The University of Oxford Estates Service has submitted a planning application to Oxford City Council for the refurbishment of basement toilets in the Sheldonian Theatre, including the introduction of an independent-access, all-gender bathroom.

On February 27th an application for the internal refurbishment of Sheldonian Theatre basement toilets was submitted to Oxford City Council, and the planning application was validated on March 6th. Aric Barcena, the case agent for the application and an architect employed by the Conservation & Buildings Team of the University’s Estates Service, explains that since the Sheldonian Theatre is a Grade I listed building, an application is needed to measure ‘impact’ and provide ‘mitigating details’.

The application submitted includes a heritage assessment done by the University: according to the Estates Service, the basement toilets in question are not original to the building but were added in the 20th century, and their “current conditions and aesthetics … are not in keeping with the rest of the building’s interiors”. The University cites adherence to the Equality Act of 2010 as justification for the refurbishments, asserting that the new gender-neutral toilet will improve “privacy and gender-equality” for all visitors and users of the Sheldonian Theatre.

The proposal describes the refurbishments as such: “Internal refurbishment of the north and south basement toilets to include upgrades to mechanical and electrical services, replacement wall and floor finishes, internal redecoration works and new suspended ceilings. Alterations to the northeast female toilets to provide a new WC with independent access from the corridor. Reconfiguration of the southeast male toilet layout to conceal the existing services.”

The Conservation Officer from Oxford City Council told the Estates Service last year at a site visit that “it does not appear that the proposed scheme would impact any original/historic fabric of significance”, and Barcena anticipates no resistance to these upcoming works from historical societies. However, due to the current situation with COVID-19, he cautions that the timeline for these refurbishment works will all depend on the government’s pandemic guidelines for the construction sector and the effects on the supply chain. A full budget has yet to be calculated because the Estates Service is waiting on contractors’ bids, but once the planning application is approved and the full values of the works are calculated, the works will be planned in “continuous phases”, thus allowing some toilets to remain open while others are being refurbished.

Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign’s 2018 Trans Report criticizes a general lack of gender-neutral facilities in many colleges and University buildings, and strongly recommends that “all University, college and faculty buildings be required to install gender-neutral facilities”. Aric Barcena comments that the University’s Estates Service is “always looking for new opportunities to increase the equality standard in university buildings”, and asks that anyone interested in this issue contact their Accessibility team for more information and future plans.