In the first part I reported some of the highlights from the part of the PCC meeting on Tuesday which related to the Sure Start programme and the Lib Dem cuts to it, which have been fiercely contested by parents and opposition politicians alike.
The next two items on the agenda both concerned public toilet provision. If we get past the initial eye-rolling this sort of municipal responsibility often generates, there are important principles of financial responsibility and managerial competence involved. The city council spends around £540k each year on public loos, and as part of the cost saving across the council £200k has been cut from the budget. After a consultation it was decided to close 13 of the 25 facilities and introduce charging at 2. As is traditional with Portsmouth City Council, the decisions had effectively been taken before the consultation closed.
Conservative Cllr Luke Stubbs has collected a petition with over 1000 signatures on it protesting against the cuts, suggesting that charging be extended or that savings be made elsewhere in the city council budget. He spoke in support of reviewing the decision, pointing out that the closures did not seem always to reflect the scoring carried out by council officers to assess the state of each site. He referred amongst others to the closure of White Hart Rd, which has good accessibility for those with difficulties alongside the retention of Point Battery, which does not; and to Hilsea, which has been closed although it scored highly in terms of the scoring criteria and has a high usage figure.
He also pointed out that although the administration’s “community toilet” proposals are a good idea, they seemed to be developed only after the outcry about the cuts arose – it was not a considered part of the original policy. Indeed Cllr Stubbs said the timing of the community toilet scheme was “entirely a sign of panic”.
Having followed the controversy over the months myself the community toilet scheme has every appearance of being a panic measure, and that having failed to prepare it properly in advance it is no surprise that it has failed to win support from the business community. So far only Wightlink have agreed to allow their facilities at the ferry terminal to be used, which is welcome, but they are located some way from the current toilets which are to close. In fact they are already widely used by the public anyway, since there is no kind of barrier to entry.
Cllr Scott replied for the administration, and seemed to make the mistake of dismissing the petitioners at the same time as rebutting Cllr Stubbs. She also referred repeatedly to Cllr Darren “Saunders”, which he took with good grace, but it leaves the rest of us wondering about the conduct of the administration if Cabinet members can’t get each others’ names right. Cllr Stubbs reminded us that apart from the Pyramids the council had wasted millions on those useless electronic bus shelters a few years ago and has a long history of poor spending decisions, of which this year’s budget is another example.
Cllr Hunt spoke next, observing that English Heritage would be prepared to work with the council on works to the Point Battery loos, as they had done with the Square Tower and the introduction of a champagne bar at Southsea Castle. On the grounds that neither of these required structural alterations on the scale needed at Point Battery, it seemed a weak response, but as always he made it with great vehemence.
Cllr Winnington seemed to admit that the decisions had been taken to minimise their impact in Lib Dem-held wards (that would explain why “Conservative” Hilsea lost out despite being an excellent facility).
Conservative Cllr Park pointed out that it was a strange decision to mark the city council taking on new responsibilities for public health by closing public toilets. The Hilsea toilets were very valuable to the community as they are sited at a major bus interchange, and recent timetable changes increase the number of changes being made from one route to another there.
Cllr John Ferrett for Labour immediately pointed out that Cllr Vernon-Jackson talks about cuts imposed by central government in the council chamber as if it has nothing to do with him, despite being a “confidant” of Nick Clegg. The introduction of the community toilet scheme was “incompetent” and the cuts to the budget were anyway deliberately biased to hit services this year (when there were no council elections) to avoid making them next year (when there are).
Cllr Jones, who represents Hilsea, supported Cllr Stubbs’ petition. As well as the importance of the facility to bus users, Hilsea is an important outdoor leisure area with Hilsea Lido just coming back to life. Many First bus drivers use the public toilets rather than ones in the depot. First Hampshire had been approached about the community toilet scheme but had refused to contribute. Cllr Jones pointed out that the economics of charging were more robust than Cllr Scott had assumed when she dismissed the idea in her speech.
The debate carried on, with a general theme of Lib Dem councillors attacking businesses and community groups (Cllr Winnington singled out Hilsea Lido) for not joining in the community toilet scheme. First Bus were a target, on the grounds that some of their services are subsidised by PCC. Cllr Hunt committed to coercing council leaseholders to join in where he could. Cllr Andrewes went so far as to say that he’d close all the public toilets even if there was no pressure to make cuts!
Cllr Horne pointed out that there are capital costs to be incurred in making Paulsgrove community centre toilets available (£15-16k) and ongoing costs of maintaining them given the higher usage to be expected. The council’s own officers had stated that in their current state they were not suitable for wider use. Cllr Horne also asked why, if the administration.is subsidizing the Pyramids £20 per visitor, public toilets could not be supported.
The matter was put to a vote, and Cllr Stubbs’ call to review the policy was defeated by the Lib Dem majority.
The next item was another petition from Mr Mark Lewis of the Lodge Arts Centre in Victoria Park. His centre is faced with the problem that the public toilets in Victoria Park were lost when Victoria baths were demolished, and years later the University (who are supposed to be building on the site) are no nearer getting a new facility built. He asked the council to consider building a new facility in the park. He understood that there would be a cost, but such a facility would last 50 years. The toilet in the Lodge is made available to other park users, but it is not suitable for such large number of people, and there is no signage to the toilets in the Guildhall Square. Provision of public toilets is the sort of thing Portsmouth should provide if it aspires to be a City of Culture (an excellent point, but as I’ve written before, the Lib Dems are a bit confused on the issue).
Cllrs Hancock admitted the signage was poor in his reply, and promised to do something about it. He repeated his complaint about the petition procedure. Cllr Hunt repeated his view that council leaseholders like the Lodge should be compelled to provide facilities as part of ongoing lease renewals. He had a grumble generally in this debate and the previous one that community and charitable groups should make more of a provision to provide community toilets.
Cllr Jones pointed out that public toilet provision was a hard thing to expect the Lodge to bear, and that they had recently been threatened with a rent increase of over 100% by the adminstration. She asked why the administration had not required the university to provide interim toilet facilities, since the “Blade” hall block to go on the baths site was being delayed. The only answer to that question from the administration seemed to be “we don’t know what the university are doing”, which seems a rather loose way of treating a key development site in the city, and one which has lain empty for some time.
That debate ended with the council thanking Mr Lewis for his petition, but not committing the council to provide any facilities in Victoria Park.
I’d add to the criticisms of the administration’s toilets policy that community toilets in businesses or centres open only during daylight hours do nothing at all to provide a service to the “night time economy”. The total budget for public toilet provision is rather less than Cllr Hancock blew on pedestrianising Palmerston Rd, against the wishes of the community. For the sake of saving £200k a service is being lost which it will not be possible to replace in the long term if the council now sells off closed sites. This whole policy is another example of muddled thinking by the Lib Dems, and a “cut today and hope the voters forget next year” approach. It is at once both incompetent and dishonest.
The next item on the agenda was a deputation about the Pyramids from Mr Jim Fleming, which I will save for another chunk of blog on the Pyramids fiasco in general.