, such as my own, have long relied on private toilets to fill the u-bends in their own provision.

During lockdown, though, cafes are closed, pubs are shuttered and public facilities have been entirely bolted shut, boarded up and clo….no. No, they haven’t. From May 13, English councils have been allowed by the government to open their public toilets.

The caveat was that the councils provided stricter cleaning regimens and enforced two-metre queues. That isn’t happening, though, because too many local authorities can’t see sense. The Local Government Association (LGA), which acts on behalf of all councils, makes no promises either. “People should not assume toilets will be open and plan their outdoor activities accordingly,” a spokesperson told The Times.

And I wonder if the LGA has equalities impact-assessed this indecision? Or weighed up the public health issue a lack of toilets presents? Or even taken into account the needs of councils’ lowest-paid workers? 

Toilet provision is a feminist issue. Due to menstruation, bladder issues brought on by pregnancy and childbirth and, really simply, the way we wee, women require more toilet access than men. Lack of adequate toilet provision in the past meant women couldn’t leave their homes for long, something which campaigners in the Victorian era called the “urinary leash”. Its effects live on, thanks to architects and town planners forgetting women’s needs.

This is also an issue for disabled people, 250,000 of whom cannot use standard accessible toilets. Disabled women have undergone medically unnecessary surgery simply to be able to leave their homes. And as Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, a wheelchair user who is incontinent, put it in a Lords debate in February: “I am in a vulnerable position when I catheterise myself. I need to wash my hands before and straight afterwards; it is even more difficult when I have my period.” Flaws in the accessible toilet scheme mean that anyone with a disabled-access-only key can enter, regardless of whether the toilet is vacant or engaged.

Unlimited time outdoors is one of the few pleasures we have right now and the public – all of the public – deserves this time.

And this was before lockdown. Women are now facing the brunt of the lockdown’s economic impacts. Disabled people have now been treated to the insensitivity of a suggestion that their disability could de-prioritise them for potential Covid-19 treatment. And now both groups share the indignity of being cut off from the outside world.

As ever, though, women’s and minorities’ concerns are the majority’s issue. Any implication that most people aren’t bothered by the lack of toilets is a load of crap. Everyone wees and poos, and if they can’t find a urinal or toilet to do it in, they’ll either have to head home or make do with what’s there.

Some are more up for heading home. Anecdotally, I’ve not seen one woman go public in her ablutions this lockdown. From personal experience, when I’ve been caught short on country walks and festival sites, stage fright ensues; the bleak embarrassment of showing your entire bum to a tree’s judgmental bark is enough to put anyone off. It’s also worth remembering that when catcalling is on the rise, what risk might onlookers present to half-nude women? Sexual predators get off on this stuff.

As for all the men emptying their bladders and shaking off the hose in full sight of any and all passersby, I don’t want to think, for one second, that the majority actually enjoy debasing themselves and breaking indecent exposure laws in the process. I’d also prefer to live in a world where using the nooks and crannies of our parks as number-2 drop-off points is beyond any human desire. Yet, that’s our world now. In the new normal, residents next to areas of otherwise natural beauty shouldn’t have to put up with an influx of daytrippers’ waste. But what else was going to happen when the public was given the paradoxical command? Go outdoors as much as you like, we’re told, but don’t count on the toilets being open. 

One almost-impressive workaround, fly-weeing, is where a bottle is used to decant a man’s urine. These were once the preserve of low-paid Uber drivers on non-stop shifts around unfamiliar cities, or festival revellers too drunk to negotiate staticky portaloos in the dead of night. Now these last-ditch, chucked-in-a-ditch options punctuate the streets closest to our parks, to be cleaned up by low-paid council workers. I’d wager that, between these hot bottles of yellow waste and the mounds of faeces in the parks, these workers would rather be spraying down toilet locks and enforcing queues. 

Councils refusing to re-open public toilets – and acquisitioning the private ones they’ve outsourced their responsibilities to – is an equalities issue. It’s also becoming a public health issue. Unlimited time outdoors is one of the few pleasures we have right now and the public – all of the public – deserves this time. Our green parks and open spaces deserve to grow unpestered by booze-soaked manure and, most importantly, those who have the unenviable task of cleaning up all the muck and dross deserve better.