‘Closing loos in a tourist town is total madness’
I HAVE an early memory of standing outside Coney Beach fairground when a man approached my mum with a charity box.
They chatted, she popped in some change and afterwards I asked what that was all about.
“They’re collecting money for a swimming pool,” she said.
It was the late 1980s, when Porthcawl had a fun pool in the caravan park full of slides and toadstools to clamber up and two slimy rock pools on the seafront, but no public pool where us kids could learn how to swim.
The campaign had already been going for years, with residents at one point apparently invited to pay a shilling a week into the fund.
Not long after the millennium, just short of £40,000 was sitting in the pot but it was decided to donate it to another cause when it became clear the ambition was never going to be realised.
Then, in 2010, to astonishment, grand plans for a maritime centre were unveiled, complete with a public swimming pool.
Those plans went quiet too but, after a long silence, they’ve now resurfaced with the additions of a micro-brewery and wine bar. But the pool has been downgraded to a training facility.
But there’s been no big public outcry or flurry of letters to the Gazette.
Partly because, after four decades of failed regeneration schemes, it’s no real surprise.
And now there’s a bigger crisis – the town’s public toilets are destined for closure.
The Grade II-listed loos have served the high street since 1924, according to its masonry.
But, like every council chamber across Wales, tough, unpopular decisions are being made. Who would want to be a councillor right now?
It’s austerity, cry the borough council, who have passed the buck onto town councillors by saying they have to take on the toilets or they shut.
The town council, already in discussions to take over the playground toilets, say they simply haven’t been given enough notice, leaving Porthcawl with the prospect of a line-up of Elvis impersonators relieving themselves along the revamped Tarmac beach.
It’s absolute madness that a tourist destination won’t offer such a basic facility – and traders already suffering a decline in footfall are unsurprisingly furious.
It’s the final straw. Within 48 hours, thousands of locals signed a petition and persuaded TV crews to go along and film their protest.
The local authority says it needs to save £30m in three years “to protect services for our most vulnerable residents”.
But it’s precisely the most vulnerable who will be affected by this. It’s not just the elderly who can’t cross their legs to wait, but those with medical conditions like IBS and Crohn’s disease, those with mobility issues, pregnant women and children.
Then there are mobile workers like police officers and delivery drivers, carers and homeless people who rely on them.
It’s all very well asking shops and businesses to open their loos to the public, but can they facilitate a parent with a pram who needs to change a baby’s nappy?
And a lot of people just won’t feel comfortable asking when they’re not a customer.
Closing toilets discriminates and this has been known for some time. Six years ago the Welsh Assembly held an inquiry into the implications of the declining number of toilets.
The committee, chaired by Mark Drakeford, found a “strong” public health case for provision and recommended further investigation of local authority provision.
They found inadequate facilities had a knock-on effect on the NHS as people effectively became prisoners in their own homes and were more likely to become immobile, isolated, ill and depressed. It also led to a rise in street-fouling.
Prof Drakeford wrote to the health minister at the time, Lesley Griffiths, who thanked him for raising the profile of an issue “that affects the health, quality and dignity” of people’s lives.
The result was inclusion in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 which gives local authorities until next May to publish a local toilets strategy, but it has come a little too late. More than 100 public toilets in Wales have closed in the last five years.
Bridgend is eyeing up a saving of £100,000 by offloading the loos, combined with the closure or introduction of fees at up to five others in the borough.
What makes it all the more bitter to swallow for locals is that this is a drop in the ocean compared to the £11.3m that has been committed by Bridgend council to the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal – a regional fund that Porthcawl sits at the very fringe of.
Many people living in the town have been waiting most of their lives to see regeneration and were once even promised a 400-berth marina that would be the biggest in the Bristol Channel.
While a lot of places are fighting Tesco-isation, expectations here are so low that a new supermarket seems like a victory.
Now, as projects appear to finally be in motion to make the resort a more attractive place to live and visit, it’s such a shame that those who have to plan their journey around toilet facilities very soon could be leaving Porthcawl out of it.
Protesters gather outside Porthcawl’s public toilets which are threatened with closure