Private conveniences: Open-door policy?

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Private conveniences: At least 1,782 public toilets have closed across the UK between 2006 and 2017, freedom of information requests revealed.
Private conveniences: At least 1,782 public toilets have closed across the UK between 2006 and 2017, freedom of information requests revealed.
Need to spend a penny? You don’t even have to spend that much to use the toilets at US branches of Starbucks now, but what does it means for UK pubs?

Are the days of scuttling down the high street, window shopping for cheap items from identikit coffee chains just so you can use the toilet at an end?

Behemoth coffee chain Starbucks has introduced a new policy allowing non-paying customers to use facilities, including toilets, at its US branches.

The introduction of the ‘third-place policy’ comes after the arrest of two black men for sitting in one of Star-bucks’ Philadelphia cafés without buying anything while waiting for a meeting provoked accusations of discriminatory practice. 

Starbucks’ reaction was the imposition of ‘third place’ locations and the closure of its 8,000 stores on 29 May so that 175,000 employees could participate in ‘racial bias’ training.

The new policy, announced on 19 May, means that employees at Starbucks’ US cafés will allow all guests to use its facilities regardless of spending – unless they exhibit disruptive behaviour such as smoking, drug or alcohol use, improper use of bathrooms or sleeping.

While the new policy hasn’t hit our shores just yet, its introduction to British branches is expected to be reviewed. 

The decision prompted discussion as to whether or not introducing an open-door policy in Britain’s pubs would be good for the industry as well as a look at whether or not the pub industry has been opening its arms, and cubicle doors, to those caught short all along.

Where do pubs stand legally?

Andy Grimsey, partner at specialist licensing solicitors Poppleston Allen, says pubs have a responsibility for the health and wellbeing of anyone who crosses their threshold, whether they’re propping up the bar or just a toilet seat. 

“Licensees are permitted, of course, to refuse entry to anyone they wish, so long as this is not on discriminatory grounds. 

“However, operators should remember that if they allow non-customers
on their premises, they likely owe a duty of care and if, for example, someone popping in to use the toilets falls over and cracks their head on a worn carpet they will have as strong a claim as a
paying customer. 

“This may be a matter of fact and degree – on a busy Friday night, would you advise your door staff to allow a tipsy passer-by to use your toilets (as distinct from your responsibilities towards vulnerable persons)? 

“It’s important to have a clear policy on use of the premises by non-customers, including what services they can use and at what times such a policy applies. As always, the goodwill and common sense of licensees is critical.”

Social media response

The question of whether or not pubs should let non-paying customers use their toilets provoked impassioned reactions on The Morning Advertiser​’s Facebook page. Here are some of the replies:

  • Ian Cox: “Happy for people to use them, provided they ask first. Anyone who walks in like they own the place will get pulled on their manners on the way out – usually by other customers. Older people are the worst, younger types tend to ask politely.”
  • James Wood: “I think it’s a bloody cheek unless they ask but, down my spot, a chap asked to use our loo (we have only one cubicle) and what he left for us to clean up was inhuman.”
  • Di Belcher: “I wouldn’t mind if the loo was treated properly. And left clean and unbroken but that won’t happen in this country.”
  • Darren Trueman: “It’d be inhuman to not let them use the loo. With councils closing their public facilities, where else are you supposed to go?”
  • Alex Nicoll: “We have a sign outside inviting people to do just that; most powerful piece of marketing I’ve ever done. We also earned a mention in Bill Bryson’s last book.”
  • Clive Bissland: “I ask for a donation to my chosen cancer charity – the tin is on the bar – people seem quite happy with that.”
  • Sam Rawlings: “We do, we’re all human and need to toilet so I don’t see the issue. If a person chooses to make a mess or vandalise it, they’ll be refused next time they ask.”
  • Jonny Stewart: “Any premises that refused me use of their facilities wouldn’t be welcoming me back as a customer. Not once have I ever refused someone use of the pub toilets.”

What do industry bodies think?

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls says individual pub operators should be the ones to decide whether they let non-paying customers use their toilets, arguing that venues need to weigh up their duty of care versus cultivating a positive public image. 

“Ultimately, the decision to allow non-customers to use on-site facilities is at the discretion of the venue. 

“If a venue is very busy, managers may have concerns about excessive numbers of people on the premises, particularly if some of those people are not buying anything. 

“On the other hand, some venues may take it as an opportunity to promote a helpful and welcoming atmosphere to attract customers who otherwise would not have entered the premises. 

“If public facilities are not available elsewhere, the availability of toilets, baby-changing facilities, free Wi-Fi or charging points for electrical equipment may be a relatively simple way of enticing people into a pub.”

British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) chief executive Brigid Simmonds takes a similar stance overall, but highlighted potential costs and challenges of accommodating non-
paying customers. 

Pubs face an uphill battle to maintain high standards and flush out troublemakers amid a torrent of toilet users. 

“This is a decision for individual licensees, but inevitably there would be a cost to pubs in putting such a practice into place,” she said. 

“Cleanliness is hugely important to customers and licensees would have to ensure that standards are maintained. 

“It would also be particularly problematic for pubs in busy town centres and late at night.”

Marketing, goodwill and community service

Likewise, when asked, pub companies Greene King, Stonegate and JD Wetherspoon all said they leave the decision to individual operators rather than roll out a company-wide regulation. 

When polled by The Morning Advertiser​ on Twitter, readers were split on the issue. 

In response to being asked: “Would you let someone use your pub toilets even if they aren’t staying to eat or drink?” Some 56% responded that they would. 

John Ellis of the Crown Inn in Oakengates, Shropshire, described the debate over non-paying customers using his pub’s toilets as “a real problem”. 

“We are the nearest pub to the public toilets that Oakengates Town Council closed down last year after putting up the rates by 33.6%.

“We have put up notices saying non-customers have to pay £1 to one of our charity boxes. Happily, some do.”

Lee Price, of the Royal Pier in Aberystwyth, maintained that letting non-paying customers use his pub’s toilets was a chance to advertise. 

“We are more than happy to allow non-paying customers the use of our toilets, and view it as a valuable opportunity to showcase the temperature of the welcome. 

“Our smallest rooms contain display frames that advertise different parts of the offer in a bid to convert the person taking a wee into a regular returnee.”

Claire Alexander, co-owner of Yubby Inns, the company behind the Ebrington Arms and the Killingworth Castle – both in the Cotswolds, west England, adds: “We do and we always have because we’ve got the only toilets in the village. We’re in the Cotswolds so it’s full of walkers. I do prefer it when they ask but I’d never not allow someone to use the loo.”

Helping manage health conditions

More than 300,000 people in the UK suffer from Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis – the two main forms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). 

With freedom of information requests revealing that, between 2006 and 2016, at least 1,782 public toilets closed across the nation, pubs can play a massive role in providing readily available replacements that are essential in helping more than 250,000 people manage their symptoms, given the unpredictable nature of IBD.

Andy McGuinness, campaigns manager at Crohn’s and Colitis UK, said: “People living with Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis suffer with severe pain and chronic fatigue, which is coupled with major anxiety around reaching a toilet in time in a moment of urgency in order to avoid having an accident in public. 

“Access to toilets is an important public health concern, especially as public toilets are increasingly being closed due to tight council finances. 

“At Crohn’s and Colitis UK, we are working hard to support members and educate businesses around this issue as a way to help prevent social exclusion and isolation by allowing people with Crohn’s and Colitis to leave their homes feeling confident that they can reach a toilet in time. 

“As part of their social responsibility, we would encourage all businesses to allow access to their toilets to those in desperate need like people living with long-term chronic conditions such as Crohn’s and Colitis.”       

Related topics: Health & safety

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