Residents, tourists, and anyone on a night out or a long walk in Dublin have no doubt noticed the absence of public toilets in the city.
At last Monday’s meeting for councillors in Dublin’s South East Area, Labour Councillor Mary Freehill proposed a motion for a pilot scheme there.
It would mean offering “pubs, hotels, cafes and restaurants a discount off their rates if they agree that the public can have use of their toilets”.
It arises from the concern that “the disappearance of public toilets in Dublin is a source of great distress for many Dubliners and a very serious problem for people with medical conditions and very often young mothers”.
“The council have the power to give a discount on rates for early payment, so they should be able to do it for this scheme also,” said Freehill, on Tuesday.
She sees it solely as an opt-in scheme, and if premises have problems with difficult customers or members of the public entering their premises, that an issue for the Gardaí, she said.
The Question of Cleanliness
Public toilets are expensive to maintain, so the thinking is that this could reduce the financial burden for the council by using facilities that are already in place.
Some business owners had warmer reactions than others to the idea.
The Pot-Bellied Pig café in Rathmines used to let people use the bathrooms if they asked, but they’ve stopped doing that as much now, owner Lema Murphy said on Tuesday.
“We’ve found that sometimes the work involved after the person has gone to the loo isn’t nice, and it’s just not fair for a staff member who isn’t serving a cup of coffee and getting money for that cup of coffee which then will pay their wages,” she says.
From a business-owner’s point of view, she says, it’s tricky. “I do appreciate the public point of view, but it’s the same as any initiative; if people are given it, there’s going to be people who maybe take the mick with it as well.”
But she does think it would be beneficial for the public, particularly for children, pregnant women, and elderly people. “It is tricky sometimes to find somewhere to go to the loo – we’ve all been there.”
It’s the same central concern for Jack O’Keefe, a barista at Fía café in Rathgar. He sees the benefits, but there’s that question of the cleanliness of the bathrooms.
“Obviously, we’re all trying to save money in places; a reduction in rates would be great,” he said. “My concern would be that maybe people coming in to use the bathroom as a public bathroom might not be a respectful of the café and the facilities as one of our customers might be.”
There’s also the issue of queues. O’Keefe says he would worry about a customer’s experience if they’re left waiting a long time for a bathroom when they wouldn’t have been before.
Like Murphy, he says that if people walk in and ask to use the bathroom they wouldn’t say no. But they’re not in a busy area and they don’t have a lot of footfall.
In Ranelagh, the owner of Peperina restaurant says that staff know most of their customers, as it’s a small neighbourhood.
“We usually let anybody who wants to use the toilet as a facility. It’s not the city centre – busy with loads of people and tourists,” says Diego Cabrera.
It might be harder for businesses in the city centre, Cabrera says. “It is important to have bathroom facilities on the streets for people walking by, otherwise they rely on shops and restaurants. Otherwise you buy a coffee; even if you don’t want a coffee, you have to buy one to use the toilet – no.”
Is It Worth It?
With these concerns, how much of a reduction in rates would make it worthwhile?
O’Keefe says it’s hard to gauge. It’s not, after all, the question of cost that worries him.
As Murphy sees it, rates for small businesses are too high, and there needs to be a separate conversation around that. “To have somebody come in and use the loo, I don’t know if you could put a figure on it. I think rates in general need to go down.”
Freehill says that with so many places already offering this service to the public, they may as well be compensated for that. “The big difference is if we formalise it, that people can feel more confident in entering such premises solely to use the toilet,” she says.
That might please Cabrera, who already lets people use the facilities. “I think that rates and everything are a huge cost for us, and it’s a demanding business to run,” he said. “So if we could reduce these rates with a little bit of help, I’d be even happier.”