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Jonathan Worsfield’s portaloo kingdom stretches as far as the eye can see: neat rows of 1,700 grey, blue and cream cubicles, all containing a porcelain throne. Like many other people in the portable toilet industry, he got into it because of a family connection.
Worsfield took over Kent-based Four Jays from his father John, who started it as an agricultural contracting company 62 years ago, armed with grand plans and a pair of hedge cutters. After attending a trade show, he discovered porta potties — and the rest is history. For 30-odd years, Worsfield and his wife Sarah have grown the family business one flush at a time.
The company’s bread and butter is supplying toilets to farms, as well as outdoor events like weddings, festivals and corporate parties. People aren’t just renting building site portable toilets any more; which is why Four Jays offers “prestige” trailer toilets with in-built cubicles and sinks, complete with wood interiors. There are also themed numbers, including one decorated like the inside of an airplane cockpit.
This year has been strange. Coronavirus put paid to most of the company’s marquee rental arm, which used to make up a third of its income — as well as most of the market from outdoor events. But the demand for portable toilets has shot up. Construction sites manned by a handful of people or a one-worker band, who need toilets because homeowners don’t want them using their facilities, have helped to make up for a shortfall of major events like Cheltenham Festival, which Worsfield supplied before the pandemic.
“We had farms, and certain NHS contracts, and we kept on going straight through the lockdown because of key worker status,” he says. “At peak times this year we were servicing 2,300 loos.” Now, after a peculiar year, his toilet company and others across the country are lining up for a Brexit bonanza. After the December 31 deadline, there could be a queue of up to 7,000 lorries at Dover, according to government modelling seen by The Guardian. And lined up at neat intervals in locations across Kent and further afield, there will be thousands of portaloos.
Earlier this year, the government pledged that there will be toilets and washing facilities available for drivers who could face a wait of up to two days in Kent due to stricter border controls. In the reasonable worst-case scenario, in which 30-60 per cent of lorries carrying freight are ready, Kent would be plunged into chaos, bringing disruption to businesses across the country. Perhaps worse, the entire county – caught between the trade line of Dover and the rest of the nation – could become the toilet of England. Locals and lorry driver associations have long complained about the lack of toilet facilities on this side of the border, leaving drivers to pee in bottles or defecate in bushes on the side of the road.
Rachel Maclean, a parliamentary undersecretary of state in the Department for Transport, said sanitary facilities would be provided in Kent and on roadsides elsewhere in the country. Maclean told MPs earlier this year that the department had “detailed plans” for provision of not only portaloos but other facilities for drivers. Outdoor showers and washing facilities were also touted as part of the operation.
But less than three weeks before the logistical operation is due to take place, the Department for Transport was unable to share details about the amount of portaloos it plans to provide and where they will be located. A spokesperson for Kent County Council, which is in charge of the procurement process to source those toilets, said last week that the contract — which was promised before the December 31 Brexit deadline — has not yet been finalised. Portable toilet companies vying for the job say they had to keep the locations of the toilets confidential and none have yet been told how many toilets will be needed.
Working out how many toilets the government might need is almost impossible. The Health and Safety Executive suggests one portable toilet for every seven workers, where the toilet is emptied once per week. Should it require emptying twice a week, the number of toilets should increase to two per seven workers. But the final number of portaloos required in Kent will not be reached by a simple calculation: no one knows how long the queues are going to be, or where they will congregate.
This logistical masterplan, called Operation Brock, entails avoiding queues on the M20 and any major roads, and instead directing trucks and lorries to locations like the Manston airport lorry park. But without knowing how bad the queueing will be, companies like Worsfield’s, which are at the heart of the action, will have to be prepared to get toilets to any location at a moment’s notice.
The key will be how the Kent Resilience Forum, which is in charge of the operation, monitors traffic flows, says Heidi Skinner, policy lead at Logistics UK. “Freight will have to flow down the coast-bound carriageway and non-freight will flow down the contra flow on the London-bound carriageway. So if we start seeing that building up, that is still technically a live carriageway, so they can’t put any toilets there.”
Manston airport, Sevington and Ebbsfleet will have places for lorry drivers to wash their hands, she says. “Our concern isn’t really that there’s enough facilities at those sites. It is more about the driver welfare when they’re on the M20. If they’re stuck in the M20, and the queues are building and the flow isn’t going into Eurotunnel in Dover, then that’s a concern. How long is too long to wait to put toilets on the actual M20? I know that is a last resort for Kent Resilience Forum and Kent police because it brings in a whole number of health and safety concerns and issues, but they need to think about the safety of the drivers.”
One source close to the negotiations says there’s a lot of “internal wrangling” of what’s allowed and what’s not. “They can’t decide what they’re going to do. So a lot of it [the demand] will be when it [Operation Brock] all starts going wrong,” the source says.
If Operation Brock sounds familiar, it’s because this exact Kent traffic disruption scenario has been played out before under a similar name. Operation Stack is a long-running logistics plan used by police to turn the M20 into a giant lorry park when services are disrupted — something that the people in charge of the Brexit movement are not planning to do this time. Stack was first used in 1996, and is deployed whenever there is disruption to Channel crossings, usually because of poor weather affecting shipping. Between its first use and the end of 2007 Operation Stack was implemented 95 times for a total of 145 days.
During Operation Stack in 2015 when the M20 was used to store vehicles because of problems at Calais, Kent County Council provided portaloos and even Tesco offered a delivery service to stranded drivers. Local councils provided drinking water. The services provided and the final clear up of rubbish from the verges cost Kent Council tax-payers hundreds of thousands of pounds which the government reportedly failed to reimburse.
No one believes that portaloo companies’ efforts alone can avoid a tidal wave of human waste on the roadsides in Kent, or further north if jams occur. But their ambition is to try. Leicester-based Keith Bodinnar has worked in the industry for 33 years, and proudly claims to be one of the first people involved in the import of plastic toilets into the UK. He works for the UK’s largest independent hire company, GAP Group, as head of tanker services and service delivery.
Bodinnar argues that the government demand caused by Brexit trucking headaches means that “opportunity is out there for everybody”. Some people who are in the events toilet industry have seen their revenue this year cut by 90 per cent, he says. “Some of them, unfortunately, haven’t survived. Next year, [Brexit] could be something that bridges the gap until maybe 2022.”
For larger companies it will be easier to navigate large-scale logistics, Bodinnar argues. And, in his view, there is no such thing as too many toilets. “Years ago I was involved in the building of the M40,” he says. “When that first started, literally every 30 yards or so there was a single plastic toilet. And we had to have tankers just going up and down the M40, cleaning and servicing the plastic toilets.” And were they all used? “Astonishingly, yes,” he says — some had to be emptied every single day.
Many of the portaloos you might spot crossing the Channel today are being sent to Nuneaton, where the world’s largest manufacturer of portable toilets is based. Andy Cartwright, UK and Ireland area manager for Satellite Thal and director of industry group Portable Sanitation Europe, took over from his father almost a decade ago. He is slowly accumulating a cache of parts and toilets in readiness for the Brexit queues.
“We’ve got a lot of trucks bringing in products early, so if there are congestion points in January at the borders, we’ve already got the stock here. We’re having to invest heavily in stock, in case we are not able to in January or February.” Ironically, he says, some of his lorries are stuck in traffic because the ports are congested. “We have a large yard warehouse, we’re building stock for the summer season. But if it’s needed for Operation Stack, or whatever it may be, we’ve already got stock sat here waiting.”
His business has widened during lockdown. Locations like distribution centres, schools or even offices have been demanding socially distanced toilets, which often cannot be provided indoors. “It’s quite big business,” he says.
There’s a lot of money to be made in portaloos. It’s not uncommon for portable toilet company owners — “shitstirrers and pisstakers” one portable sanitation expert jokingly says — to drive around in BMWs with personalised licence plates. The global portable toilet rental market is expected to reach $24.7 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research. As Brexit looms – and queues of lorries in Kent become all the more likely – that market looks set for a bumper year.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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