COMMENT  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Exeter could do better - was there no alternative to closing so many public toilets?

Exeter City Council did not need to close thirteen public toilets to balance the books. The money to keep them open was available in reserves, but no mention of this option was made during public decision-making by councillors or officers.

EXETER CITY COUNCIL   PUBLIC TOILETS   PUBLIC HEALTH   ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY  

Exeter City Council’s decision to close thirteen of the city’s public toilets was reported by Exeter Observer on 11 June. However inadequate the closure process itself, we accepted that the decision was driven by the need to save £60,000 from the council’s 2019/20 budget in order to balance the books. Subsequent document disclosures suggest the situation was not so straightforward.

On 27 June the council’s Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee reviewed spending across the council for 2018/19 and looked at forward pressures in 2019/20. Included in the revenue spending report was a “requirement for significant supplementary budgets in 2019/20 as the Council has identified at the end of the year a number of revenue budgets that have not been spent but where a commitment is required in the following financial year”.

Exeter City Council public toilet closures budget cuts - work in progress Exeter City Council budget cuts - work in progress

These carried-forward budgets included £34,000 for public relations promotion for the new leisure complex, £112,000 for the demolition of Clifton Hill sports centre, £125,000 for staffing, and £750,000 for “Greater Exeter” planning work.

Excluding spending on the council’s own housing, the additional budgets amounted to nearly £1.4 million, found from Community Infrastructure Levy (6%), earmarked reserves (33%) and the General Fund working balance (61%). The working balance is the amount set aside as a final contingency for unanticipated fluctuations in the council’s spending and income and which Exeter City Council has set at a minimum of £3 million.

At the start of the 2019/20 financial year the General Fund working balance was £4.4 million. By the time the supplementary budgets had been factored in, it was down to £3.5 million, still £0.5 million above the minimum level.

The argument used by the council to support the closure of thirteen public toilets in order to save £60,000 a year was that there was no alternative: the savings had to be made to balance the budget. As £500,000 remains in the reserve, the £60,000 could have been taken from there while still leaving the working balance £440,000 above the set minimum. That would still have met the requirement for a balanced budget.

But at no stage during the public discussion of the issue in council committees was the question of using reserves raised, either by councillors or by officers.

Exeter City Council public toilet closures - Musgrave Row beside Exeter Library Exeter City Council public toilet closures - Musgrave Row beside Exeter Library

Indeed, as noted in our previous report, councillors were told they had to identify compensatory savings if they wished to retain the toilets budget. This instruction by Councillor Luke Sills, Chair of the Place Scrutiny Committee, visibly influenced Councillors Owen and Pattison (and doubtless others, invisibly) in their conclusion that there was therefore no alternative, despite the fact that sufficient funding did in fact exist in the reserves. Councillor Sills’ instruction did not appear in the minutes of the meeting.

These are not procedural trivialities. The provision of public toilets is a serious public health issue. The key findings of a recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health are below:

Some, though not all, of these points were included in the impact assessment of the closure proposals considered by councillors.

So the question remains: why was the closure of thirteen toilets so important to the council that officers and councillors took the approach that there was no alternative to doing so? Why was the option of funding from reserves not offered?

Was it that the council feared that that the cost of bringing the toilets up to modern standards was too much for the capital programme to bear, as it is already stretched to breaking point by the new leisure complex?

Or was it an attempt to reduce anti-social behaviour associated with public toilets?

If so, first impressions are not encouraging. Reports of people urinating on the graves in Exeter’s Higher Cemetery – where the public toilets have been closed as a result of this decision – recently made front page news.

Exeter City Council public toilet closures Exeter Live Better hoarding Exeter City Council Exeter Live Better hoarding

Exeter City Council has spent, and is still spending, tens of thousands of pounds promoting the city under the Exeter Live Better banner. Does access to a public toilet not improve quality of life in the city? Exeter could, and should, do better.

Neither Exeter City Council nor Councillor Sills responded to a request for comment.


UPDATE 9 July 2019: Councillor Sills has now replied to our request for comment, which we sent ten days before publication.

He said: “I acted entirely appropriately at the meeting in reminding members of their legal responsibilities to maintain a balanced budget. The decision to close public toilets was not a decision we took lightly, and must be seen within the context of the council having to find significant savings in coming years due to continued reductions in our grant from central government. I must add that as a council we are tasked with finding a further £2.4m worth of cuts this year from the budget.”

This statement does not directly address the fact that councillors were told they would have to identify specific compensatory savings in order to keep the toilets open. The role of this specially-convened Place Scrutiny Committee was not to determine how the council’s overall budget should be balanced, but only to consider whether the Executive had acted properly in reaching its decision to close thirteen of the city’s public conveniences.


 is a contributing editor of Exeter Observer.

 contributed photos to this article.

Recent stories
Exeter City Council 2022 annual meeting 17 May 2022

Labour councillors appointed to all fourteen city council committee chairs at annual meeting

Exeter City Council party seat distribution after 2022 local elections

Greens take three seats from Labour so Progressive Group replaces Conservatives as official opposition

2022-23 band D council tax charges ranges (England)

Do Exeter Labour election campaign claims stand up to scrutiny? Coda: Council tax

2022 Exeter local elections guide graphic

2022 Exeter local elections guide

Climate delay discourse typology

Do Exeter Labour election campaign claims stand up to scrutiny? Part III: Climate & environment


Help power our public interest journalism

More Comment
Cargo bike carrying kids in Exeter

If you think electric vehicles are the answer, you're asking the wrong question

Mike Walton of Exeter Cycling Campaign says we shouldn't be seduced by the motoring lobby into believing that electric cars can create the future we and our children need.

Net Zero Exeter logo

Is Exeter City Council going to abandon its Net Zero 2030 target?

Review suggests alignment with Devon Carbon Plan, currently aimed at 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050, citing "technical and financial challenges ahead", although change in policy would require decision by councillors after 6 May local elections.

Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

Exeter City Council's Chief Executive uses statistics to show the city in a good light, but in doing so presents a picture which omits important information about the city's true position.

All Comment
News
Net Zero Exeter 2030 plan cover edit

Exeter City Council abandons city 2030 decarbonisation "ambition"

Unannounced decision to exclude scope 3 emissions constituting around 43% of Exeter's carbon footprint from "net zero" plans effectively ensures city will not meet its decarbonisation goals.

Exeter Ukrainian refugee support hub Conversation Café

Ukrainian refugee support hub opens in Exeter city centre

Conversation Café pop-up offers information, resources, events and meeting space to help cut through the confusion surrounding the Homes for Ukraine scheme and enable Devon's response to the crisis.

Individual overseas ownership of Exeter property titles 2010 to 2021 bar chart

Individual overseas ownership of Exeter property triples in ten years

350% rise greater than in Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster, increasing housing costs, reducing home ownership levels and harming housing affordability.

All News
Analysis
Exeter City Council 2022 annual meeting 17 May 2022

Labour councillors appointed to all fourteen city council committee chairs at annual meeting

Council leader falsely claims "overwhelming majority" voted Labour in Exeter local elections while circumvention of council decision-making scrutiny continues.

Exeter City Council party seat distribution after 2022 local elections

Greens take three seats from Labour so Progressive Group replaces Conservatives as official opposition

Conservative loss in Topsham among significant vote share changes in 2022 Exeter City Council elections suggesting city's political landscape in flux.

2022-23 band D council tax charges ranges (England)

Do Exeter Labour election campaign claims stand up to scrutiny? Coda: Council tax

The last part of our 2022 local elections series is a coda examining Exeter Labour's claim that the city has one of the lowest rates of council tax in the country.

All Analysis
All topics

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AFFORDABILITY AFFORDABILITY AFFORDABILITY   AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY   ALPHINGTON & COWICK ALPHINGTON & COWICK ALPHINGTON & COWICK   ALPHINGTON ALPHINGTON ALPHINGTON   BONHAY MEADOWS BONHAY MEADOWS BONHAY MEADOWS   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   COP26 COP26 COP26   COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19   CITYPOINT CITYPOINT CITYPOINT   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS   CO-LIVING CO-LIVING CO-LIVING   CONGESTION CONGESTION CONGESTION   COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX   COVERING CLIMATE NOW COVERING CLIMATE NOW COVERING CLIMATE NOW   CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE   CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT   DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER   DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL   DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND   DURYARD & ST. JAMES DURYARD & ST. JAMES DURYARD & ST. JAMES   EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   ELECTRIC VEHICLES ELECTRIC VEHICLES ELECTRIC VEHICLES   EXE ESTUARY EXE ESTUARY EXE ESTUARY   EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT   EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST   EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL   EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL   EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES   EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING   EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY   EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE   EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE   EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE   EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND   EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION   EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER   EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN   EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX   EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE   EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK   EXETER SHIP CANAL EXETER SHIP CANAL EXETER SHIP CANAL   EXETER ST. DAVID'S EXETER ST. DAVID'S EXETER ST. DAVID'S   EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY   EXETER UCU EXETER UCU EXETER UCU   EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE   EXWICK EXWICK EXWICK   FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT   FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION   FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER   GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS   GUILDHALL GUILDHALL GUILDHALL   HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS   HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP   HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON   HEAVITREE HEAVITREE HEAVITREE   HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION   HOUSING HOUSING HOUSING   LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+   LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD   LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER   LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY   LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS   MAKETANK MAKETANK MAKETANK   MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON   MET OFFICE MET OFFICE MET OFFICE   MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON BARTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON BARTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON BARTON   MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON   MOUNT RADFORD LAWN MOUNT RADFORD LAWN MOUNT RADFORD LAWN   NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER   NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S   NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS   OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE   PARIS STREET PARIS STREET PARIS STREET   PARKING PARKING PARKING   PASSIVHAUS PASSIVHAUS PASSIVHAUS   PENINSULA RAIL TASK FORCE PENINSULA RAIL TASK FORCE PENINSULA RAIL TASK FORCE   PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT   PENNSYLVANIA PENNSYLVANIA PENNSYLVANIA   PINHOE PINHOE PINHOE   PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY   PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY   PRIORY PRIORY PRIORY   PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT   PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION   PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH   PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM   PUBLIC TOILETS PUBLIC TOILETS PUBLIC TOILETS   PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION   RAMM RAMM RAMM   REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING   RETROFIT RETROFIT RETROFIT   RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK   ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST   SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET   SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION   SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER   SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY   SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT   ST. DAVID'S ST. DAVID'S ST. DAVID'S   ST. LOYE'S ST. LOYE'S ST. LOYE'S   ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE   ST. SIDWELL'S POINT ST. SIDWELL'S POINT ST. SIDWELL'S POINT   ST. THOMAS ST. THOMAS ST. THOMAS   STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST   TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL   TOPSHAM TOPSHAM TOPSHAM   UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE   UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER   YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE  

More stories