Fine Gael Councillor Danny Byrne has been brainstorming solutions to the dire shortage of public toilets in Dublin City and the high price the council pays for the small number of toilets that it does provide.
“Managing the toilets at Stephen’s Green is costing the council an extraordinary amount of money,” says Byrne, around €390,000 each year. That includes €21,000 a month for security services.
“It’s more than €1,000 per day,” he says, and so expensive that the council doesn’t want to replicate it but obviously many Dubliners want more toilets.
So Byrne had an idea. What if the council offered rates rebates to pubs and restaurants in exchange for letting people use their loos?
The scheme would be optional, he says, and participating outlets could display a sign on the window so people know it’s okay to use the facilities.
Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, says he thinks some restaurants would sign up. “A lot of restaurants already allow people to use the facilities and at the moment it’s costing them money because businesses pay for water.”
Byrne pitched the idea in a motion to the full council meeting on 2 October. But the Lord Mayor and the council’s finance manager shot it down, saying that the council cannot give rates rebates.
Council finance manager Kathy Quinn said that the council doesn’t have the power to issue rates rebates and even if it did, the scheme could be difficult to monitor, she says. “Who goes in and checks whether the loo had access to it?” she says.
The Lord Mayor, Fianna Fáil TD, Daithí de Róiste, ruled the motion out of order.
On Tuesday, Byrne said he is disappointed with the response, but that the substance of the idea still needs to be explored. He plans to discuss it with his senior party colleagues and see if they can help to progress it, he says.
“That this Council agrees to give a rates rebate of commercial rates to premises which allow the public to use their toilet facilities,” said Byrne’s motion ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Back in 2018, Labour Councillor Mary Freehill tried to push the same idea of a rates rebate, with a motion to the South East Area Committee.
“The disappearance of public toilets in Dublin is a source of great distress for many Dubliners,” said Freehill at the time. “And a very serious problem for people with medical conditions and very often young mothers.”
The council has the power to give a discount on rates for early payment, so they should be able to do it for this scheme, she said.
Like Byrne, Freehill pitched the idea of an optional scheme, open to those businesses that wished to participate. Some businesses said then that they would consider the scheme as they were already allowing members of the public to use their toilets.
On the phone on Tuesday, Freehill said that there wasn’t much interest from council officials in her proposal so it never progressed. Meanwhile, the situation with public toilets has continued to worsen, she says.
There are public buildings, including social welfare offices, that don’t have toilets, she says. “We really need to push for the availability of public toilets.”
Out of order
At the monthly meeting on Monday, Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne said she supported the idea.
She wants the council to deliver public toilets in addition to this scheme, she said. “It’s a basic human need.”
The Lord Mayor, de Róiste, interjected. “I’m just going to jump in, this motion is actually out of order,” he said. “We can’t do it, so there’s no mechanism.”
Quinn, the finance manager, said rates are set based on a valuation of the business premises.
“This body here, Dublin City Council, can’t then change that valuation,” she says. “It’s not within the current framework for us to make a discount for the use of that building.”
The motion falls as a result, says de Róiste.
Byrne asked whether the council can give commercial rates rebates. Quinn says that it cannot but that the government is considering legislation.
Even if the legislation is introduced that allows this, though, says Quinn, it could be difficult to monitor. “Who goes in and checks whether the loo had access to it?” she said. “Who considers whether the loo is functional?”
It could be possible to consider it if the new legislation comes into effect, says Quinn.
De Róiste says Byrne should table the motion again if the new legislation is introduced.
“To just rule out his motion, I’ve never seen it done before,” he says. The motion should be referred to the appropriate committee. “You’re killing the debate,” says Geoghegan.
“I’m ruling this out of order,” says De Róiste, the Lord Mayor.
Still a good idea?
“We don’t mind anyone using our toilets as long as they are not anti-social,” says Michael Martin, the owner of Pacino’s Italian Restaurant on Suffolk Street.
He’s not sure he would sign up for a scheme that meant he was offering toilets to the public though, he says, in case it made it more difficult to refuse people that he didn’t want to let in.
Dublin City Council should provide public toilets and clean the streets properly as councils do in other cities, says Martin.
“You go to any good city in the world and everything is so clean. They are not paying any more rates, or any more taxes than we are,” he says.
Byrne, the Fine Gael councillor, says the scheme he is proposing would be set up in such a way that the staff in the participating business would retain the right to refuse entry.
“Plenty of businesses would open their doors,” says Byrne. “They already do and those businesses deserve to be compensated.”
Cummins, the CEO of the Restaurants’ Association, says his members would be interested in considering the scheme if the rates rebate was at least 25 percent.
“I think they would be keen to look at it,” he says.
About 30 percent of Dublin City Council’s budget comes from rates.
Byrne says the cost of giving a rates rebate of 25 percent to a restaurant would be infinitesimal compared with the €390,000 that the council is spending to run the toilets in St Stephen’s Green.
“This idea still needs to be discussed,” he says. “It’s a no-brainer.”