Observer column: 10 February 2017
Money Down The Pan?
As the consultation on Hastings Council's budget continues, it's becoming clear that by far the most controversial proposal is the closure of public toilets. But this isn't a debate confined to Hastings. Across the country, councils are closing their toilets because they can no longer afford to run them.
Although councils have provided toilets since the nineteenth century, there has never been a requirement for councils to provide toilets - it's entirely up to the council to decide where and how many toilets they should provide, and indeed whether they should provide any at all.
Since government funding of councils began to reduce significantly year-on-year from 2010, many public toilets have closed. Around 40% of council toilets have closed over the last ten years, with more under threat in the current budget consultations.
Some councils have got rid of public toilets altogether. Newcastle upon Tyne has no public toilets. The entire City of Manchester has just one. Sheffield has closed 25 of its toilets, with none left in the city centre. There are few public toilets left in central London, with none along the South Bank. Along the south coast, Bournemouth is considering closing 14 of its public toilets, and Poole has already closed all four of its town centre toilets. There are no public toilets in Brighton City centre. By 'public toilets' here I mean 'free-standing' toilet blocks. There are of course public toilets in department stores, shopping centres and public buildings such as libraries and museums.
Here in Hastings, the council maintains 16 public toilets. Half of these are on or close to the seafront. The council's public toilets cost around £385,000 a year to run. The amount of money the council has to provide services has more than halved since 2010, with a £2.2m cut in government grant over just the last year. Many services have already been reduced. But as for other councils, it's now becoming increasingly difficult to protect the more 'visible' services such as public toilets.
So in Hastings, we're proposing the closure of public toilets at Harold Place and Ore. The Harold Place toilets are particularly expensive to maintain, costing £64,000 a year. One of the key factors to consider here will be the availability of other public toilets, particularly ones accessible to disabled people. As in other towns and cities, the Hastings Council is not the only provider of public toilets. There are five other public toilets within a 500 metre radius of Harold Place, all of them accessible to wheelchair users: there are council-run toilets at Pelham Place, as well as toilets available to the public at Debenhams, Priory Meadow, Hastings Library and Hastings Pier. This is more of a problem for Ore, where there are no other nearby public toilets.
However, the decision on these toilet closures is not yet finalised. There may be alternative ways to provide toilet facilities at no cost - for example, the Harold Place building, which is in poor condition and in need of expensive repairs, could be replaced by a café with toilets available to the public, or by automated pay toilets. Other suggestions have been submitted as part of the consultation. We'll consider all these carefully before making a decision. But after years of budget cuts, spending reductions on the council's core services, such as toilets, are sadly inevitable.
Council Leader's column