“Quick as lager turns to piss”

Zine Front Cover

‘Loitering With Intent: The Art and Politics of Walking in Manchester and Beyond’ at Manchester’s People’s History Museum, and have written an article about public toilets for an issue of their STEPZ  ‘zine called ‘Between the Rolleram a and the Junk Yard’ that has been produced by psychogeorapher and cultural theorists Dr Tina Richardson and artist Ally Standing.

The ‘zine will be available at the exhibition and includes articles and poetry inspired and informed by the works of John Cooper Clarke. And there came the problem. Mr Clarke, the “Punk Poet Laureate/Bard of Salford” occasionally sprinkles his verse with expletives, which clashed with the Museum’s family friendly policy, so his line from Beasley Street, “People turn to poison / As quick as lager turns to piss”, which was going to be the title of the my article, but we had to lose the “piss” and gain the “urine”.

I’ve written about public toilets before in Red Pepper magazine and Now Then Manchester and I still get pissed off whenever I go into town and need a pee.

I’ve previewed my other pieces in the exhibition earlier in my blog, here and here

toilets fanzine scan

If you prefer not to squint as you squat, the text of the article is here (original unedited version featuring “piss”…

“Quick as Lager Turns to Piss”: The privatisation of the smallest public space and a return to Victorian values David Dunnico

Queen Victoria’s statue sits on her throne in Piccadilly Gardens. Once, Mancunians could ‘sit on the throne’ below her, in the long-since closed underground toilets. The Victorians may have been prudish, but they understood bodily functions. Manchester may have been the world’s first modern city, but in the 21st Century going to the loo has gone back to relying on the Victorian style altruism of its merchants. The 1936 Public Health Act gave councils the power, but not the duty to provide public toilets. 80 years on this distinction is central to whether public bodies or the private sector should provide public services. Faced with cutting costs, councils have closed about half of the country’s public toilets.[1] Manchester closed all of theirs hoping the private sector would provide. A day out in Manchester proves they have not.

The Victorians introduced flushing public toilets at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851. Toilets were at one end of the sewerage system that they were forced to create when insanitary diseases such as cholera and typhoid started killing more than just the poor. It was a colossal engineering achievement and is still in use today. Manchester got its first public toilets in 1856 (there’s a commemorative plaque on the side of the Lass O’Gowrie pub on Charles Street). But 160 years later, the city’s streets are still awash with wee.

How different it was a decade ago. The Council was looking “for Manchester’s toilet provision to be perceived as best in class… and [to] maintain the dignity of all users regardless of ability”. They estimated the city needed 340 female, 180 male and 39 unisex free public toilet cubicles. They had just 20 female, 20 male and 7 unisex toilets – “a major shortfall.”[2]

When Manchester spent £155 million refurbishing Central Library/the Town Hall/St. Peter’s Square, they did include a much-needed fully accessible ‘changing place’ toilet. But even this is emblematic of the Council’s liking for grand city centre schemes and disregard for local services in outlying districts. For all the talk of ‘café culture’ and being a ‘world-class city’, Manchester contains some of the most deprived areas in the country. Notices on locked up closed down public toilets directed the desperate to the nearest public library. Ironically many of these closed as the refurbished Central Library reopened. The pattern was repeated when local swimming baths closed and the Aquatics Centre opened. When the Council closed the public toilets, it was presented as a reaction to the moral failing of the city’s people. “Public toilets tend to attract vandalism and other anti-social behaviour…”.[3]

If you are dying to use the loo, the only public facilities are in those other Victorian innovations, the municipal cemetery, public park, or railway station. Piccadilly Train Station is an example of a privatised company taking the piss out of a captive audience. The toilets at the station made Network Rail £435,651.30 in one year.[4]

Feeling desperate, Manchester tried a public/private sector deal with J.C. Decaux to operate pay toilets on the Council’s behalf. It ended up costing the council £31 for every person who spent a penny.[5] The very first street-sited ‘public washroom’ in Victorian London couldn’t turn a profit either. Meeting human necessities is sometimes like that.

So in 2010, Manchester followed the example of other councils and launched a “City Loos scheme”. This aimed to persuade shops to take down their “Toilets are for the use of patrons only” signs and replace them with purple “You’re welcome to use our facilities” notices. At its launch, Councillor Pat Karney was pictured peering through a toilet seat, reckoning the scheme would eventually have “about a 100 toilets available…”.[6] They launched with eight and now have seven. One member, the Arndale Shopping Centre (once dubbed ‘superloo’ after its tiled facade) only stopped charging for their loos when the Trafford Centre opened and didn’t. Another ex-charger was the disastrous Triangle re-development of the Corn Exchange. Following its re-re-development as a posh version of the Arndale’s food court, they got rid of the public toilets altogether – although the Council still advertises them as being a member of the scheme. The participants are the places people have always nipped to if they needed the loo. All the City Loos scheme has done is confirm that the private sector will not provide a service if there is no profit to be made. Even meeting a basic human necessity involves spending a penny. We are more Dickensian than Victorian.

Cities have become places dedicated to working, shopping or consuming. The Council now calls its citizens “customers”. The big idea for regenerating post-industrial Manchester fuels people’s need for toilets. When the shops shut and the City Loo members close, the nighttime economy of restaurants, clubs and bars kicks in (or kicks off). One of them – The Temple on Great Bridgewater Street – was actually converted from a public toilet. When these close the streets are awash with people relieving themselves: “quick as lager turns to piss”[7]. The council started plonking plastic pissoirs in Piccadilly Gardens. When full, they were transported to Sheffield to be ‘decanted’. The experiment cost £23,000 and ended in 2011 without being evaluated.

So people have two options. Trying to get into a bar after closing time to use their toilet, or following police advice to “tie a knot in it”.[8] It’s not against the law to urinate in the street in Manchester, but Greater Manchester Police classed it as a public order offence and in one six month period issued 124 £80 fixed penalty notices. So far, none of Manchester’s councillors have emulated South Lanarkshire Council’s deputy leader, who after voting to close the public toilets, was fined £40 for urinating in the street.[9]

David Dunnico is a documentary photographer from Manchester.

[1] Daily Mirror, Stephen Hayward and Phil Cardy, Scandal of lost public toilets as council cuts leave us with nowhere to go, 1 August 2015

[2] Manchester City Council Environment and Operations Support Services, Manchester Improvement Programme PUBLIC TOILETS Service Improvement Project, Project Mandate, 2005

[3] North West Place website, Stores join City Loos scheme to the relief of shoppers, 6 July 2010

[4] Manchester Evening News, Charlotte Hughes Spending a penny adds up! Toilet charges at Manchester Piccadilly rake in more than £400,000 in one year, 13 January 2015

[5] Manchester Evening News, Jennifer Williams, Spending a penny in an ‘autoloo’ costs council tax payers £31, 11 January 2013

[6] BBC, Manchester becomes first UK city to provide ‘City Loos’, 6 July 2010

[7] John Cooper Clarke, ‘Beezley Street’, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, 2012

[8] Manchester Evening News, Jennifer Williams, A wee fine: Council urged to hand out fines to people urinating in public, 29 October 2013

[9] Daily Telegraph, Councillor who announced closure of public toilets fined for urinating in street, accessed on line on 17 March 2016


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