Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Public Services Provision

8:25 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate. It took a pandemic, with people, in effect, spending more than a year indoors, for us to realise what is needed to enable us to enjoy the outdoors and our public spaces. The last public toilets in this city closed 21 years ago. With that closure, a crucial part of what makes the city living and accessible was lost. Many people have been campaigning for public toilets for years. Like so many things, the lack of these very basic facilities in our country is something we cannot continue to ignore as we emerge from the pandemic.

The Minister of State is aware that today Dublin City Council gave us some very welcome news by saying it would open all its buildings so people could use their public bathrooms. This is not just a matter within the cities, although it may be felt most keenly around the centre of the capital city. I know even in the Minister of State's constituency in Dún Laoghaire, whether in the People's Park or elsewhere, it is a matter causing much discomfort and problems for people.

This is not a trivial or insignificant matter. The UN special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation wrote in 2019 that access to water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household, particularly in public spaces, is an essential element of human rights and that a failure of states to include access to water and sanitation in public spaces is inconsistent with the commitment to the sustainable development goals, with which the Minister of State, as a Green Party member, will be very familiar.

The lack of access to adequate toilet facilities is also a gender and accessibility matter. We can consider how this affects people who are menstruating, those who are pregnant, families with toddlers or those with disabilities who are assisted by carers. Toilets are essential not just in our city but across towns and national parks so that they can be enjoyed by all to the full.

The Office of Public Works, OPW, manages more than 2,000 buildings spread across 1,700 properties throughout the country. I have a very specific request, which is that the OPW follows the work of Dublin City Council and opens its buildings so there can be greater access to public toilets and facilities.

I highlight the special case of the Phoenix Park. I am very lucky as I have the Phoenix Park and St. Stephen's Green within my 5 km zone. The Phoenix Park has 1,752 acres and it is the largest enclosed public park in any capital city in Europe, but it has only three toilet facilities. Hyde Park in London, which is a fifth of the size of the Phoenix Park, has more facilities. I had the opportunity to visit the Phoenix Park once again over the weekend and there was a 20-minute queue for the restrooms at the tea rooms there, which is simply unacceptable and an affront to basic decency. There is much we can do, including opening the cricket clubs and installing temporary toilet facilities. We can open the facilities on Infirmary Road.

Not having public toilets kills liveability and enjoyment of cities, towns and national parks. The Alice Leahy Trust has been campaigning for public toilets and showers since 2006. Up to the 1970s there were 60 staffed public toilets in Dublin. There are currently two temporary public bathrooms in Dublin city that cost approximately €182,000 each per year to staff and maintain. The OPW manages over 2,000 buildings and in most there is a staff member on duty over weekends who could simply open the door and allow people in.

This is a matter of public health and comfort. If we are innovative and pragmatic in our solutions and if we get this right, it will work in the long term not just for my city, which I love, but every city, town and village or every park and beach in the country. The pandemic has allowed us the opportunity to get away from trying to unsee things we have allowed to fester in the country, and one of those is simply not providing comfortable spaces where people can use the bathroom. It is basic dignity in how we live in cities, towns and villages.

8:35 pm

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he said, this is not trivial at all but a matter of basic public health. The level 5 restrictions have had the side effect of bringing more people out from indoor amenities to public and natural outdoor amenities, with the consequence of preventing people from using toilets they would have used in commercial facilities like pubs, restaurants and hotels, as well as public facilities such as those in libraries and so on. It has led to there being increased pressure on remaining public toilets.

I welcome the announcement by Dublin City Council today that it will open 22 of its public buildings on a toilets-only basis. It is a very practical measure and I understand councillors in Dún-Laoghaire Rathdown will bring similar proposals to their executive management. I urge councillors around the country to follow suit.

I am answering this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who cannot be here. The national heritage estate is managed by the Office of Public Works and includes parks like the Phoenix Park and historic gardens such as the National Botanic Gardens. In those locations, all public toilet facilities are allowed to open under the Government restrictions relating to Covid-19. They are fully open and operational to the public.

There is increased demand for use of all our historic sites by the public in this period, but the existing facilities are, by and large, coping with demand and there are no significant capacity issues. Locations include popular local parks such as Doneraile Park, John F. Kennedy Arboretum in New Ross, Emo Court parklands in Laois, St. Enda's Park in Rathfarnham and Kilkenny Castle parkland. Visitors may have to queue during exceptionally busy periods and we ask the public to be patient with both our local teams and their fellow visitors if and when they might be required to queue to use toilet facilities.

In respect of the Phoenix Park, as the Deputy is aware the park is experiencing unprecedented demand in recent months. Large volumes of visitors are availing of the wonderful amenity of the 1,752 acres of park for health and well-being. The existing public toilet facilities in the Phoenix Park have been developed to date where there is suitable water and wastewater infrastructure at locations, including the Phoenix Park visitor centre and the tea rooms referred to by the Deputy, along with Farmleigh house and estate.

The Deputy will acknowledge that the park is primarily a green space and the network of wastewater is limited to certain areas. Therefore, it is not possible to install additional permanent facilities at many locations across the park. However, I am pleased to advise that the park management is progressing a plan to add temporary Portaloo-type facilities at additional locations in the Phoenix Park, including at the Papal Cross car park. There is some concern that some of these facilities may be subject to vandalism, and I have seen this in my local authority, especially as the park is open 24 hours per day. Park management will keep temporary toilet facilities provision under constant review.

The OPW has played a significant role all through the Covid-19 pandemic in ensuring our national heritage estate can be accessed and enjoyed by our citizens in the coming months. As restrictions are eased, we look forward to opening our heritage sites more fully to include those indoor museums, castles, houses and visitor centres which are currently closed because of ongoing Government restrictions. The OPW has no role or function in the provision of restroom infrastructure in towns and cities throughout the country. As the Deputy is aware, local authorities are responsible for all matters relating to public amenities in their respective local areas. I suggest that my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, is best placed to respond to the specifics of those aspects of the Deputy's query.

The OPW has no role in the management and operation of our national parks. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for the operation of national parks at Glenveagh, Wicklow, Connemara, Ballycroy, the Burren and Killarney. That service forms part of the heritage division at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and so, once again, I suggest that my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage would be best placed to respond on facilities in national parks.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I suspect the public may sometimes find it rather difficult to queue patiently for these facilities.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Would you believe I wrote down those exact sentiments? I echo those comments that some people find it easier than others to wait patiently. For example, there are people with Crohn's disease, and there are any number of reasons a person may find it difficult to wait patiently.

It is not often we get a positive announcement with a Topical Issue matter but the fact the Phoenix Park will have temporary toilet facilities at the Papal Cross is very welcome. I thank the Minister of State for making that announcement. I will engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on further facilities because this is so important. We cannot let it pass us by, especially when there is more demand than there had been.

I challenge the assumption that commercial facilities, when they reopen, will solve this. They will alleviate the problem to a degree, but many people who want to see cities, towns and villages and use the bathroom while doing so may find it uncomfortable to ask to do that. They often have toddlers and people need nappy changing facilities. We need facilities where a person with a disability can hoist himself or herself if necessary. We need to take collective responsibility on this.

I appreciate the Minister of State suggests the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage may be more appropriate but we can all work together on this. The Opposition and the Government can engage with Departments and local authorities to bring a satisfactory conclusion to the matter on a national level. Dublin City Council's announcement on this demonstrates a template for what the OPW can do with its own buildings. Working across Departments, we can alleviate discomfort being experienced by people, especially as the weather improves. I thank the Minister of State.

8:45 pm

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As the pandemic draws to a close, I hope that one of the things which will continue is that people will go out in large numbers to their local parks. Many people have been forced to explore their 5 km range and have discovered all kinds of natural things in their local areas from which they have gained great pleasure. I expect that there will be more people outdoors and that this will create a lasting demand for toilet facilities. I accept that we cannot rely on commercial facilities and that we must have public facilities.

With regard to people with more complex disabilities or who require a greater level of accessibility in toilet facilities, Marley Park installed a changing places facility which includes a hoist. It is 12 sq. m and provides space for somebody to help a person to use it. That allowed people who had that type of disability to expand where they could go and for how many hours they could leave their home. It meant they could go to the park and enjoy a day out there whereas, previously, they could only go a certain distance away from home before they needed to reach a toilet. It empowered people. It is expensive, but it is something we can deploy across the country. I would love to see that. This year, we are in an era of capital investment and I would be pleased if money went on that. The provision of toilets is not a trivial matter. It is important and is a matter of public health. I am glad the Deputy raised it.