IF the penny hadn’t dropped already, it may be dawning on new council cabinet member Meric Apak what a hospital pass he has been given with the environment brief. He applied for a place at Camden Labour’s top table hoping, by all accounts, to get the housing gig. But he has ended up with bins and toilets (among other things).
This week, he began the unenviable task of fronting up the likely closure of public conveniences, cuts agreed when he wasn’t on the executive last year. What was quite interesting is that Cllr Apak has not immediately reached for the blame the Tories button. When I spoke to him on Wednesday, he said the public was tired of hearing Labour and the Conservatives – and local and central government – blaming cuts to public spending on each other, and he was ‘trying to make the best of a bad lot’.
As refreshing as any attempt to break this circular blame game may be, he may have a long, loud road ahead of him on issues like public toilets. There are people who never use them but still like the idea that they are there, and believe that they are somehow one of the most central parts of why we pay council tax. The policy which Camden Labour hope will mitigate the closures is the idea of paying businesses to open up their facilities. The council will offer them £800 or so, to cover the extra cost of cleaning up after the people who miss the bowl.
Yet this idea has not convinced the sceptics, nor has the idea that a kindly business will be rushing to sponsor some toilets in the same way companies chase the naming rights for football stadiums. As you will probably have seen from yesterday’s New Journal, Labour’s Julian Fulbrook, now returned to the backbenches, has already raised concerns about how the changes will work, particularly in the south of the borough, in practice.
In a message to Cllr Apak and some of his colleagues sent this week, he warned: “Understandably, benefactors are not really interested in sponsoring loos. Which is why we should pay for these from public taxes. All the best with ‘engaging with the business community’. Trying to establish the ‘Sir Richard Branson Virgin Toilets’ or the ‘Midtown Business Improvement Loos’ seems very unlikely to me.”
For those not keeping up at the back, ‘Midtown’ is the name the Evening Standard uses for Holborn and Bloomsbury.
Cllr Fulbrook also warned in a lengthy dispatch: “When our colleague Sally Gimson suggested that ‘anyone’ could use a pub or Prêt à Manger she was a bit taken aback when we noted that our Muslim constituents would be hardly likely to use the former, and that Prêt either do not have loos at all in their establishments here, or vet their customers before handing over the loo key – our ‘gentlemen with lager, cider bottles and evangelical sandwiches’ from LIF [Lincoln’s Inn Fields] would generally be most unwelcome in most such places.”