Monday, September 16, 2013

The politics of privatized peeing

The UK premiere of Urinetown: The Musical was officially announced today. After a couple months of biting my tongue and desperately wanting to talk about the mysterious show billed as 'UGCLondon' I'm finally allowed.

I had written to the author, Greg Kotis, awhile back to ask about his inspiration and research for the musical. He very sweetly got back to me (putting him in the minority of people I e-mail about toilets!) to say that it was inspired by a backpacking trip in Europe in the mid 90-s when he tried to save money by avoiding pay-per-use toilets, but that other than that the concept was entirely metaphorical.

What intrigues me is how many issues he managed to touch on anyway. The privetisation of toilets is actually a big important question to which there are many pros and cons. The Good Loo Guide of the 1980's argues strongly for it, saying
"... I submit we need a man of vision (Richard Branson, are you listening?) to set up a chain of loos in every high street, a branch in every street of consequence to the toileteer." 
The thing is, the privatisation of Loos necessitates loos running as a business, and therefore charging a fee for use. And this is the point where a lot of us get hung up.

My own thinking on this subject has changed vastly over the last six months since I have researched the subject. The whole thing really began for a similar reason to the birth of Urinetown... I did not appreciate having to pay to pee. I was a poor student, and the 30p it cost to use the loo in a train station could buy me a chocolate bar at Sainsbury's. I remember spending over an hour with my sister in Venice trying to find a toilet that didn't cost a Euro. In the end we failed and got desperate enough to cough up.


The first thing to shift my thinking was a sign in St Martin’s in the Field. This was one of my favorite free haunts, but one day I noticed a little sign on the mirror of the Ladies asking for donations to keep them ‘The church of ever open toilet doors’. To keep the toilet running costs approximately £32,000 a year (or about 14p a visitor based on their claim of 250,000 visitors! Presumably somewhat subsidized by their other income.) That planted the seed in my mind that maybe companies who charged for toilet use weren’t so extortionate after all.

But the real pivot point came when I interviewed Ajay.

I met Ajay because a rather special toilet came to my attention. The Jubiloo is a relatively recent addition to the landscape of the South Bank. It is designed by architect Mark Powers and has been nominated for several architectural awards.

It also costs 50p a go, which at the time seemed an unthinkable fortune.

I met Ajay in the Southbank Centre (incidentally the nearest free toilet to the Jubiloo). He was incredibly friendly, intrigued by my project and not too surprised by the fact that I had a toilet plunger in my bag. He launched straight into telling me about the company, Healthmatic, and showing me pictures and demographics on the various toilets they manage.

Chances are if you have spent any significant amount of time in the UK you have used one of Healthmatic's toilets. They are one of the leading providers of public toilets and associated services in the UK. Ajay had been with them for about a year having come from a background in business development. He now spends his days talking to councils, businesses, transport hubs and shopping centers about what their options are for toilet provision. “I don’t like to call it sales” he told me. “… city relations me and Mal would call it.”

A major problem at the moment is that, in the spirit of Camron’s Big Society, public toilet provision is increasingly localized, and each local authority does their own thing.  Many of them hand it further down to town councils aren’t aware of the need for public toilet provision until it lands in their laps. And because there is no statutory obligation to keep them open closures often result when the responsibility is handed down. It’s “a quick win.”

He told me it’s difficult to make money out of toilets. The Jubiloo have a ten year lease on the Southbank space, and despite the fact that they are not paying any rent the toilet still costs approximately half-a-million a year to run with staffing and cleaning, water and electricity, not to mention recouping the cost of building the structure in the first place. 

Overall it has been a success. Looking at the toilet’s facebook page reveals far more compliments than complaints. Partly this is due to its focus on customer service. As a business the keepers of the Jubiloo understand that people who pay should get quality. The toilet is staffed by fulltime attendants and the stalls are cleaned after every use.

Still, the system does have its detractors. Complaints are usually responded to with a considerate “thank you for your feedback and here are the facts of why we charge what we do.” 

Towards the end of the interview I asked Ajay what he wished people thought about more. “People are really… how to put it… ignorant about why public loos need to charge," he told me. "People don’t understand the mechanics.”

I can now count myself among the enlightened. That doesn’t mean I don’t still use the free toilet. I admit (having shifted from poor student to poor entrepreneur) I still look for ways to avoid toilet fees, though I growl slightly less when I do find myself paying. And I still show fee-dodgers how to find them on my tour. But I also pass on what I have learned.

In the end it all comes down to education and freedom of choice. Should our tax-dollars (or pounds) give us the right to demand access to loos? Or are we better off with privatized solutions that might cost us a bit more, but deliver quality of service? And who should decide? 

Back to the problem of education. Most people want the freedom to pee, but they don't want to take the action of campaigning for better toilets or privatization. In fact, most people probably don't think about who is behind the toilet they are using. And it would perhaps be a strange thing for people to think about that all the time (though it has done me a world of good!)

In the ideal world that Hope and Bobby imagine "people could pee for free wherever they like as long as they like with whomever they like."(though this brings us dangerously close to the subject of open defecation, which is a whole other issue. And one that Urinetown gracefully avoids.) 



Urinetown will be at the St James Theatre from 22 February- 3 May. Go see it if you can!

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