I was astonished to learn from my 'cabbie' friend Gary that from the year 2000 onwards London cabs must be made suitable for wheelchair users: they will require a wide door, ramps, and secure positioning facilities for occupied wheelchairs.
While this may seem eminently sensible, it's a stupid and extravagant plan based on poorly considered legislation. For London's 23,000 black cabs, modification will, at £2000 per taxi, cost some £43 million (unless the operator chooses instead to invest in a new vehicle). There are surely better ways to spend this money. Just think what else could be achieved for London's disabled population . . .
Far better to clear our pavements of the dense 'foliage' of signage that endangers blind people, whose safety is increasingly threatened by bollards, pillars and posts positioned without care or thought by local authorities. Lending my arm recently to a blind commuter on his daily walk from the bbc to Oxford Circus tube station, I was appalled at the number of pavement obstructions - including a new post supporting a camera installed for traffic-light surveillance. He told me that his journey was becoming daily more hazardous due to the increasing proliferation of dangerously located street furniture and signage.
How many dropped kerbs and textured road crossings could be installed in the capital for £43 million? How much more accessible could the underground be made? Such work would be much more useful to both blind and wheelchair- bound Londoners than taxi modifications.
Mindless spending of public money is a sickening disease of the age. Consider the millions upon millions of pounds that have been spent disfiguring our streets with so called 'speed humps' - once quaintly known as 'sleeping policemen'. This appalling waste even threatens our safety: paramedics claim that serious dangers arise for patients as a result of slowed ambulance response times and - especially in serious fracture cases - because of additional injuries caused when bumping over humps.
Even when sensible provisions are made for the disabled community the solutions are often over-complex. Travelling by rail recently, I pressed the electronic 'OPEN' button to a lavatory which had been modified to facilitate disabled use, only to reveal a man seated on the loo. He had failed to press the electronic 'LOCK' button after operating the 'SHUT' mode. Struggling off the pan, he shuffled across the cubicle and again punched 'SHUT', just before I, with profuse apologies, once more pressed 'OPEN' by mistake . . . What's wrong with a good old mechanical lock which is reliable, cheap, and idiot-proof?
Common sense is essential when deciding both the 'what' and the 'how' of disabled provisions. Some benefit will undoubtedly come from the requirements of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act as it relates to buildings, but all too often we see consequent increases to building costs that far outweigh the modest gains achieved. And frequently standard building legislation is ruthlessly applied where relaxation would so ease the lives of the disabled and their families.
For example, a building inspector once refused me consent when I proposed that a wc pan and cistern be installed in the bedroom of an elderly gent whose legs had been amputated. His wife was obliged to carry his commode daily up and down two flights of stairs to the nearest lavatory. 'Lavatories must be enclosed,' insisted the officer, oblivious to the fact that this was unachievable in such a small bedroom - and that the gentleman performed the same undignified function daily on a commode that was itself not enclosed!
Unfortunately, where special facilities are introduced into buildings to assist wheelchair access, the solutions are often crude and damaging to the architecture. A constant reminder that this need not be so is provided by the elegant way in which the gentle ramps embrace the steps at the entrance to the riba. Enjoy it next time you are there . . . it's an example to us all.