THE campaign to prevent Highland Council from closing public toilets in north west Sutherland is gathering pace.
More than 2400 people have signed an online petition, while a paper petition circulating in the Kinlochbervie area is gathering support.
Twenty-nine public toilets across the region including nine in Sutherland are in danger of being axed – Achmelvich, Kinlochbervie, Rhiconich, Scourie, Smoo Cave, Lairg, Kylesku, Talmine and Tarbet.
The cash-strapped council is making the move in a bid to save an overall £338,000 – £67,000 of which relates to Sutherland.
However, officials are suggesting the toilets could remain open if communities assume ownership and responsibility for them.
Another idea being floated is that local businesses or village halls could provide “comfort stops” in exchange for a payment.
Kinlochbervie Community Council is leading the opposition and is behind the two petitions. The group has also sent a letter of protest to Highland Council chief executive Steve Barron.
The community council is slamming the authority for its lack of consultation with communities or local businesses over the issue.
And it claims that the public toilets are needed more than ever because of the increasing number of visitors drawn to the north by tourist route North Coast 500.
Highland Council’s alternative proposals are dismissed as “unviable and unrealistic”,
Expecting local businesses to open their toilets for public use was “somewhat fanciful and not a meaningful solution”, according to the community council.
A large number of local businesses closed in the winter, had limited opening hours and were unable to accommodate a high usage, it was stated.
Problems are also seen in transferring public toilets to community ownership. The community council feels it would be difficult to maintain consistent opening hours and a reliable standard of maintenance and cleaning.
Community council member Margaret Meek, who has been lobbying local councillors and political leaders on the issue, accused Highland Council of failing to abide by its own guidance.
She said: “Last September the council adopted a policy document entitled Local Voices Highland Choices. The introduction is called A Listening Council and the first paragraph concludes: ‘We will be led by the guiding principle that to be an effective council, we need to be a listening council and the planning and delivery of services across Highland must be done in a collaborative and inclusive way’.
“And yet the decision to close the toilets was made without any public consultation whatsoever. The first that people in our area knew about it was when cleaners received termination notices.”
Community councillors plan to travel to Inverness next month to hand over copies of the two petitions to councillors and officials in person.
Ms Meek said it was hoped that they could make a presentation to those responsible for the decision.
Highland Council responded on April 5 to the community council’s protest letter.
Community Services customer services officer Lawrence Jones wrote in an email: “At the current time officers are in the process of consulting with elected members and affected communities about the proposal for their wards and whether or not a Highland Comfort Scheme or asset transfer can be introduced to replace the 29 facilities identified (nine of which are in Sutherland) for rationalisation.
“We would aim to have this process completed by August 31. Unfortunately, where alternatives cannot be identified, we may have to close facilities.”
Director of Community Service William Gilfillan has said that the council did not decide to close the toilets but voted to carry out a “review of public toilets with a view towards rationalisation”. Rationalisation is understood to mean closing any toilets where an alternative arrangement cannot be made.
To sign the community council’s online petition, visit the web site 38 degrees and search for “Do not close our loos”.
* North, west and central Sutherland councillor Linda Munro has said she is “humiliated” at the row over the closure of public toilets.
Cllr Munro made her feelings known in emails to local people who have contacted her to complain about the move.
She wrote that that she and fellow councillor Hugh Morrison had voted to have toilets where possible transferred to communities or businesses.
But she criticised Highland Council officials for not following “due process” and consulting with local people over the cost-cutting plans.
In one email, she stated: “The budget proposal was a reasonable proposal and we all need to work smarter and different.
“This had real potential to upgrade local facilities and earn a bit for the community or business that took it on.
“But I am heartily sick that officers have turned it toxic by acting with unseemly haste to square their service budget. All this upset and bad feeling was entirely avoidable.
“I cannot convey how humiliated I am at this debacle. Yes, I voted to have toilets where possible transferred to communities or business. And that is what Hugh and I agreed with the leader of the council and her team.
“Never did I agree to communities being forced into taking ownership of toilets or otherwise having access removed to the most basic need of human dignity.
“The communities have my absolute support and my sincere apologies.”