We started the @LDNLooCodes account thinking of it as the simplest kind of direct action: distributing codes on social media (and eventually in print for those without smartphones) to help people in the capital access locked toilets. Our first tweet explained that we would be sharing the codes for loos in various cafes around London as we got them. But the idea – an evolution from personal lists of bathroom codes we kept in our notebooks during our studies – quickly spread further than we could have hoped.
The account gained thousands of followers. We received scores of code submissions from all over London, and were inundated with messages of support. Fledgling accounts have sprung up in cities across the UK, from Cardiff to Edinburgh. Blown away, we worked quickly to consolidate the codes (along with the address, nearest tube stop, and the accessibility and gender-neutrality information of the loo in question) into an open-access spreadsheet. With so much interest, and astonishingly little criticism, we kept asking ourselves: how on earth are we the first people to have done this?
Two weeks on, it’s clear that our small operation has tapped into an issue in desperate need of being addressed. Britain’s legacy of public loos is a product of the “gas and water socialism” of the late 19th century, which saw thousands of ornate public bathrooms built into streets across the country. In 2020, the landscape is different. The incentives now are for cash-strapped councils to sell off or close – rather than restore, retrofit and reopen – these loos, a problem exacerbated by austerity.
According to the BBC, 1,782 public conveniences closed across the UK between 2006 and 2016. Most of these were chained and boarded up, due largely to the cost of keeping them open, while others have been sold off to be turned into swanky bars and other private businesses. Consequently, most functioning toilets are run, maintained and locked by businesses with no legal requirement to open them to people who aren’t customers.
The problem is everybody needs to use them, and many more urgently than others. Take those with health conditions, such as the 300,000 or so Britons living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, for whom the availability of a bathroom is a constant consideration. People with such conditions routinely fear venturing out, and meticulously plan their journeys along the routes of known public bathrooms (a limitation often referred to as a “loo leash”).
Consider older people, for whom moving around cities designed for those who are able-bodied is a formidable enough task before even considering bathroom access. Then there are those caring for children or those who are menstruating. A lack of bathrooms is a scourge of daily life. For many rough sleepers, who will have a hard time entering a cafe or bookshop let alone obtaining a code, it is easier to resort to the corners of streets we all use, and risk being fined.
Councils are not currently legally responsible for providing public loos. It is therefore easy for them to abdicate accountability, and cafe chains and others can pick up much of the slack. But this a cop-out. Given that chains such as Pret, Costa and Waterstones control the only currently viable network of loos, the first step must be for them to respond to our campaign not by doubling down on updating their codes (as some branches appear to have done so far), but by removing them altogether. Alongside this, government policy must change to ensure the statutory inclusion of public toilets in transport and city planning (the plans for Healthy High Streets, rolled out by Transport for London and some London boroughs this month, contain no mention of toilets). This is not a radical proposal; like clean drinking water, a wide and functioning network of accessible public toilets is vital to modern society. If publishing access codes brings us closer to that, then so be it.
• Merlin Jobst is a freelance writer and researcher. Sophie Bowley-Aicken works in publishing