Two of Tenby’s public toilets look set to close unless the Town Council agree to Pembrokeshire County Council’s proposals to fund the facilities, with local councillors feeling that the Local Authority are holding them ‘over a barrel’ on the matter, which could leave the seaside town without such important conveniences, both inside the walled town and alongside one if its prime beaches.
At the most recent meeting of the Town Council, PCC’s Strategic Project Officer Katie Daly, was joined by her colleague Huw Rowlands to talk to Tenby councillors about public toilet funding in the town.
Summarising matters, which have been well documented over the past few months, in terms of PCC threatening to close public facilities across the county, due to budget savings needing to be made, Katie explained that although it is not a statutory obligation, PCC provide 68 public conveniences across Pembrokeshire.
She said that the Authority is undergoing increasing financial strain and they are looking at ways of funding toilets to ease PCC’s budget, with one of the avenues they continue to explore is funding support from town and community councils, and asset transfers of such facilities.
She stated that PCC’s cabinet has made the decision that if alternative funding methods are not found then there will indeed be public toilet closures across Pembrokeshire.
Funding has been secured for a set number through car parks, community councils or ‘pay to use’ charges but for Tenby specifically, while five have funding, two have no funding stream and will be closed if no solution can be found.
These facilities are the ones located on North Beach and Upper Frog Street which cost roughly £17,500 and £10,000 to operate annually.
Katie acknowledged that it appeared strange that North Beach (which closes from the end of October to the start of April), cost nearly twice as much as Upper Frog Street, which is open all year, but these charges are based on the contract with Danfo, which spreads costs on a per cubicle basis.
The conversation she said she wished to have with town councillors was around the importance of these toilets to the town and if there is a desire for them to continue.
If so, was there any option for funding from the council. This could be to continue to manage through Danfo with an invoice from PCC annually or TTC taking over completely and managing the cleaning and maintenance themselves.
Another option would be that if the Town Council feel that there would be such an adverse impact to its closure, that they could ask that the toilet be considered as an ‘exception to the policy’. Cabinet would then make the decision but there would have to be a strong case as to why no funding is available at a local level.
She was happy to support looking at all the options, which could also include closure of either or both. She stated she would rather no closure happened and it is a difficult decision - but toilet provision is a non-statutory service being looked at to make cuts.
The timescale was that a commitment of some form would be needed before November 5; and if there was no desire or commitment, the Upper Frog Street toilets will close on November 5 permanently; and the North Beach facility (which is closed from November 1 to 1st April 1) would not re-open again after these dates, ahead of the holiday season starting-up again in 2024.
Cases for exception toilets would be considered by Cabinet in December.
She appreciated the timescale was tight but it allowed the town council to factor any potential costs in their budget and precept setting in December.
Discussing the matter, Cllr James Phillips wondered if there was a ‘middle way’ for example the town council finding alternative management systems but PCC still funding maintenance costs.
Katie said that she felt that this was not possible due to the contract with Danfo; and if managed by the Town Council, all responsibility would fall to them.
Cllr Duncan Whitehurst stated, that looking back at cabinet meeting, when the toilet strategy was agreed, he noted no record of costs versus delivery of the service. There had also been, in his view, little consideration of the needs of the community.
He wondered if PCC have looked at grants which the Welsh Government were providing where toilets need upgrading.
Katie explained that PCC had secured grants to upgrade some toilets, but none were available for ongoing revenue costs for toilets.
Cllr Whitehurst noted that as a temporary measure, approved by PCC, was for funding from the ‘second homes tax’ being used to keep toilets open while their consultations took place; and had the option to continue this been considered as there was benefit to locals and visitors alike.
He felt it was worth exploring before closing toilets as he didn’t feel all options had been explored.
“One of the largest and most serious concerns expressed during PCC’s consultation was potential loss of toilets. People feel it is not the best approach as they feel they already pay for this through council tax,” said Cllr Whitehurst.
“The expectation as a tax payer is why do toilets have to pay for themselves or face closure, they should be there, free to use, when people need them.”
Cllr Emma Lewis agreed, feeling that public perception was that all monies seemed to be going to Haverfordwest and Tenby’s importance as one of the county’s ‘main tourism centres’ was being overlooked.
“Many visitors to Tenby can’t afford to keep paying to use the toilet every time they need to during the day. Have PCC considered who is going to pay for the clean-up if people just went to the toilet wherever they wanted?” she stated.
In relation to costs, Cllr Laurence Blackhall queried, if a toilet cost £20,000 to run and there is a paying system, what happens to surplus funds? Would these surplus funds go into the toilet budget for that particular area?
Katie said that a proportion goes into a reinvestment pot while the rest would go into the overall toilet budget.
Cllr Blackhall wondered, for example, if Castle Beach generated enough to cover North Beach, would there be an option to asset transfer all the toilets to Tenby Town Council.
Katie explained that only two charged for toilets in Tenby generated a small surplus, these being Castle Beach and the ones at the multi-storey. Facilities at the Green, South Beach and Butts Field were topped up by the car parking budget, as they were located in car parks.
She did not feel that surplus income generated by the Castle Beach and multi-storey toilets would be sufficient to make any sizeable difference to funding the North Beach or Upper Frog Street facilties
“We are only covering costs,” she commented. “Paid for toilets are not ‘cash cows’, they don’t generate huge amounts of money and are only just cost neutral in most cases.”
Cllr. Blackhall felt that if they were looking at an ‘exception toilet’ then North Beach was the strongest case.
“We have world class sporting events with international coverage. How would it be if the main beach in Tenby used for these events had no toilets in sight?!” he remarked.
Regarding the market hall toilets on Upper Frog Street, there were separate discussions on the market itself being had with PCC. It may be the case that this becomes an asset transfer in its own right and the toilets could be redeveloped.
Cllr Blackhall felt the town council were in a situation where they were ‘over a barrel’ and could end up being a seaside town with no public toilet facilities within the town walls!
If pushed, Cllr. Blackhall said he would consider the Town Council funding the market toilets if it was possible to achieve an accommodation for the North Beach ones. He felt it would be too significant a hit for the Town Council to be taking on two toilets in one financial year.
Cllr. Sam Skyrme-Blackhall said that she, as a County Councillor for the South Ward, and the Town Clerk had visited all the public toilets in the town with Katie last year and now had a better understanding of where funding goes.
However, it was still her ‘bugbear’ that while Tenby was considered the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Pembrokeshire - it was difficult for her to see the amount of funds generated in Tenby for the county with little being reinvested in supporting residents and the main industry, which is tourism.
She was sad but a choice has to be made, and the Town Council needed to look after the town and those who use its facilities. She could possibly support the Town Council taking over the market maintenance if North Beach was considered an exception and still funded by PCC.
Cllr. James Phillips felt the problem was that the Town Council was being asked to make a decision without the full financial information as to what running costs were.
He felt more time was needed to find the best solution, and wondered if there could be a stay of execution on the November 5 deadline.
Katie said that sadly this was not possible, but if she could show Cabinet that she and the Town Council were actively discussing potential solutions, then Upper Frog Street would stay open to March 31.
Cllr. Blackhall felt that the Town Council we could move quite quickly if more information was provided for North Beach and Upper Frog Street in relation to how many times a day they were cleaned, opening hours, staff, water consumption and cost of consumables.
Cllr. Blackhall proposed that the Policy and Finance Committee have a discussion and return to the Town Council with a proposal.
The Town Clerk, Andrew Davies cautioned members that, if the Town Council took over the toilets to manage, then a robust system would have to be put in place. He recalled just maintaining the toilet block on South Parade for a short period as being an ‘awful experience’ as office staff had to go and clean the toilets on weekends a number of times, when the contracted staff did not turn up due to illness.