Sunday, 5 June 2016

Are we flushing away the idea of civic society?

In local government issues of state and the great ideological struggles tend to be conspicuous by their absence, it is all about the small things, the detail. The mundane run of things like where to situate a new taxi-rank or what colour to paint the benches in the local park.

Mundane they may be, but more often than not such concerns can point to important shifts in our society.

That is certainly the case with an issue that, on the face of things sounds mundane in the extreme, the decision by the council to demolish the recently closed public toilets on Crown Bank in Hanley.

They have in the past been the scene of anti-social behaviour and are now deemed not to be in keeping with the proposed £10million revamp of the area as a funky market for fashionable people who wear designer clothes and have hipster beards. In their place there will be a couple of TARDIS style pay toilets on Percy Street.

This instance of a public convenience becoming that little bit less convenient is just the latest in some 1782 closures of public toilets across the UK over the past decade. Local businesses aren't happy, their owners fearing being besieged by people wanting to 'spend a penny', without spending any actual money.

The North Staffs Pensioners Convention aren't pleased either, Chair Andy Day told the Sentinel on Wednesday 'everyone young and old, from disabled people to young mothers needs easy access to such facilities.' They've got some impressive form when it comes to fighting for access to toilets, last year they forced the council to back down over charging to use the facilities in the new bus station.

It's only a loo I hear you say, nobody is going to go to the barricades over something like that. Reasonably adequate alternative provision has been made and if we want clean, safe public toilets then we'll all have to get used to paying to use them.

Fair enough,but look at it another way and you could see this as yet another nail in the coffin of civic society. Remarkably given the public health implications councils have no obligation to provide public toilets, in the past most have done so though because it was the right thing to do.

It still is, the customers of the chic coffee shop or the funky pop-up boutique may be able to spend their penny elsewhere but pensioners and parents with small still need public conveniences that are, ahem, convenient. To deny them access plays into the continued dismantling of the idea that society is a shared endeavour; when we aren't really all in it together the most vulnerable people are the ones who lose most.

The council are, to be fair, doing their best to meet their responsibilities, but are being trapped between a rock and a hard place by the demands of balancing a budget. Last year they bought themselves time and popularity by using money from reserves to avoid making unpopular choices, this could be the first small step down a more difficult and divisive road.

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