Lovely view – but where’s the loo?

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When I named this blog any link to toilet issues was far from my mind (despite the title) but on reflection I should have known that I’d be writing about toilets sooner or later. As a Highland Councillor toilets were never far away as a topic of conversation – and a potential problem!

Whether it was the lack of facilities in the Victorian Market in Inverness (seen to be a barrier to people visiting this gem), funding for building or refurbishment, management, cleaning or simply the increased demand from tourists on the few facilities, there were things to consider. I represented Aird and Loch Ness ward. A largely rural area but closely linked to the city wards which led to some interesting discussions.

When I was not re-elected one of the few positives was ‘well I don’t need to talk about toilets any more’! That lasted a day as, newly selected as the Parliamentary candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, my first piece of casework related to the non availability of toilets. OK when the ferry terminal was open but no facilities for the rest of the time. Sure, people visit west coast communities to catch the ferry but they also go for other reasons and they need toilets for more than a couple of hours a day!

I have 60 years of experience with Highland toilets – ever since my father bought a car and our annual holidays were to the Highlands. There were toilets, not always conveniently sited for our travels and withdrawal to moor or forest was occasionally necessary. Of course in those days there were fewer travellers, people did not commute to the city for work and in the course of a days travel on the single track roads you would be lucky to see four or five other vehicles. It was a different time and people had different expectations of rural travel.

So what about today? There are toilets. Some good & some not so good. Some managed by the council, some by local communities and some at tourist attractions  & elsewhere. 

Toilets are necessary. Closing them will be a disaster for local residents and tourists alike. Enhanced services are required including facilities for motorhomes and campers. Travelling widely in the countryside (& with necessary local knowledge) I know how to plan my journey, which facilities to use and which to avoid.

As a Highland resident I pay my Council Tax. I don’t ask much. Roads I can drive on. Functioning street lights where appropriate. water and sewerage facilities, refuse collection (green and blue bins at least), bus services and toilet facilities when I’m out and about. I don’t care who actually does these jobs provided they are done but I do think it’s the Council’s responsibility to see that they are done. The Council neglects the basic needs of the usually silent majority at their peril.

But here’s the problem. The Council seem to want to offload toilets and are expecting local communities to step up to the plate. In some cases this may be a reasonable option but it is by no means the answer everywhere. Local communities are reluctant and do not feel they have the information (or likely ongoing support) to do it.

We have a long history of developing local services, of communities stepping up but it’s not possible to do everything especially in small rural communities. In order to make a decision on what is possible communities need information and support to make it happen.

My mind goes back to discussions about Beauly. Beauly shouldn’t be a problem. A relatively large community, close to Inverness. But finding out what could be achieved was problematic. The amount of funding to help set up and support the ongoing service was unclear. Local residents varied in their enthusiasm to take on the task. Options were discussed but no progress made and when I last had discussions as a councillor we were back to square one as knowing the footfall was seen to be vital and the necessary counters could not be installed for several months. 

Beauly is a stopping off point for coaches taking cruise ship tourists out and about in the Highlands. The numbers rise yearly and will continue to do so. It really doesn’t need a counter to know the facilities are needed. You just have to sit in the square and watch the coaches pour in! But the questions remain, who will run them, what support is available, who will check they are OK and what about refurbishment – with the best will in the world they are not the newest of facilities.

Translate these issues to the fragile communities of the north and west coast and you can understand why there is a reluctance to take on the responsibility and some resentment at the ‘if you don’t (take them on) we’ll close them’ message.

The Highlands is a tourist destination and the marketing of Highland holidays is bringing more and more visitors to the area. Closing toilets risks destroying this industry which is vital to the continued success of the rural Highlands. It’s effectively ‘killing the goose laying the golden eggs,!

Sadly global development at the moment is of a move of populations to the cities. That is difficult to fight against but such city dwellers will need the rural areas to visit, holiday and recharge their batteries. They will choose to go to areas with the ‘facilities’ they expect. If toilets are closed this will not be the Highlands of Scotland!

So what is to be done?

Highland Council and local communities need to work together to maintain the services we have and find ways to improve. That’s working together not slagging each other off! Funding is needed to maintain and improve facilities. What about lottery funding, tourist development pots and getting together to search out other funding streams and ways to resolve the issue? As a member of the Council Redesign Board I argued for the (re) creation of a community facilitation role. People to help steer local groups and communities through the myriad of Council red tape to allow them to achieve what they wanted and needed locally.

Communities are reluctant to take on responsibilities when the believe they will be left without ongoing support. Getting local communities to take on management of local services can only work if the community sees the benefits and has the resilience (and confidence) to do it. Also it can only work if there are enough committed people to do it and this is asking a lot of small rural communities. If communities feel they are just getting problems dumped on them they are right to resist.

We need to go back to first principles and consider where we actually need toilets, are they there or do they need to be created or refurbished? Close what we don’t need and ensure we have those we do. How they are managed and by whom follows on from what is needed. 

The MP for Caithness Sutherland and Easter Ross wants the Scottish Government to fund toilets and is talking to NC500 organisers about the issue too. All well and good but he has missed a trick here. Local communities have not (yet) been invited to the discussions. Also he (or she) who holds the purse strings holds the power. Do we really want control moved further away from our local communities? It reinforces the current Government’s centralisation agenda. MSP support to save our toilets is however appreciated (from whatever Party!). However Party political points scoring helps no-one. 

I know the difficulties of producing a balanced budget but I do think the Administration (including members of my own Party) need to rethink this one. Not just providing the money in the short term but thinking long term about what is necessary and how it can be delivered. To do that local communities need to be involved as ‘one size does not fit all’ and we do need to understand that saving our loos may lead to cuts somewhere else. 

I was not a Councillor when the current budget was passed. Would I have voted for it? If I’m honest, I don’t know. I’ve voted against my group’s position before and hope I would have had the strength to do so on this occasion. What I do know is that I’d have been under severe pressure to toe the line. So be kind to those who did. Some are no doubt beating themselves up about it now and their decision will haunt them in the years to come – unless they rethink!

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