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UK public toilets fail to meet basic needs, study finds

Media centre home > News > UK public toilets fail to meet basic needs, study finds

Issued:24/05/18

Public toilets across the UK are violating the basic needs of many, a new report by Sheffield Hallam University has found.

In 2015, 'Around the Toilet' a cross-disciplinary, award-winning, arts-based research project set out to determine what makes a safe and accessible toilet space. Three years on, the project, led by Dr. Jen Slater from Sheffield Hallam University, with support from Dr. Charlotte Jones, and funded by the AHRC Connected Communities programme, has found the UK needs to increase and diversify public toilet provision. 

The authors spoke with a wide range of people including those with certain health conditions, disabled people, parents, and queer and trans people, who are all disproportionately impacted by inadequate public toilets leaving many feeling restricted, unsupported and discriminated against.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society where current toilet provisions prioritise some peoples' needs at the expense of others. Our findings suggest some of our most marginalised citizens are made to feel socially excluded," says Dr. Slater, a reader in education and disability studies within the Sheffield Institute for Education.

The report  highlights how peoples' lives are restricted in a range of ways; stopping some from leaving the house, and leading others to lose their jobs, avoid food and drink, or refrain from taking day trips and holidays.

The study comes in the wake of austerity measures that have caused closure of public toilets across the country. In some locations, this means the only suitable option is private sector toilets (typically located in pubs, railway stations, shopping centres) that require a financial purchase in exchange for use. Many people are forced to choose places to visit based on the accessibility of their toilets, and in doing so highlight the inaccessibility of the majority of these venues. 

For instance, for many disabled people, a lack of physical access into the venue itself and/or a lack of an accessible toilet on entry can make the toilet unusable. For trans people, toilets may be unsafe due to experiences of violence or hostile environments. And, for those people with certain religious and cultural beliefs, they may be unable to enter toilets in locations that serve alcohol.

People also shared stories about not drinking or eating all day and ‘holding on’ in order to avoid visiting the toilet. This meant that some avoided using the toilet for up to 18 hours a day. 

The authors' worked with community partners, urban planners and architects to consider the larger implications of the research and the potential for public impact for improved built environment design and improved toilet access. The findings stress the inherent problem with the one-size-fits-all model of toilet provision, the unsafe and hostile environments many people experience, which can impact some people more than others. 

Dr. Slater added: "This project raises much bigger issues, about who is included and excluded from public space, and who is valued in our society. The stories we heard show the daily reality for many people whose lives are restricted and disrupted because they are unable to access appropriate toilets away from home. The government and local councils have a responsibility to ensure safe access to public toilets for everyone."

The study concludes toilet provision is rarely prioritised in local authority budgets, and often given to the least experienced architect to deal with at the end of the design process. Yet, the research shows, a lack of access to adequate toilets away from home can result in:

  • An inability to leave the house, restricting access to wider environment and community, leaving and losing jobs. In other words, not having access to suitable toilets impacts upon people’s fundamental ability to live their lives.
  • Restrictions upon bodily functions, including reducing food and drink and ‘holding on’ for long periods of time, all of which can have serious health implications.
  • Feeling socially unrecognised, unworthy, and unwelcome if toilets are unsafe, do not meet your requirements, or recognise your identity.

For press information: Andrea Ruttan in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 3244 or email A.Ruttan@shu.ac.uk