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INDECENCY-Cruikshank

Pissing against the wind

HOT’s Sean O’Shea reflects on the closure of the Harold Place public toilet, discusses some of the political issues at stake and imagines an alternative future for this prime town centre site.

“George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a committed socialist and erstwhile Councillor for the London Borough of Camden, played a key role in the campaign for women’s public toilets. Without his efforts, and those of The Ladies Sanitary Association, women might still have to pee in the backstreets. It is sad that a Hastings Labour council has joined many other Labour councils across the land in closing down public toilets. We are on a journey back to Victorian times.

Visitor to Hastings

“A grey cloud hangs over me when I have to start my shift, regardless of the weather.” 

“A time will come when there’ll be nothing left to sell off and then we’ll all be in the shit.” 

Town centre toilet attendant.

***

Harold Place public toilet was closed on the first of April 2017 – Fools’ Day. To many locals, the council’s controversial decision to close it and sell off the site has been a folly. It is also a minor example of what is nowadays referred to as ‘the great British sell off.’

I spoke with the staff who worked there and who, between them, had clocked up nearly twenty years service at this and other facilities. They talked to me about the challenges they faced in trying to keep this neglected toilet clean. They spoke about its regular use as a place to shoot up, and of the tragic death there of a young girl caused by a heroin overdose. They described how, when emptying the rubbish, they faced the daily risk of needle stick injuries. They have done this work for the minimum wage and without any special allowances for the hazardous nature of the job. And now they face an uncertain future: a further possible short term contract or two elsewhere and after that? Well, who knows?

All of us who have used this public convenience owe these workers a debt of gratitude for their dedicated and thankless public service. But we are left with an uneasy question: have these and other workers become as disposable as the facilities which they have tried to maintain on our behalf? And who’ll be the next group of workers whose livelihoods may be imperilled in the name of austerity, efficiency or other depersonalised abstractions common in political management-speak?

Anger & protest – councils in crisis

People felt a sense of anger, loss and incredulity at the allegedly ‘crap decision’ to close this toilet, and as a result, petitions were launched and protests made. But to no avail.

Several years ago, 80% of council expenditure was financed by the central government revenue support grant (RSG). With this being reduced to 16% next year and big block funding due to be phased out by 2020, councils will be under increased pressure to become more entrepreneurial and make further cuts to basic utilities and services.

This raises questions about the meaning and scope of democracy, the sale of public assets, the nature of the public good, and how different and/or conflicting interpretations of the public good, are to be defined, debated and decided upon.

Given the mass disenfranchisement caused by the current electoral system and the failure of the Labour party to effectively address the problem, these issues are likely to become more acute and contentious over the coming years. (See my article: Labouring on.

Cracks in the temple of democracy?

Choosing to construct a public lavatory in the style of a Grecian temple was, in the view of one commentator, a folly from its very conception and a waste of a prime, town centre location. Folly or not, the link with ancient Greece is significant. We are indebted to the Greeks for our concept of democracy – and Harold Place and the area around Robertson Street was once the site of a short lived self-governing community. The land was eventually taken over by the Crown and the settlers were dispersed, but in the intervening period they had the temerity to declare themselves an independent republic, hence the title – ‘The America Ground.’ (See my article: The America Ground.)

Many people questioned whether the decision to close Harold Place toilet was democratic. If its future had been put to a vote, it was argued, a majority of townspeople would probably have opted for its repair and continued use as a public convenience.

However it was not put to a vote. People were ‘consulted’. Sceptics regard this as a euphemism for when the council, having already decided what to do, seek to give some semblance of legitimacy to decisions, which they consider themselves best qualified to make on our behalf.

As to democracy, maybe we still have something to learn from the resilient community which resided in the America Ground in the early part of the nineteenth century, and who bravely, albeit unsuccessfully, demanded the right to make their own decisions about the disposal of the land on which they lived and worked.

The use of citizen assemblies comprising people from all walks of life might be a more effective forum for making decisions on the use of ‘our public assets’ rather than relying on councillors to make these choices on our behalf. This would ensure that more people were actively engaged in the political process, had opportunity to learn about what’s entailed and, as a consequence, experience some ownership of the decisions made.

Future options for the Harold Place site

There are many talented musicians, writers and artists in Hastings but where can you buy samples of their work? There are talented wine makers, ciders makers, cheese makers and brewers of fine beers in Hastings and environs, but why isn’t there an assigned place where you can sample or purchase their produce?

Any town in the country which had the creative resources that Hastings has at its disposal would have a dedicated centre or ‘one stop facility,’ which celebrates and promotes its diverse character and creative talents and where, as you plan your holiday itinerary, you could have a foretaste of some of the many delights in store for you. So, why not use the Harold Place site to build such a facility and include, as part of the specification, a new luxurious public toilet?

The Robert Tressell Community Arts Centre

But from these ruins was surely growing the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Imagine a multi-purpose centre run by the Hastings creative community constructed on this site. Let’s call it the Robert Tressell Community Arts Centre. As well as providing work opportunities for people currently unemployed, the contributions of refugees, the homeless and other marginalised groups could be actively encouraged to help with the day to day running of this unique, inclusive co-operative.

The project could be financed by The Prince’s Trust. As the area was originally common ground bequeathed to the people by the forces of nature, and in 1837 unfairly appropriated by the Crown, such a social investment could be regarded as a symbolic gesture of recompense for a historical royal land grab (Who owns Britain’s Land. (See article in Labour Land: Who Owns Paper?) )

The building could be as high as regulations permit- no pun intended – and could comprise:

  • A spectacular roof garden
  • A meeting space for local community groups,
  • Transitional accommodation facilities as needed for project workers
  • Free trade cafe/shop stocking the best of local produce including books by local writers, CD’s by local musicians and art works by local artists.
  • Tourist information provided by volunteers active in the local leisure industry
  • And last but not least, the most luxurious public toilet facilities in the land, which Prince Charles himself, notoriously fastidious in his toilet habits, might not hesitate to use – all under the same roof!

Picture yourself there on a fine sunny day sitting in the roof garden enjoying a sparkling wine from one of our local vineyards, savouring a sea-food salad and listening to Polo Piatti’s beautiful CD, The Tides of Time. There are breathtaking views of the Stade to your left, Hastings Pier and Beachy head are visible through a light misty haze to your right, and opposite you in the distance, the occasional yacht and cargo ship sails imperceptibly across the horizon.

Perhaps you’ve died and gone to heaven, or succumbed to the hallucinatory effects of an illicit substance which, by some weird twist of fate, had accidentally ended up in the salad you’d just consumed at a run-of-the-mill local snack bar.

Toilet Closed

The ghost of Joan of Arc

To bring you back down to earth: a day after the toilet closed, I met a winsome, whey-faced young woman still protesting its closure. I drew her attention to the above notice affixed to the toilet gate, and assured her that it was definitely shut down and due to be sold off.

So, why was she was still protesting, I enquired.

Well, I suppose I’m just pissing against the wind, she replied.

 

 

SOS

Link to connected HOT article: Toilet Trouble.

Posted 13:01 Monday, Apr 24, 2017 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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