Public toilets and public interest and what it means for scrutiny

It was a toilet a bit like this, just without the sign. By Phinphonephotos on Flickr

This weekend I’ve had my head stuck on working out what I can do next on the digital scrutiny project. And then I remembered a toilet.

I used to be a local reporter in north London. Each week, after we’d put the paper to bed, I’d walk round my ‘patch’. It was a picturesque place called Highgate. I’d often need what one might euphemistically refer to as a ‘comfort break’. There was only one public toilet in the middle of Highgate Village, so it became a er, regular calling point.

Sadly for me, it didn’t take all that long before the local council announced its closure as part of a series of budget cuts. This led to a few protests from locals who were unhappy to be losing a treasured local service, but no one seemed to think it was that interesting a local newspaper story.

A bit of a story I and another reporter wrote about the toilet, taken from teh Ham&High website.

Well, that is apart from me. I was enraged. My own personal pit stop had been taken away. Where would I be going to the toilet now? I furiously filed story after story about the loo closure. I think at one stage I got the nickname ‘toilet boy’. I even filed a Freedom of Information request asking for any correspondence about the lost loo.

Splash
The mickey-taking, however, stopped when my toilet-based Freedom of Information request got a reply from the council. Contained in a bundle of papers was a gem: a letter from the councillor in charge of Camden Council‘s environment department pleading with Mr Livingstone to give him the money needed to keep the toilet open, for fear its closure would hurt his chances of being re-elected. It made that week’s splash, if you’ll pardon the appalling pun.

Flushed with pride
I was obviously chuffed: a story I’d chosen to work on that others felt wasn’t important had ended up being quite, well a little bit, important. The councillor did lose the next election – along with quite a few other Labour councillors. The loo earned a reprieve, when the new council was elected and, under the name Pond Squre, is still in the list of Camden Council loos.

But, in truth, I didn’t deserve that much praise. I’d only pursued the story because it mattered to me. Its closure was a pain in the arse and I was annoyed. The moral of the tale, of course, is that it doesn’t take much at all to find out what’s going on, if you care and ask the right questions.

Bog standard
Sadly, local reporters are rarely the people who can do this stuff. They have to worry about deadlines, filling pages of copy and often don’t even live in the area they report on (I didn’t). That doesn’t mean they can’t do important work, but it’s citizens, the people affected, who need to take the lead, because it really matters to them.

So the next bit of the project will be to try to isolate a question – almost certainly about swimming pools on Where Can We Swim? – and pursue it with similar vigour to the toilet issue. I’ll have to care about it, but – importantly – I need to find others who do, too.┬áThere are a few that spring to mind – not least whether Birmingham really needs a 50m pool – but I’ll be trying very hard, very soon to work out what it is. Then it’s a matter of applying the skills I’m picking up through the project to see just how well this sort of stuff can work.

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