Saving public toilets – a rural community experience 

Photo by Simon Arthur on Unsplash
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In this Q&A interview, LGIU’s Freya Millard chatted with Mary Peart, Manager at Kinlochewe Community Toilets, about her experience purchasing and running an ex-local government-owned public toilet block in rural Scotland.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I moved to the area five years ago to retire after working in Hong Kong as a teacher. I was loving it for about six months before I realised I needed something to keep me occupied. And so low and behold, I took over a set of public toilets – that’s it in a nutshell!

What is Kinlochewe village and its local community like?  

Kinlochewe is a very focal point for a lot of nearby villages because you pass through it to get to Inverness or Dingwall for shopping, medical appointment, culture and everything else. It’s got the basic but limited services – like a petrol station, shop and hotel – but it’s a very small quiet community that everyone uses to ‘stop off’.

One of the things we found when we first took over the toilets was the local community started to develop a bit more. At the time, we didn’t know how the finances were going to work out so we started fundraising and people were really enjoying getting involved and supporting something by their community, for their community.

How exactly did you get involved with Kinlochewe Community Toilets in the first place?

So, I live in a tiny village about 20 miles away from Kinlochewe and a 45-minute drive. That means it’s a two-hour trip to Inverness and of course, you have to stop somewhere! So, Kinlochewe public toilets were pretty important to me. Back in 2018, I had a friend on the community council who said there were talks of the Highland Council closing a lot of local toilets. In the end, they did actually close Kinlochewe but there was a massive outcry and thankfully, they reopened them for the rest of that year’s tourist season while discussions were still ongoing. But come October, it was announced that they would permanently be closing.

The message was ‘if you want them open, do something about it’. So over a wee dram (a shot of Scotch whisky) one evening, my friends and I decided to see what we could do because we couldn’t have these toilets close. The next day, I phoned the Asset Transfer Department of Highland Council, who were wonderful and supportive, and they put me in touch with the Community Ownership Support Service. From that moment on, it was just feet barely touching the ground. By April 1st 2019, we opened the toilets again on a lease, and in 2020 we actually took ownership – we haven’t looked back since!

Credit: Kinlochewe Community Toilets

What was that process of taking ownership from the local council like? 

I think because it is what the government wanted to happen, we found the whole thing so easy and seamless. Other organisations have reported nightmare situations, but for us it was brilliant. We just had to fill in the forms and do the paperwork to show we had the right constitution, insurance etc., and to show that we were a viable, sustainable company that had the support of the local community – which was very easy to do since public toilets is a huge community need.

What has your experience of running a public toilet been like overall?

I’ve become a toilet bore but it’s actually been great! There has always been a challenge that keeps you on your toes outside of running the toilets. The learning curve was massive because I went from being a teacher to suddenly running a company – and even a tiny one requires all the same paperwork. I can’t help thinking that with so many companies now taking over public toilets, there ought to be a little more transfer of information and sharing of experience.

Overall, the first year was just new and exciting with something happening every week, we were constantly trying to insure we had the money because we didn’t know what the costs were going to be. And then, of course, the second year we went into Covid lockdowns and suddenly had to close from March to the end of May. That was challenging because a lot of the income just dried up and then suddenly we were overrun because we’re in a stunning area of Scotland’s NC500.

That is a really good point! When we think about Covid, we often think about the lockdowns and forget the other extreme of when everything opened back up.

Absolutely! We were just going through supplies like there was no tomorrow. Of course, it did thankfully mean that income was up a bit because we depend largely on donations.

We’ve now settled into a bit more of a routine of managing the toilets, but at the same time, we want to improve them. We’ve applied and been awarded a variety of grants, such as the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Grant to demolish and rebuild – although we’ve withdrawn now as we felt it was just inappropriate to spend that much money on a new block of toilets after Covid. We’ve also used the Coastal Communities Fund, the Ward Discretionary Fund, the North Highland Initiative and the Scotland Loves Local grant.

(Interview continues below)

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Why do you feel like this charity endeavour of running a public toilet is a worthy cause? 

Need, essentially. We’re an ageing community up here and a lot of people need to use those facilities. We have an accessible toilet and it’s one of the few in the area that you can actually drive up to. For that reason, some people come specifically to use our toilets because of the access. To me it’s not charity per se, it was a need that needed to be addressed in my local community.

Do you find there are any additional challenges to running a public toilet in a rural area? 

There are definitely challenges. For example, people tend to not have coins in their pockets anymore and want to pay online but because of the faulty signal where we are, it’s not a viable or affordable solution for us.

Another issue is recruiting staff, we currently have one lady in the village who cleans them five days a week in the summer, while I do the other couple of days on a voluntary basis. It’s not a very attractive or glamorous job so when we advertise for more staff, there’s no uptake. In the societies out here, you’ve got a high percentage of retired people who are not looking for work and so finding people willing to do it is challenging. One of my worries for the longer term is volunteer fatigue because there’s a very small number of people actively involved. Although a lot of people want to see it continue and support us, the actual hands-on involvement is quite small and that’s been made even more challenging cause of the sparsity and nature of our population.

What have been some of your big successes or highlights so far? 

Quite often you get little notes in the honesty box with people expressing how great the facilities are and how much they value them. Those are tremendous successes each time you get one of those, it’s lovely. It’s also been great to get two very big grants awarded to us. We’re a tiny organisation so to have that support and faith put in us is very touching.

We’re proud that we’ve kept the toilets open and they’re now open 24/365. They always used to be closed during the winter but because of things like changing climate and the NC500, the tourist season doesn’t stop now. Previously, locals were finding that visitors were turning up to the closed toilets and doing their business behind them and that was negatively impacting the village and businesses.

How has the local community taken to the change of ownership and constant availability of public toilets?

It’s certainly been well received, especially the fact they are clean. It seems utterly pathetic but one of the first things we did when we opened was to make some raised planters and floral displays outside. It has a massive impact because if someone cares enough to do that, then they care about the toilets and that is really appreciated.

As someone who has taken over the running of these public toilets from your local government, what are your feelings about that responsibility being shifted onto the community? And do you have any resentment?

Although I’m glad we’ve done this and the toilets can keep going, I feel it is a shame and my worry is you end up getting a proliferation of little companies like ours, but how sustainable are we in the long-term? This is great because we have the enthusiasm of having set it up but it’s not exactly a glamorous thing to do. So it is a shame they can’t fund them fully, but they just can’t. So the reality is, let’s work together to make sure they stay open. We do get funding from Highland Council from a ‘comfort scheme’ which is a small monthly income.

In terms of resentment, yes. When we started a lot of people were saying ‘the government should be doing this’ and we would say, ‘well, we’ve been down every single avenue and they are still going to close. Do you want us to do something about it or not?’ And that’s what we’ve done. I think overall, the resentment around our toilets has gone now.

Do you think this sort of hybrid ‘community-run with funding support from local government’ is the way forward for public toilets?

I think it’s probably got to be. There are so many other demands on government funding but we’ve certainly got to keep the toilets open because it is a fundamental need. This is a good way forward.

What would you like to see happen next? Do you have any goals for Kinlochewe Community Toilets? 

We’ve got this grant to refurbish them, which means knocking down the insides and changing them over so we can also provide a shower. We’re moving forward on this but gosh it’s been snail’s pace because of the difficulty getting builders at the moment. If we provide services like showers and chemical waste disposal, we get more donations through tourism which then helps us to keep those facilities open for the locals – so it works two ways.

The problem is, we expect tourists to behave responsibly and empty their chemical waste correctly but there are no facilities available for them. We felt the grant was an opportunity for us to also help the local environment and get tourists into the village to spend their time and money in local businesses – it’s a multi-faceted plan and our aim is to improve and keep improving.

Lastly, what is one thing you wish more people were aware of when it comes to public toilets? 

I think generally, people almost need to know how much it costs to run them. It is not cheap, this is a tiny set of public toilets and it costs £7,500 a year – and that’s just the running costs and not all the work involved too. So, appreciate them essentially.

And is there anything you wish local government specifically were more aware of?

For the government side of things, I just wish they’d appreciate a little bit more what a fundamental need it is. For the elderly in particular, not having access to them keeps people at home and they are scared to go out.

Find out more about Kinlochewe Community Toilets – Community Out West here.

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