Monday, February 3, 2014

"Charging fees as we please" right or wrong?


Pay-per-go toilets come from a long, if not noble tradition. We may whinge about prices which can get up to a Euro across much of Europe. So the first in my Urinetown related series takes a quick look at the history of paying to pee, and reflects (okay... opines...) on the nature of the cash flow through toilet doors.

In Urinetown Mr. Cladwell is the bigh-shot business man who has struck gold and "made flushing mean flush in the bank." In the end it turns out despite his greed he is possibly one of the more ecologically aware characters in the story, but we'll leave that for another time.

For now, here he is as we first meet him:



When in Rome... 

In AD 69 Emperor Vespasian inherited a Rome with a drained treasury, and looked for any and every opportunity to turn the financial situation around. He came up with a clever plan. Not only could people be charged for the privilege of using the toilets… they could also be taxed for the privilege of cleaning them! Urine was a valuable resource, primarily for tanning and dying (but also bleaching of teeth.) When his son, Titus, objected to this practice he ordered the boy to sniff a coin. Does it smell bad? No!

"Pecunia non olet." 
"Money doesn’t stink."

We don't know a great deal more about how much the tax may have been or how is was collected. We do know that other than the Urine Tax Vespasian was a reasonably popular and generous man. But urinals in france and Italy are, even to this day, referred to as vespasiennes or vespasiani

Medieval Scotland...

Fast forward a few centuries and people are still making a living from the relief business. In the streets of Medieval and Tudor Scotland if you had to go you would find the man wandering the streets with a bucket and cloak crying “Who wants me for a bawbee?” Pay the man your bawbee (a half penny) and you could put the cloak round you for privacy while you availed yourself of the bucket. What he then did with the contents I am not sure.

Common Decency...

Come the Victorian Era: A golden age of public necessary conveniences (for some in any case.) The most famous man to provide these conveniences was George Jennings, a Brighton Plumber. For the Great Exhibition of 1851 he initiated the installation of conveniences for both Gentlemen and Ladies in the Chrystal Palace in Hyde Park. For a penny entrance fee. There was skepticism. He later said “I was told people would not come to the Crystal Palace to wash their hands.” 

The skeptics proved wrong. The toilets were a massive success, and were used by 827,280 visitors during the course of the exhibition, raking in £2441. (Notice the math doesn’t add up? There are 240 pence to a Victorian pound. But that still leaves about £1006 unaccounted for. This is because due to anatomical differences that allow men a more ready relief than women Urinals were provided for fee, while women had to pay out every time. Of the profits £2,084 was earned from female visitors. But gendered politics is a lengthy subject itself, so we shall move on…)

This inspired the Society of Arts to provide wider accommodation ‘to alleviate the sufferings that must be endured.’ Their next project, however, though approached enthusiastically was as massive a failure as the first had been a success. Though they placed advertisements in the times and distributed 50,000 handbills for their Gentlemen’s loos on Fleet Street the first month brought only 58 visitors.

For the rest of his life Jennings petitioned city councils to build conveniences, only asking in return that he be allowed to charge a small entrance fee to cover the cost of an attendant and maintenance. But is was not until the 1880’s (shortly after his death) that his dream became a reality, and London’s popular underground conveniences began to appear across city. 

Going Automatic...

Another potential origin of Spending a Penny are automatic coin operated toilets which were invented in the late 18th Century by the stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne. His lock was used until at least the 1950's in Britain. 

Modern Day

Throughout the UK most public toilets cost between £0.30 and £0.50 depending on the council and the operating company. A victorian penny has the purchasing power of between £0.25 and £0.50 in modern money. So in that regard fees have pretty well moved with inflation. The service you will get for that price ranges vastly, from a fresh clean stall to a dirty toilet-paper-less cell that leaves you feeling worse than when you went in. You probably won't be offered a comb and a clean towel as you would have in the monkey closets of 1851. But aren't you otherwise glad you don't live in 1851? So it's probably worth that small sacrifice! 


But is it right? 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not a fan of paying to pee. But... I also feel a sense of civic duty to understand what I am or am not paying for. So here are my own thoughts on the pay-to-pee situation:

In some ways it is odd that we take freely available public toilets as a right. While we expect our other needs to be met, we would never dream of marching into Starbucks and demanding a free coffee and sandwich because we were hungry. It is our responsibility either to eat at home before we leave, or be prepared to pay. 

The need to go can be felt more suddenly and urgently than the need to eat. Toilets are a distress purchase.  And generally, while you can bring a packed lunch, hauling your own toilet around is a taller order. Presumably part of the reason we pay taxes is so that our local councils... but it's still up to people to make their voices heard if toilets are what they want.

One thing I see happening frequently is the problem of communication. Usually complaints are aimed the wrong people. The best place to see this is probably the Facebook page for the Jubiloo (For a bit more background on the business model of the Jubiloo, I have written previously about the subject in "The Politics of Privatized Peeing".)  Absolute transparency in comments and responses. Some people say it's well worth it, while others deem it "A bloody rip-off." When people question the rates the company responds pretty consistently: It costs them money to run the service. There is no legal obligation for councils to provide, and so we have to depend in many areas on private corporations.

And companies, though they may be socially minded, have every right to say to rude customers "if you don't like it, you can take your business (in every sense) elsewhere." (Pro tip: in the case of the Jubiloo this would be the South Bank Center, 2 minutes walk away, where you can go absolutely free. I may be a fare dodger, but I have earned it, by doing my research! Use the Jubiloo though. They're still one of the cheapest attractions you'll find in London!)

I sometimes think the situation of the harangued toilet providers is not so different from that of the countless numbers of actors, musicians and speakers who have endured being invited to perform for free for the exposure, for dinner, for beer.

The situation feels a bit like this (only for toilets):

See also an interesting blog that picks this idea apart a bit more
in terms of delivering and receiving value. 

So if you want free toilets, follow your heart and fight for it! But do your homework to find out what and who you are fighting. Because chances are they are not smarmy money grubbing men in flashy suites and flashier offices at all, but hard working down-to-earth folks want exactly what you do. They are likely equally as frustrated if not more so by the lack of government support. After all, they get to spend their careers being frustrated, while the chance is that your frustration only occurs during the times you are digging through your pockets for change to use the facilities. Most companies are members of the British Toilet Association, who are interested in exactly these sorts of problems (though not necessarily anti-fee themselves.) They're worth following, and sending your opinions to.

But these toilet providers also have to make a living. So cut them a bit of slack! Someone has to pay for you to pee!


***
This post is part of my Urinetown inspired series (though not associated with or endorsed by the creators)
The musical plays at St James Theatre 22 Feb - 3 May 2014.

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