Toilets are popping up on city streets at night

A toilet appears in Kungsportsplatsen square in Gothenburg, Sweden. Image: Abbedabb at Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, a very short, very strange news story was featured on the BBC news website. Here’s most of it:

A man in the Dutch city of Amsterdam has been injured after a pop-up public toilet sunk into the ground emerged unexpectedly.

The man was hit by a moped which was thrown up in the air as the so-called UriLift toilet suddenly rose up.

He is being treated in hospital for minor injuries.

An onlooker tweeted this picture: 

If you’re a seasoned European partygoer, you were probably able to focus on the more important parts of this story (the poor man and his injuries, for example). If, like us, you’re innately suspicious of anything that happens on city streets past 10pm, you probably focused instead on the phrase “pop-up public toilet”, and sat back, baffled.

But we’ve had a dig, and we’ve found out that pop-up toilets are even more dramatic and weird than they sound. And they're all over the place. 

They really do pop out of the ground.

At around 6 or 7pm, in cities all over the planet, circles of what might at first appear to be pavement begin to rise slowly out of the ground. Once they reach their full height, it’s clear that they are not, in fact, Daleks shedding their concrete disguises in order to take over the world: they’re actually trios of 6-foot tall stainless steel urinals. According to this video, they take about one and a half minutes to fully emerge. That makes it a very boring video, but a nonplussed woman does stop and stare at around 1.05, so worth hanging on for that bit.

They were invented to prevent people urinating in the street (by people, we mean men). 

The toilets, invented and sold by the Dutch company UriLift for around £45,000 a pop, are usually installed in areas full of pubs and bars: places which get lively on the weekend but don’t have a particular need for public toilets the rest of the time. Councils often invest after complaints of late-night public urination in an area: see Guildford, for example, or Westminster, where a local councillor said of the practice: "The pop-up loos are a further step in our campaign to tackle this menace and to provide people with an acceptable alternative". 

Of course, urinals aren't much use to female revellers, though apparently a version for both genders is in the design stages (let's hope this one has doors). 

They are much safer than they seem.

The notion of a giant steel pillar emerging from the ground, however slowly, is a little unsettling. But according to Wim Hermans, a spokesperson for UriLift, the toilets are always raised and lowered manually, by a city worker armed with a remote control. They check the pavement for bikes or people before calling up the toilet; then clear it of any rubbish and lower it back down come morning.

Hermans says the company have had no serious safety complaints in the 13 years since they installed their first pop-up toilet. They’re now operational in countries including Sweden, the UK, Belgium, Holland and Denmark.

Now we’ve cleared up the meaning of “pop-up toilet”, we can return to the Amsterdam incident.  It turns out that the injured man was actually the toilet’s operator, and it’s believed that a gas explosion near or below the toilet might have caused it to shoot up unexpectedly (the toilet is connected to the water supply and soil pipes, but not to gas or electricity). An independent body is currently investigating. 


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.