I’ll start with a confession: I have been known to discreetly relieve my bladder al fresco if no other option is available. Decorum is obviously strictly maintained, but, while some may disagree, hiding behind a hedge has always seemed a better option than enduring potentially lengthy agony.
So I was initially merely amused by the fact that various Victorian public lavatories have been granted listed building status in recognition of their role in helping to release women from the home. How quaint, I thought, that the ladies of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland and Seaburn were unshackled in this way.
More fool me. Because really, not a lot has changed for women and their bladders since the late 1800s. I may be broadly happy to go wherever it is decent, but for lots of women, this is simply not an option: they are constrained by the “loo leash” in exactly the same way as their Victorian counterparts.
Consider, for instance, the fact that, at the last count, there are just 4,486 council-run public lavatories in Britain today, and that 37 areas in England and Wales have none at all. That even though the Royal Society for Public Health suggests that a fair ratio of female to male lavatories would be 2:1, given basic biological differences (not to mention the fact that women are more likely to be accompanied by other people, i.e. children), 59 per cent of women report that they regularly queue, compared to just 11 per cent of men (let’s face it, a row of urinals takes up a lot less room than a series of cubicles). That two in five people report restricting their outings on the basis that they won’t have access to a public loo. You can bet your bottom dollar that the vast majority of those will not be men.
Basically, there simply aren’t enough public conveniences out there – and this is still the great inequality facing women (don’t even get me started on the gender-neutral toilet controversy). Since the removal of the gloriously named “nuisances” (facilities that drained directly into rivers or streets) from the mid-19th century onwards, public provision of lavatories has been pitiful, and has got worse.
Lockdown only highlighted just how pitiful: at its peak, in the “let’s get drunk in the park” stage of the pandemic, when public loos remained padlocked for “health and safety” reasons, every tree seemed to have a man urinating against it; every bush featured a litter of lavatory paper and an evening stroll in any popular outdoor spot was likely to either feature the flash of a naked bum or an appalling stench. Revolting. Nobody is saying that public lavatories are always pleasant places, but at one point, every park seemed like a communal convenience.
Former public lavatories are now more likely to serve as witty wine bars or “amusingly ironic” nightclubs than to be a place to go when you’re caught short. Even those you have to pay for often have restricted opening hours – and who carries cash around with them anyway, in this virus-ridden era?
Yes we all have lavatories at home now. No we’re not as prudish as the Victorians were. But at a time when a good long walk has become the peak of practical and spiritual activity, there’s a simultaneous requirement for somewhere to go – if only to fulfil our public duty of regular handwashing.
We need more loos. We need more of them for women. Our failure to provide them has become little less than a health issue. Which is the last thing we need right now.