The Germans, we are told, are sticklers for paperwork, administration, red tape and having everything in the right place at the right time. This penchant for adhering exactly to the letter of the law can best be illustrated by a recent argument between the town of Seesen (Goslar) and the State Lower Saxony over when a restaurant is legally a restaurant and when it is merely a place for vehicles to stop and drivers rest during their travels. The crux of the problem, for the town of Seesen, is whether the owner of a restaurant, café or similar establishment which serves food and drink, is allowed to demand payment for the use of their toilets.
The legal question came about when Tank & Rast (a German company owned partially by the British finance company Terra Firma Capital Partners – Guy Hand – and an investment arm of the Deutsche Bank) announced that the cost of using their facilities in one restaurant on the Autobahn 7 near Seesen was to be raised from 50¢ to 70¢ per person and visit of which, through a redeemable coupon, 50¢ would be refunded. With the argument that restaurants, cafes and similar establishments must offer their toilet facilities at no cost to customers, the town council ordered Tank & Rast to either offer the facilities for free, or raise the value of the coupon. The business, the town pointed out, falls under the Gaststättengesetz which forbids the raising of a fee for toilet use.
The counter-argument comes from the regional government of Lower Saxony, which ordered Seesen to rescind their demand for cost-free toilet facilities on food-serving establishments alongside the autobahn. The property, so Lower Saxony’s Minister Silke Schaar, is regulated according to the Bundesfernstraßengesetz, which has nothing to do with restaurants but governs building works along the main roads and highways throughout the country. Since the restaurant has been built on property directly linked to the autobahn it is classified as a Raststätte – where all forms of traffic merely stop to allow their drivers to rest – rather than a Gaststätte – where people stop to rest and eat. The fact that there is a restaurant attached is not relevant, the toilets, so the argument, are in the Raststätte section.
For Erik Homann from the city council in Seesen, a Raststätte that offers food and drink should be classified as a Gaststätte which offers exactly the same facilities. He points out that the regional authorities make other demands of the city as if the property falls under their jurisdiction – such as the removal of abandoned vehicles. The quality and health controls fall under the jurisdiction of Goslar. Why, then, should the toilets be the responsibility of the central government in Berlin?