LONDON, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- "Spending a penny" in Britain is becoming harder with more than half of the country's public toilets closed in the past few years.
Even more toilets face closure in the next few years as town and city councils face average 20 percent cuts in grants from the national government, Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association (BTA), told Xinhua on Wednesday.
The British expression of "spending a penny" dates back to the days when entering a water closet cost a penny, while men using urinals did not have to pay. Generations of women complained they paid, while the opposite sex could "spend a penny" or use a public toilet without paying.
PROBLEM OF DISAPPEARING TOILETS
While the law in Britain permits local councils to provide public toilets, there is no obligation for them to make such provision, Martin said.
"There is no statutory duty on local authorities in Britain to provide public toilets, so with spending cuts councils are giving priority to services they are legally required to offer. That puts public toilets at risk and we expect to see more closing," he said.
The law making urinals free was only repealed a few years ago, said Martin, paving the way for charges to be introduced.
Even though there is now provision for councils to charge a fee for people to visit public toilets, it has not halted their decline.
"One problem is that councils have to pay business rates on toilets and this makes them uneconomic. We have been fighting for the government to lift these charges," said Martin.
The problem in Britain is that a lot of public toilets were built in back streets, unlike parts of mainland Europe where they are often in prominent, visible locations, Martin noted.
BTA research has shown that people are more likely to head to shopping or leisure areas that offer good quality public toilets.
"Some local authorities are supporting Community Toilet Schemes with local businesses offered incentives to allow people to use their toilets. This has helped, but there are some issues, such as the facilities only available during opening hours of the businesses," Martin said.
IMPACT OF DISAPPEARING TOILETS
Government reports have highlighted the impact of disappearing toilets.
One of the leading organizations representing the elderly told a committee of MPs that more than a million pensioners felt trapped in their own homes because of their fear of needing a toilet when venturing outside. It caused isolation among the elderly and also contributed to health problems if older people did not exercise on outdoor journeys.
For people with disabilities or illnesses that require frequent or urgent toilet visits, the situation is even worse, the parliamentary report said.
"Visitors to Britain can easily be put off by the state of our toilets. In the days of Queen Victoria when plumbing was introduced on widescale basis, we built public toilet facilities that were the envy of the world. Our attention to sanitation saw an end to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Now we are like a third world country in some places with the lack of facilities," Martin pointed out.
"We are spending billions on improving buildings such as the Houses of Parliament, yet our toilets are either closing down or falling down," he said.
CHINA SETTING GOOD EXAMPLE
Martin praised the work being done in China to dramatically improve public toilets, and make the facilities welcoming for people.
Speaking of China's ongoing "toilet revolution," he said: "The Chinese president is to be congratulated for his stand on toilets, and for realizing how important an issue it is to a civilized society. We would like the British government and the prime minister to follow his lead and make this an issue here. This is something we have been calling for 20 years. If China can do this, then so should we in Britain."
Instead of following China's example, Britain faces more people soiling streets as they find fewer and fewer facilities to "answer the call of nature," said Martin.
Despite national politicians calling for more and improved toilets, their decline will continue, Martin noted.
One British city that sees the importance of public toilets is Oxford. The university city is currently the holder of the Loo of the Year Awards, a title for the best public toilets in an annual competition.
Against the national trend, Oxford City Council invested more than 800,000 U.S. dollars in its toilets, with 10 toilets winning a gold standard category.
Councillor John Tanner, the city council's board member for Cleaner, Greener Oxford, said: "In 2012, the people of Oxford told the city council they wanted their money invested in the city's public toilets. The city council launched a program to improve the public toilets and now, you could say, we are flushed with success."
Martin also cited the experience of public toilets in countries such as Germany and France.
"People in those countries pay one euro to use public facilities, and they are rewarded with immaculately clean and decent facilities. In Britain, sadly, we seem to have moved backwards with many of our toilets again looking squalid. We will continue to press the government to address this problem and recognize the benefit and the importance of good facilities," he said.