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  • Writer's pictureEmma Woods

Toilets, swimming pools and public parks

Flourish Economics has been a bit quiet over the last couple of weeks as I had a short break with my family to enjoy the last of the summer holidays. With two small children this meant we used public amenities most days and since becoming a parent it's brought sharply into focus the state of our public services. What's interesting to me is that many have probably forgotten that toilets, swimming pools and public parks are (or should be) basic public amenities, rather than offerings from private companies. Let's delve into this a bit.


Black and White photograph showing a men's public toilet from 1986
Men's public toilet, London 1986

Toilets. Probably something many able bodied adults don't think about too often, but if you have health issues, disabilities or small children you are probably acutely aware of the decline in public conveniences over the last decade. Public toilets were first proposed in the mid 19th Century, with the Victorians rapidly building toilets across cities and towns to improve sanitation but unfortunately the majority only catered for men. The lack of facitilies for women created a 'urinary leash' and limited how far women could venture from home, which many think was by design.


Unfortunately over a century later it's estimated that 1 in 5 people still restrict their activities and over half of adults restrict fluid intake due to concern over a lack of toilet facilities. Data on facilities is hard to find but it's estimated local authority maintained public toilets have declined from 3,154 in 2015/6 to 2,556 in 2020/1, a decline of 19% over just 5 years. Communities have come together to harness the power of the internet's hive mind to create toilet maps, including changing places toilets to support people with disabilities. Something that's striking about these maps is the regional differences* but also how limited facilities are in some areas. There are no changing places toilets** within the Peak District National Park, severely limiting the ability of people with disabilities and their friends, family and carers to enjoy this area of natural beauty.

 

Going to the toilet is one our most basic needs as a human. Given how much we talk about "economic progress" shouldn't we have reached a point where we can provide basic amenities for all, regardless of age, gender, disability and location?


 

Moving on to swimming pools. Pools, or more specifically bathing houses have been around for millenia with ancient Greeks and the Roman empire utlitising them as social places to relax, cleanse and meet. Similar to public conveniences, public baths rapidly increased in number towards the end of the 19th Century to support santitation of the working classes that lacked access to bathrooms, although the health and recreation benefits of swimming were soon recognised.


According to Sport England it remains one of the most popular physical acitivities in the country, but analysis shows over 400 pools have closed since 2010 with areas with the highest levels of deprivation seeing the greatest losses. Limiting access to physical activities has direct impacts on health and communities, with the pool closures since 2010 estimated to have led to £1bn in losses in health and wellbeing. Swim England estimate that by 2030 a further 2,000 pools could close. As someone with small children its noticeable how many swimming pools don't seem to have been designed with children and families in mind, with many lacking adequate family changing areas, uninspiring, dilapidated or frankly unclean pools and water verging on uncomfortably cold especially for babies and young children.

 

Public Parks

This blog (unwittingly) appears to have a common theme of public amenities championed by the Victorians which have since gone into decline, with public parks being no different. Following industrialisation, the working classes had very limited access to green space and wealthy Victorians recognised the potential benefits that access to public parks could offer their workers. There are over 27,000 public parks and green spaces across the UK with Covid-19 bringing access to green space into sharp focus for many.


Despite the large number of public parks across the UK, many are facing increasing financial pressure with research estimating a decline of £690m in funding between 2010 and 2021. Many local authorities have sought different forms of revenue to make up the shortfall in central government funding, with increased parking charges to closures of public parks for private events. A recent example is Hillsborough park in Sheffield which in recent years has hosted Tramlines festival. Local residents have been split as to whether the disruption to park access is worth it in exchange for the increased foot traffic for local businesses. Unfortunately this year heavy rain plus 40,000 festival goers turned the park into a mud bath, which 6 weeks later is still causing disruption for park users with large areas fenced off to the public. Whilst Tramlines is apparently liable to restore the park back to its previous state that does nothing for local residents who have lost access to their local green space and outdoor sports facilities. Meanwhile Sheffield Council have always been somewhat secretive as to the financial agreement for use of the park by a private festival.


Colour photograph of Hillsborough park showing significant damage to grassed area which is now very muddy.
Aerial drone footage of Hillsborough Park September 2023

A key question is whether the public should be excluded from public amenities in order for private companies to generate profit, especially if the amenities are damaged in the process.


 

Overall, looking at these three different public amenities brings a few things into focus;

  • Public amenities have declined rapidly over the last decade following austerity and the outlook for the future doesn't look promising.

  • Data on public amenities is patchy. I've had to rely on news articles and community gathered data for parts of this blog which is concerning given the importance of public amenities to public life and wellbeing.

  • We are increasingly reliant on the public sector to provide these amenities. This increases the chances of exclusion for marginalised groups, increasing disparity and inequality.

Whenever I discuss the state of our public services and amenities the immediate response is "but we can't afford to spend more". As discussed throughout this blog toilets, swimming pools and parks were introduced largely by the Victorians. I think most of us would agree that over the last 150 years we have experienced vast improvements in living standards alongside economic growth and technological advances that the Victorians couldn't have even imagined.

 

How can it be possible that despite our huge increases in economic prosperity since the Victorian era we have fewer and fewer public amenities?

 

Did this blog spark questions for you? Would you like to understand more about how economic thinking shapes the world around us and economic change could improve inequality, wellbeing and the fight climate change.

 


Notes

*Headline numbers likely reflect differences in population across different areas. A full analysis of public toilets per head would remedy this but data is patchy. Further research and a blog post to follow if I can identify appropriate data.

**According to the changing places website. Please correct me if I'm wrong.


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