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”.
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.
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 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.