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Planning to end discrimination

New planning guidance intends to break down physical barriers and exclusions imposed on people by poor design

A new planning and design guide has been launched by planning minister Tony McNulty, which stresses the importance of accessible environments. The guidance indicates how the planning system can be used 'to help bring about accessible environments in which nobody is disadvantaged'.

McNulty says: 'I want to encourage planners, architects and developers, among others, to make good use of this guide breaking down unnecessary physical barriers and exclusions imposed on people by poor design of buildings and places.'

In the confusing spirit of particularist inclusiveness, this government guide does not apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

With no diagrams, layouts or charts, it relies on 'key suggestions' for good practice, with a range of bullet points summing up the sections, which, because of their generic nature, are somewhat platitudinous.

Point 1 announces that 'all parties in the planning and development process should recognise the benefits of, and endeavour to bring about, inclusive design'. The nature of inclusive design is as vague as ever, but instead of the 'reasonableness' clause of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), this guide seems to impose a more technical and managerial view, delegating the parameters to local officers and their development plans.

In the list of parties that are 'involved in the development and planning process' and concerned with inclusive environments, the government is notable by its absence.

An inclusive environment, the guide tells us, is one that can be used by everyone, regardless of age, gender or disability, and is 'made up of many elements, such as society's and individual's attitudes, the design of products and communications and the design of the built environment'.

Quite a tall order. To indicate the extent of the problem as it sees it, the guide states that children's needs are often ignored altogether. For example, hand-wash basins in public toilets are usually too high and baby changing facilities are sometimes located in ladies'WCs but not in the gents', preventing fathers from using the facility.

Through design, the message seems to say, we can change society.

Unfortunately, lowest common denominator designs may be produced and unnecessary facilities added to the specification to minimise the architect's exposure.

Similarly, local authorities are being encouraged to include as many aspects of their inclusion strategy as possible in their structure, local or development plans, for avoidance of liability.As the guide says, 'do not rely on a single access policy'.

Applications will be refused if they do not include a sufficiently robust accessibility proposal. Planners will undergo training to sharpen up their understanding of inclusive design issues and ensure that applications are scrutinised more rigorously - 'working closely with the applicant'.

Since the guide recommends that local authorities appoint an access officer, the National Register for Access Consultants gets a good plug.

As a final stick to ensure architects and clients are doing their bit, the guide advises that Section 106 legislation can be brought to bear.

Since these often concern mobility matters, the guide provides some ideas, hinting that public transport facilities relating to a development be upgraded to the standards of BS8300:2001, with disabled parking bays located at non-residential developments.

So what is disability? Well, the report states that there are 11.7 million people with a disability in the UK - 15 per cent of the population - although it adds that this is because some people report more than one disability. Officially, as far as Andy Rickell, chief executive of the British Council of Disabled People, is concerned, there are 8.6 million disabled people in the UK. But this still represents almost one in eight people; including those with short-sightedness, concentration difficulties or a limited dexterity. By this criteria, I account for three of the official disabled statistics in this guide. (Let's not mention adverse continence - 1.6 million people are disabled by this affliction. ) Time needs to be put aside and built into the planning application stage for consultation.

Clause 4.3.2, relating to competing policy objectives, says: 'Preserving the character of a listed building may appear to conflict with proposals to widen a door opening. Alternatively, a proposed ramp located on the public highway might be seen to constitute an obstruction. However, in most situations, a solution can be found which will comply with all the relevant legislation.

'Conservation officers and highways engineers need to think laterally and creatively. They need to work with access officers and access groups to find imaginative and innovative solutions that provide inclusive environments.'

The Planning and Access for Disabled People: A Good Practice Guide can be downloaded from

www.planning. odpm. gov. uk/padp/index.htm.

Contact the National Register for Access Consultants on 020 7234 0434 or visit www. nrac. org. uk

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