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Government must do more to improve disabled access, says committee

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The government must lead the way in improving access to buildings for disabled people, says a new report published today (25 April)

Chambers McMillan Architects RINGS8823 copy  2    Copy

Chambers McMillan Architects RINGS8823 copy 2 Copy

A wheelchair accessible holiday cottage in Fife, Scotland, by Chambers McMillan Architects - source: David Barbour

The document, Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment,  published by the Women and Equalities Committee, highlights the challenges facing disabled people in accessing homes, public spaces and other buildings.

It recommends that the government should develop a cross-departmental strategy bringing together all built environment policy affecting accessibility. 

This strategy, which would be spearheaded by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), would produce best practice guidance for local authorities and those working in the built environment, developed in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations.

The report said the DCLG should convene a ‘stakeholder forum’, including disabled people, which would influence this strategy and provide annual feedback. 

Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said the government needed to be ‘more ambitious’ in making the built environment inclusive for disabled people, whose legal rights to participate in all parts of life would be ‘undermined if the built environment locks them out’.

The burden of ensuring an accessible environment falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people

She said: ‘The burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people – an approach which is neither morally nor practically sustainable.

‘Instead, we need a proactive, concerted effort by “mainstream” systems and structures – including national and local government and built environment professionals – to take on the challenge of creating an inclusive environment.’

The report also notes that these challenges do not only face those with physical impairments, but also people with less visible disabilities, such as mental health, and neurological disorders such as autism.

It argues that the Equality Act 2010 is not having the impact it was expected to have in terms of improving accessibility for disabled people, and that the government had left change to be achieved ‘through a model of enforcement that relies on litigation by private individuals’. 

The Women and Equalities Committee launched the Disability and the Built Environment inquiry in August last year. The report has now been handed to the DCLG, which will consider the recommendations and provide a response in the coming months.

Key recommendations

Strategic leadership the government needs to improve its co-ordination and leadership, in order to make it clear that inclusive design is a statutory requirement.  A cross-departmental strategy should developed by the DCLG, and for which it would be held responsible, bringing together all built environment policy affecting accessibility. 
Designing for equality The National Planning Policy Framework and National Planning Practice Guidance should include a dedicated section on access for disabled people and inclusive design for local planning authorities and decision-takers. Local plans should not be used unless there is evidence they address access for disabled people in the built environment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission should investigate how compliant the Planning Inspectorate is with the Equality Act. Planning permission should only be granted where the plans make sufficient provision for accessibility. 
Housing The government needs to future proof housing standards by raising the mandatory minimum to Category 2, the equivalent of the former Lifetime Homes standard, and applying it to all new homes. This includes the conversion of buildings such as warehouses or former mills into homes.
Public buildings and places The government should do more to make public realms and buildings accessible. For example, by updated regulations for new buildings and improving the Licensing Act 2003. A specific priority should be building a greater number of accessible toilets, known as Changing Places toilets.
Shared Spaces The removal of ’shared spaces’ such as controlled crossings and kerbs, as well as the inconistency in the design of these schemes, are concern many disabled people. The government should stop the use of such schemes until it replaces its 2011 guidance on shared spaces, and ensures this is developed with the involvement of disabled people. 

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