All cisterns go?

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1720

It’s clear that public lavatories in Rye and Winchelsea are causing a bit of a stink – and in more ways than one… Given our public facilities often create the first impression for visitors to own town, it’s crucial we don’t strike a bum note. So, let’s lift the lid, get fully engaged, and see if we can get to the bottom of this business, because I know we’re all busting for a solution…

Public toilets in the UK are, surprisingly, not covered by any statutory duty demanding their provision – they’re a discretionary service. Locally, however, Rother District Council carry the can. They preside over roughly 35 public loos, of which 32 were operable according to the 2022 survey carried out by The Public Toilet Index (https://www.plumbnation.co.uk/public-toilet-index/#uk). That’s 3.31 public toilets for every 10,000 head of Rother’s population – so let’s make sure we don’t all need to go at once… Residents of Winchelsea will quickly remind us, however, that toilet humour’s no joke when two out of three of your public lavatories are currently out of action… However, it’s interesting to note that Rother has greater public toilet provision per head of population than Ashford (2.28) and Canterbury (3.24), and Maidstone (2.77). So you’re statistically less likely to get caught short in Rother. But if you do have to visit one of our public conveniences, in what sort of condition are you likely to find it?

Anecdotally, Rye News and other social media platforms report many negative experiences of our public toilets. Although any public amenity is only ever as salubrious as the last people who used it, it’s fair to say, our loos aren’t always up to snuff. My recent visits have found the gents at Station Approach, for instance, reasonably ‘ok’ overall, but they’re frequently wet, covered in effaced graffiti and they always smell unpleasant. The ladies’ loo sounds like it’s often in an even worse state. The facilities overall are dated and pretty austere.

But what’s to be done? Well, let’s get the obvious factor out of the way first – spending a penny costs much more than that, and Rother District Council receives just £198.38 a year from each Band D Council Tax payer. These days, it seems it’s always a question of money, and though the Council coffers are running low, expectations are always high. As rate payers, we still expect minimum standards of delivery, and understandably so, we live in the world’s six biggest economy, and Rother’s fortunes rely to a great extent on tourism. Locally, we cannot afford to let standards slip.

So, what are the options? Well, currently, Rother District Council is following national guidelines and attempting to devolve responsibility for public toilets down upon Town and Parish Councils. So, Icklesham would take responsibility for Winchelsea’s loos, and Rye Town Council would take responsibility for facilities in Rye. Presently, Bexhill’s new Town Council is negotiating to assume responsibility for Bexhill’s loos. John, Rob et al will be delighted to know Rother will not, thereafter, collect Council Tax for the provision of Bexhill’s loos.

But why would Parish and Town Councils take on the financial responsibility for ageing facilities requiring maintenance or even rebuilding, in the case of Winchelsea’s Monk’s Walk loos? Well, I’ve been advised by Councillors that funding would accompany such devolution, but as with the Bexhill process, I expect there would be much negotation as to the details.

How else can toilets be adequately funded? Well, the most obvious answer is to ask people to pay at point of use, as was once common. Setting aside that many of us don’t carry around a pocket full of change anymore, would users respect facilities more if they had to pay for their use? Perhaps… And without casting aspersions, might it make the loos a less attractive pre-school hang-out for kids if they had to pay to get in? Might another simple solution be to reduce the number of public loos to spread available funds?

If there are many questions, there are novel propositions too, such as Community Interest Companies, or ‘CICs’. Across the country, cash-strapped local authorities are pondering the future of public lavatories, and some are embracing this new model of finance. A CIC is a Limited Company which provides benefit to the community, rather than to shareholders. In historic towns like Polperro and Boscastle, in Cornwall, CICs have been established to run and maintain local public lavatories, which benefit the community, visitors and business alike. Initial funding is raised by local business or public subscription, and then all profits are ploughed back into the maintenance of the facility, which is generally leased from the local authority. In picturesque Polperro, its CIC’s website states: “The annual running costs (which total circa £12000) are met from a combination of the door entrance fee (currently 50p) and generous sponsorship from local businesses and the Polperro Harbour Trust. Up to 20000 visitors per year utilise these facilities.” Could such a scheme work for Rye Town Council as part of the devolution scheme?

There are other interesting schemes running closer to home too. Wealden Council and Ashford Borough Council run Community Toilet Schemes, whereby local businesses register their private toilets for public use. It not only increases provision of public loos, spreading footfall across multiple facilities in a locale, but also brings people into businesses, and may be incentivised by annual payments or business rate relief. In Rye, such a scheme might take the pressure off public facilities and actually extend the hours of availability, but some might also fear it could provide an excuse to axe existing municipal provision.

Rother’s Community Grant Scheme, its Community Infrastructure Levy, National Lottery funding, or local business partnership might also provide financial assistance in the cause of funding community infrastructure locally. Given that Southeastern trains don’t always have working toilets, and that the Station Approach WCs are often the first port of call for their customers, might they be a potential funding partner? It’s all easier said than done, of course, but there are clearly options for us to explore.

In the meantime, Rother appear to be doing their best under challenging circumstances, and I was very grateful to the extremely patient and helpful Deborah Kenneally, who briefed me on the current situation. Deborah advised that the cleaning regime varies from winter low season to summer peak, and that in addition to cleaning, Rother deal with regular vandalism to their facilities, which certainly doesn’t enhance their appeal. I asked whether a visible time-indexed rota on the doors would reassure customers that the toilets were being regularly cleaned and maintained. Deborah seemed to agree, but informed me such rotas had had to be eliminated since they were repeatedly vandalised…

For now, at least, the buck stops with the redoubtable woman, whom I saw at 08.20 last week diligently unloading bucket and mop from the back of her van. It’s legitimate to express dissatisfaction when we pay for a service, but we ought to spare a thought for the person who has to deal with the mess that others create. Valuable workers like her are increasingly hard to recruit, by the way. Her employer is in the final year of its contract, so change is coming in the short term, and in the longer term there are a range of interesting options available to meet the challenges of providing public facilities in Rye, Winchelsea and across Rother. Let’s hope with some local initiative we can bring our public toilets up to the standards we all expect, and that in the not-too-distant future, it’ll be, all cisterns go!

Image Credits: Nick Forman .

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Several years ago, my adult daughter and myself went to Brighton by train. Needing to use the facilities at the Station, we discovered that we only had one 20p piece between us. Both being on the slight side, we tried squeezing in together behind the turnstile and put our solitary 20p in the slot. No matter how hard we pushed the turnstile, wriggled about, it wouldn’t budge. Eventually we admitted defeat and climbed out from underneath, 20p poorer and still in need. Mind you, it was probably just as well; we’d been trying to access the Gents.

  2. I agree that if these facilities are to be transferred to the Rye town council, it make sense to have an ‘outsourced model’ whether to a CIC – or an outsourcer if that exists. If the town council is to contribute, it feels reasonable that the people of Rye have free access either via a token system (physical and smartphone token/payment). The facilities probably need investment, which one would hope can be financed in cooperation with Rother and other funders as mentioned above.

  3. Just a little update. I spoke this morning to the lovely lady, and her young colleague, who are responsible for cleaning our public loos in Rye and beyond. Not in anyway to diminish local concern (which I share) about the presentation of our loos (which had been freshly graffitied this AM), I wanted to ask the lady what her perspective was on the issue. She had cleaned the loos for nearly two decades, and had read some of the comments about the toilets. She had an interesting tale to tell, of vandalism, wanton destruction, and, in some cases, what can only be described as pretty bestial behaviour. On one occasion, she reported having cleaned the Station Approach loo and popped over to Jempsons to get a quick coffee. When she returned shortly after, somebody had already defecated, not in the loo, but on the floor… Again, she had to clear it up. She also noted the age of the facilities, and we talked about what happens when one person doesn’t flush. Invariably, it’s cumulative, and the next user, influenced by what they find, might not flush either. And soon the toilet is blocked. During Covid, people have become more reluctant to touch surfaces deemed ‘dirty’, which also plays into a lack of flushing and a tendency to hazardous ‘hovering’… All of which has the result of creating a pretty unpleasant environment. It was a story of the best and worst of human behaviour, which is often what influences the world around us – in a society, we depend on one another. So, RDC still have clear obligations to us as council tax payers to keep Rye’s public lavatories hygienic and hospitable, but I was struck also by the role lavatory users could play too, and how promoting small changes in behaviour could perhaps have a big impact. Lastly, it also occurred to me that the gallant woman who cleans up after us deserves a medal! I think anyone who met her would have a little more respect for the work she does and the facilities she tries to maintain. A local hero!

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