Shaftesbury Town Council has committed to refurbishing the Bell Street public toilets. And councillor Tim Cook says that smarter, refreshed facilities should be ready for early in 2019.
“Our hope is to get this work completed by the start of the new tourist season in early spring,” said Tim. The decision should come as a relief for visitors. Across the southwest, many cash-strapped local authorities in tourism areas have been closing their loos. Cornwall has shut 231 conveniences since 2000.
On Tuesday night, STC Business Manager Brie Logan told councillors that using the town’s public toilets did not currently offer, “an experience that was in keeping with the Shaftesbury brand,” because of their poor state. Cllr Cook agreed. He said we need to offer better facilities.
“We are a tourist town. We have attractions that people come to see such as Gold Hill and the recent carnival. We want to have visitors come to the town. That’s how we generate money. When people get off the buses in the coach park in Bell Street, one of the first things that they’re possibly going to need is the loo. Some people do not like walking into a pub and using the toilet. That’s fine, of course, so long as the publican has no issue.”
The Town Council is subsidising these public toilets and Tim says that’s fine, because the conveniences are part of our tourism offer. “Part of our council precept is being used to upkeep these but we can take away the fact that we are providing a great atmosphere and facilities for visitors.”
The tourism-focussed Visitor Experience Advisory Committee has recently asked Shaftesbury Town Council to make like-for-like repairs on the loos, but following expert inspection, the task is greater than previously thought. A new ventilation system is required. The current kit isn’t good enough and that’s said to be why the toilets smell.
Although the facilities were designed for heavy-duty prison use, two out of the three general public use toilets have become unhinged from the wall. That means that just one public loo is working. There is a fourth cubicle, but it is reserved for disabled users and can only accessed by radar key users. That pod remains in relatively good condition and it doesn’t need to be renovated.
On Tuesday night, councillors also discussed a range of additional facilities that could be introduced during the refurbishment. Members liked the prospect of semi-automatic loo flushing. Apparently not every user does flush. There was some debate over an automated locking system and Town Clerk Claire Commons wanted Dorset Police’s opinion on that. She said that she’s been asked to ‘lock down’ the loos with the shutters when officers were investigating drug-related activity.
Shaftesbury Mayor, Piers Brown, was strongly opposed to the addition of timed water jets, which would spray the cubicles after their nightly closure. Companies offer these to discourage overnight occupancy. “Penalising people who don’t have a roof over their head is not acceptable,” said Piers. Tim Cook agreed. “What we have to do needs to be sensitive to all of the community. We realise that there are issues with the toilets which we need to overcome,” said Tim.
People use the term ‘spend a penny’ when they refer to a toilet visit but the notion of charging 20p for a pee wasn’t universally popular. Brie Logan said that experts advised that was the going rate. It’s 50p at Waterloo and the consultants say that users would rather pay for a better experience.
A charge could offset refurbishment costs or paying for extra cleaning. The council could even install a unit that accepts card payments for toilet use, although there was some confusion over the term ‘contactless charging’. One councillor mistakenly believed that an in-loo phone charger was being suggested.
Luke Kirton correctly understood the jargon. He opposed its introduction, arguing that not everybody has a contactless card. “Whilst the technology might be there, the rest of the world has not caught up,” he said.
Meeting Chairman Tim Cook appreciated the arguments for and against charging for the loo. “It’s all very well charging for payment until somebody really needs to use those toilets but they don’t have any change or any method to pay straight away. I’m sure we have all been in that situation. We don’t want to make a profit from these. It’s a basic human right. If it can be shown that charging can offset a certain cost then, as prudent users of public money, we need to look it. Do we charge and make sure that the money is put into upkeep or do we keep it free and make sure that everybody in the community can use them when their need arises?”
The Council will request quotes for a vandal proof payment system. They’ll debate whether to install one in January, when they have received written quotations.
It was suggested that the Bell Street loos could revert to gender-specific cubicles, with one designated for men and two for women. Lester Taylor cautioned that ‘could become a political hot potato’ and ‘whatever we do is going to be wrong for someone’, although the Town Clerk advised that De Montfort University has made all their loos non-gender specific. Again, it was felt that those details can be decided in the future once the project costs are known. “We can upgrade the facilities then decide who can use which part of it,” said Tim.
Council staff had also looked into the potential for reducing the number of cubicles, allowing half of the building to be split off and turned into a commercial property. That would cost at least £100,000. They also researched moving the toilets to a new site, releasing the Bell Street toilet block for commercial use, but that idea was also considered to be a bigger project, which could be revisited in the future.
Councillors are expecting this refurbishment to keep the loos in an attractive state for the medium term, around 8 to 10 years.