“We think that it’s also an infringement of equality legislation, that the government and local authorities should be doing equality audits because the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with disabilities are the worst hit and we think this is probably a breech of equality law too.”
Heather Wakefield from Unison, BBC Radio 4 Today programme
The average person uses the toilet six times a day, according to the World Toilet Organisation (yes, such a thing exists).
Pregnant women will tell you that it’s at least double that, and as for the incontinent – well, now we’re all crossing our legs with embarrassment.
It’s a slightly taboo subject no one likes talking about, but which Unison took to the airwaves with today.
The union said that more than 40 per cent of public loos have closed in the last 10 years, and that government cuts have left councils no choice but to cut back on the services.
Heather Wakefield from Unison said: “Government cuts to council budgets have led to many closing facilities, leaving many areas without public toilets. For mobile workers, finding a toilet while on the move is a daily problem.”
She went on to claim that the closures could even be infringing peoples’ equality rights.
Is she taking the p*** or does she have a point?
In the UK there are an estimated 5,000-5,500 public toilets, according the British Toilet Association (BTA), which campaigns for better facilities.
There are five times that number in commercial spaces – with up to 25,000 in shops, restaurants and pubs. But these are often only made available to paying customers.
Unison argues that the shrinking number of public loos leaves outdoor workers caught short, while the BTA has long campaigned for more toilets for “specialist user groups” such as pregnant women and the elderly.
There are no official government stats on how many loos have vanished in recent years, but since the BTA tours the country searching for the Loo of the Year, and is currently pulling together an interactive map of all available public loos, FactCheck rates their verdict.
And they say that 40 per cent of the UK’s loos have shut down in the last 10 years – the same stat used by Unison.
Ms Wakefield blames government cuts for the lack of loos, she says the councils have no choice but to cut the number of public toilets.
After government cuts, and taking into account inflation and council tax, councils have seen their total resources fall by 14 per cent in real terms over four years, according to HM Treasury.
At the same time, the government reduced the ring-fencing of its grants and gave local government greater spending flexibility.
The allocation of public toilets is considered a “discretionary service”, rather than a “statutory obligation”.
This means the number of public loos provided is a matter for the local council.
The central government takes no responsibility for the number of loos each council provides – and it hasn’t given councils orders to follow.
Ms Wakefield argues that councils should have to complete “equality audits” before they cut the number of toilets, adding that the failure to do so could be a breech of equality law.
She’s talking about the Equality Impact Assessments that councils used to have to produce, weighing up the costs and impacts of each policy decision.
But in November last year, the Prime Minister scrapped EIAs, claiming that: “We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff”.
Mr Cameron said: “We are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments. You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered.
“That way policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.”
So actually, councils are no longer under any obligation to produce an EIA.
They do however have to pay “due regard” to policy decisions. This means that in theory a council could be found be guilty of infringing someone’s equality rights if a court rules that the council had not paid “due regard” to its policy decision.
The truth is however, that despite Mr Cameron’s attempts to cut red tape, most councils continue to use EIAs, according to the Local Government Association (LGA).
This is because the cuts have left councils “vulnerable to legal challenge”, according to the LGA. Many spending choices have “already proven to be highly contested”, the report found, “such as spending on libraries and road maintenance”.
A report by the House of Commons Library in April concluded that: “Although the law does not require public authorities to carry out EIAs, the court place (s) significant weight on the existence of some form of documentary evidence of compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duties when determining judicial review cases.”
David Cameron threw out the “extra tick-box stuff” that Ms Wakefield says councils should be doing.
In fact, councils are no longer under any obligation to produce “equality audits” – which assess the impact of any new policy on a budget and social level.
A council could however be accused of not carrying out a policy with “due regard” – but that would be a matter for the courts.
The problem with all of this however, is that it is highly likely that the councils cutting back on toilets have already carried out an Equality Impact Assessment anyway – to defend the tough decisions they are making on cuts.
Ultimately, central government has no input into the availability of public loos – it is a matter for local government.
By 2014-2015, local councils will have weathered a 14 per cent cut in real terms. At the same time demand for high-cost services, such as adult social care and children’s services is increasing.
The best way to get the council to spend their pennies on your public loo is to contact your ward councillor.
By Emma Thelwell