Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: New Pensioners sure to raise protests at shortage of toilets

Wivenhoe's public lavatories - not much to look at but a very important feature of the town

Wivenhoe's public lavatories - not much to look at but a very important feature of the town

Wivenhoe’s only public lavatories are under threat.

Upon hearing this news, I remembered something which I learned at the Glastonbury Festival in 1997. Apart from the site ‘roads’ being waterlogged, as a result of torrential rain that year, the latrines were dismayingly primitive.

Thirty-years after the birth of the ‘alternative society’, I realised, its cultural descendants still hadn’t quite figured out roads or toilets. Within a day young adults from perfectly good middle-class homes were suffering complaints as diverse as trench foot and e-coli. For this elevating experience festival-goers had paid about 100 quid apiece. It was here we discovered that if you are to build a successful alternative society, then you’d better include traversible roads and working toilets.

Over 16 years later, however, I am witnessing a worrying de-investment in the roads and toilets of my own locality. Despite the fact that I live in the seventh wealthiest country in the world, despite the fact that the recession is “officially over”, our local roads are more potholed than I can remember them being during my lifetime. I’ll leave the roads for now, however, since there are plenty of people already complaining about them.

Instead, I’ll sashay as delicately as possible over to the less stridently-championed cause of our vanishing public toilets. Depending upon whom you believe and how their figures are spun, public toilets, usually under the aegis of town and borough councils, are being closed at a disturbing rate. Since 2010, the UK has lost 13.5% of council-run loos, about one in seven. For many years, an organisation called the British Toilet Association has been attempting to alert the public to the situation.

Recently, the post-war generation, which comprises a sizeable wedge of our population, has just begun to tiptoe into pensionable age. Age, as we know, is often accompanied by certain physiological or medical requirements, the need for decent public toilet facilities being one. The New Pensioners we should remember, are of a generation well-versed in protest. Come election time, it might be worth politicians considering this matter which, if you’ll excuse the pun, is pan-political.

As the British Toilet Association points out, there are salient reasons as to why we need to address the problem of insufficient toilet facilities. First and foremost is of course the matter of hygiene. What may be less well-known, as health experts have recently warned, is that having a full bladder raises blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes in those who are susceptible.

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In addition, poor toilet facilities will have a long-term detrimental effect upon our tourist economy. Holiday-makers tend not to return to badly catered-for destinations. Furthermore, senior shoppers will be wary of being caught short in a town centre which lacks essential facilities. This, the BTA claims, will reduce “footfall” in shopping areas which are already struggling.

Colchester, for instance, is not completely devoid of toilets, although I can’t offhand think of a public toilet located on or near to the High Street itself. There remains an option of just marching into a pub, café or restaurant and asking to use their facilities. Not everyone, however, is quite so uninhibited about such matters. They shouldn’t have to be. When I was small boy, almost every sizeable town centre had public loos. Often they were situated underground. In many towns and cities such places also had a lavatory attendant on hand. There were loos in parks, car parks, on recreation grounds, railway stations and sometimes even, on town approach roads; Colchester had one located just off the Albert roundabout.

To boast decent public lavatories was a distinctly British sort of thing, almost something of which to be proud – especially when comparing them to facilities offered by certain of our near-continental neighbours. Circumstances change, however.

At what point did our regional rulers decide that despite an ageing and expanding population, we could profitably make do with fewer of such universally-required facilities. What peculiar, post-crisis, bean counting logic spawned such stupidity? It’s as if the mindless Borrow’n’Spend mania which was our undoing five years ago, suddenly went madly into reverse, so that we are now instead making cuts, with the same flagrant disregard for their consequences.

In Wivenhoe, for example, with a population of 10,000 people and an increasing number of visitors, there’s only one public toilet for the whole town. To veer slightly off-topic, the town’s only other toilets, situated at the railway station, aren’t always open. This is still doing better than the ones at Great Bentley station, which are frequently, if not permanently locked. A young mum recently confessed to me that one afternoon she had to slip into the bushes beside the platform building, so bursting was she. Apparently, there’s a loo at the recently smartened-up Colchester Town station, although I’ve not seen it open for years.

There’s now talk of Wivenhoe’s one public toilet being the subject of an “asset transfer” from Colchester Borough Council. Essentially, this means that Wivenhoe Town Council may need to find the £10,000 per year required to keep their facilities open.

In a town which wears socialism as an overcoat while brandishing money as a walking stick, the ensuing debate may prove challenging.

Personally, I’d be prepared to pay a bit of extra council tax to keep the toilets open, if only as a point of civic pride. Maybe we could eventually form our own road-mending gang too? Roads and toilets. Quite important, I reckon.