Toilets, Public Space... and Social Justice?

Next week we run our first public seminar since the event on Church Road in June 2014 which helped to plan Finding Maindee. Three years on many artists, volunteers and members of the public have gained experience of running the library and working through the challenge to Find Maindee. In the wider world of public space the impacts of austerity have continued; in Newport - like every locality in Wales and the UK - we are collectively having to make very difficult decisions about what is worth sustaining.

Toilet seminar

Though the event next week focuses on the important issue of toilets, with some excellent speakers and links to policy-makers at Welsh Government, we want to go further and ask what this means for social justice. For example, are models such as the Business Improvement District [BID] an alternative way to manage public space and to what extent are the civic or the community, that’s to say volunteers, willing to go in taking on responsibilities for public services and public facilities? Is this fair?

This blog article outlines the social justice debate that this seminar will explore and why the arts are providing opportunities to explore the use of public space in Maindee.

Why are we holding this seminar?

Since the library was reopened by volunteers in October 2015 Maindee Unlimited have effectively been involved in providing public services. The library hosts space for sessions such as helping people to find work, Citizens Advice and also the Road to Wellbeing mental health sessions. In the past we have also hosted baby clinics; and in the future there will be many other activites coming to the refreshed space.

In terms of economic development and what we call the street scene, the charity has made films and marketing for the Maindee Shop Local campaign and the Incredible Edible team have been helping to tidy up the edges of the car park on Chepstow Road. This winter we are working with businesses to provide Christmas lighting on Chepstow Road. All of these activities have been done with the support of the Council; indeed many people would expect that these types of thing would come from the local authority.

The next move into public services could be taking on the toilets on Chepstow Road...

Dafydd takes photos

Most people will have noticed that the public toilets have been locked shut for some time. Inevitably they will be closed permanently unless the Council finds the resource to keep them going - or we take on this wider discussion with the Council. For example, next week we will understand that there is no statutory duty for free toilets to be provided. Indeed Clara Greed is likely to explain next week that the 1936 Public Health Act allows for the public to be charged to use them. Yes, you read correctly - each local authority has the right to charge but not the resource to offer for free.

And how do the arts relate to this agenda?

Maindee Unlimited are fortunate to be part of the Arts Council of Wales’ Ideas: People: Places [IPP] programme. With the support of IPP we have the chance to visit other places and see how they do things; such as going to Swansea and Haverfordwest or the trip to Bristol last December. The latter trip was really interesting as we were encouraged to be bold and think long term. Taking on the Maindee toilets would certainly be a big commitment.

The other benefit of IPP is that we have been able to try different ways of using public space. For example, when Mr and Mrs Clark invited the neighbours around to paint last October half term; and this past week where Dafydd Williams [pictured above] has been taking portraits on the same space. It may seem ironic, but Dafydd has used the toilet cubicle space as a camera rather than a public convenience.

Camera obscura

Although these are only small initiatives fuelled by the imagination and commitment of artists, the point is that they are inclusive and free. For example, Dafydd has coupled 16th century camera obscura techniques with the 19th century photographic process to make images of people. He did not represent symbols of power such as the church - see the image above.

And through these artist-led initiatives we have helped to create new memories and associations with the public space around the toilets. There is potential to gain further momentum when people visit Holbrook Studio [80 Chepstow Road] on Sunday 5th, Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th November to see the whole gallery of images.

Our most significant opportunity to do something with the public space and the toilets is by working with artists and architects at KHBT on a project to do something positive with the Triangle land at Livingstone Place. We trust that Karsten and Bernd from KHBT will continue in the spirit set by the Clarks and Dafydd; to let people use the space without being judged and to hopefully create something positive. Again we are grateful to the Arts Council of Wales for providing most of the finance to pay the artists and the majority of the £50,000 budget that we have put aside for the work. And we do have the support from the Council.

And so we look forward to Tuesday 7th November

We realise that this seminar will take on a debate which is valuable to a much wider audience than Maindee or Newport. We are really pleased that we have 10 great contributors and nearly 40 people coming along next week. Although we will be sharing a lot of ideas with different people we do also hope that some of the discussion will help make things better on Chepstow Road in Maindee also. We look forward to capturing the event and sharing the day here on the blog.


Related Links

First Maindee Unlimited seminar from June 2014 

Link for public seminar Tuesday 7th November 

Being bold and thinking long-term trip to Bristol 2016

Exhibition at Holbrook Studio

Developing plans for the Triangle with KHBT 

More about the Kickplate Project and Dafydd Williams


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