Memorandum submitted by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (PB 12)
We welcome the Government's Planning Bill and the opportunity to submit evidence to the General Committee considering it.
Guide Dogs is the world's largest provider of guide dogs and the UK's largest third party provider of mobility and rehabilitation care to blind and partially sighted people. We are also the UK's largest voluntary sector provider of funds for ophthalmic research which seeks to find cures and preventative care for blindness and the causes of blindness.
Our vision is of a world in which blind and partially sighted people can enjoy the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as everyone else. We campaign for equal access to goods and services, transport, the street and built environment, health and rehabilitation services.
Blind and Partially Sighted People and Planning
The difficulty of the inaccessible built environment is a key barrier faced by blind and partially sighted people trying to live independent lives. Many of these concerns could be addressed by getting things right in the planning process. A key to achieving this is having a meaningful and accessible consultation process for planning proposals. Guide Dogs remain concerned that this Bill provides for an inadequate consultation process in terms of meeting the needs of blind and partially sighted people.
In this briefing we have organised our comments under the headings of the different parts of the bill.
Part 1 Infrastructure Planning Commission
The new Infrastructure Commission will play a key role in determining some major planning applications that could profoundly impact the ability of blind and partially sighted people to live independent lives. It is therefore essential that all commissioners and staff receive disability equality training as is already expected of local authority members and officers involved in planning decisions. We would also like to hear from the Government how they plan to make sure that there is expertise on disability access issues amongst the Commissioner and the Commission staff.
Guide Dogs would also welcome an assurance that the Public Sector Duty Regulations under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 are amended so that the new Commission is subject to the specific as well as the general duties under the Public Sector Duty. Guide Dogs is suggesting a probing amendment to Schedule One in order to seek an assurance from the Government that they will bring in the necessary regulations to achieve this.
Part 2 National Policy Statements
Clauses 7 and 8 of this Bill provide for the Secretary of State to carry out the consultation and associated publicity as he or she sees fit. There are no requirements for the consultation to last the 12 weeks specified under existing Cabinet Office guidelines. Blind and partially sighted people need a longer consultation period because their access needs often mean that they require consultation documents in a format that takes longer to read. It is also Guide Dog's experience that consultation documents in accessible formats are often produced late, if at all.
The ability of blind and partially sighted people to respond to consultations is also further hampered by the lack of publicity about the consultation in accessible formats. Consultations are often advertised in the public notice section of newspapers in the smallest possible font. Guide Dogs are suggesting an amendment to Clause 7 (5) to require that appropriate mediums and methods are utilised to reach more blind and partially sighted people. Talking newspapers could be used, for example.
We notice that Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to promote sustainable development in drawing up access policy statements. We believe that there should be an equivalent duty for disability access and Guide Dogs suggests that a new Clause be added to the Bill by the Committee to provide for this. Amongst the core issues to be covered should be the need for the equivalent of access statements that now accompany local planning applications.
Part 3 Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects
We welcome the fact that the Government have listened to responses to the Planning White Paper and has included railways amongst the list of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Railways have a key role to play in enabling blind and partially sighted people to have independent mobility but their infrastructure is often very difficult for them to use, and in some cases is inaccessible to them.
Trunk roads and motorways are included amongst the national infrastructure projects. Even where transport infrastructure is accessible the highway remains a major barrier. For example, blind and partially sighted people may experience barriers in even getting to the bus stop. The situation is being made worse by the introduction of shared surface schemes were the kerbs separating the road and the pavement are removed. Kerbs are traditionally used to demarcate the pathway from the carriageway and guide dog owners, long cane users and other blind and partially sighted people with no mobility aid use the kerb in different ways to ensure that they stay out of the path of oncoming traffic. There are many shared surface schemes already in existence or proposed on local roads but some, for example the proposed scheme for Exhibition Road is on a trunk road. Shared surface schemes are also made worse by the failure of local authorities to take on board the responses to consultation on proposed schemes.
In the last session of Parliament 117 MPs signed EDM 1680 welcoming a joint statement on shared surface schemes from an alliance of disability organisations. We thank those MPs who have supported us and hope that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will take on board the concerns of MPs and a wide range of disability groups.
Part 4 Requirement for Development Consent
Clauses 28 (3) and 29 cover listed building and conservation area consent for applications. It is essential that the Infrastructure Planning Commission uses its powers to encourage innovative solutions to enable improved accessibility for disabled people while respecting listed buildings and conservation areas
Part 5: Applications for Orders Granting Development Consent:
Guide Dogs welcome the fact that Clause 32 maintains the requirement to include a statement of community involvement following consultation on the Planning White Paper. We also note that Clause 32 gives the Commission the power to give guidance in connection with applications. We hope that this process will include giving guidance on how to make the planning process accessible for blind and partially sighted people. Planning applications are often particularly inaccessible to blind and partially sighted people and relying on the planner to interpret plans can lead to problems and assumptions on both sides. One person interviewed as part of our focus groups on shared surfaces mentioned above, explained how he had been happy with proposals as described to him by officers during the consultation, but would not have agreed to the proposals had he been told that there would be no kerbs.
The information had simply not been clearly communicated to him during consultation.
Clause 34 requires a register of applications to be kept. We would suggest that the Committee amend the Bill to require that the Register is accessible to blind and partially sighted people.
Clauses 37 to 39 set out a list of organisations which promoters of major infrastructure projects are required to consult. We are concerned that there is no requirement to consult representatives of the disability community despite the fact that these are the procedures that will govern some of the biggest planning applications in England and Wales. We would suggest that the Committee amend Clause 37 (1) ( c) to introduce such a requirement.
We are concerned with the proposed minimum consultation period under Clause 40 (2) of just 28 days and would suggest that that Clause 40 (2) is amended to introduce a minimum of 12 weeks consultation in line with Cabinet Office consultation guidance. As we have highlighted under Part 2 above, consultation documents are often only produced in accessible formats at the last moment and even where documents in accessible formats are produced in good time blind and partially sighted people often need longer to read those formats.
Clauses 42 and 43 cover the need to publicise the consultation. Specifically Clause 42 (4) (a) talks about a notice in a newspaper circulating in the vicinity of the proposed development. These notices are often in very small print and we would suggest that the Committee amend the Bill to require that the consultation is published in a local talking newspaper were one exists.
We welcome the requirement in Clause 44 to consider and take into account the responses to the consultation before submitting the final planning application. The report Shared Surface Street Design Research Project The Issues: Report of Focus Groups produced by Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in 2006 shows that local authorities often did not pay heed to what was said in response to the consultation.
Participants in most focus groups had been involved in consultations, often as part of the local access group. However the general view was that they were told what was going to be done rather than asked what they wanted:
"Everything was 'we are doing this, we are going to do that'. We argued against it - but they took no notice." (Blind person, Hull)
"I went to one meeting and they didn't listen to us - they just didn't listen. It is always statistics and more statistics." (Guide dog owner, Hull)
"We are just part of the tick box." (Wheelchair user, Newbury)
"It knocks your confidence when you go to meetings and get ignored." (Guide dog owner, Coventry)
Several participants commented that they felt that their council had preconceived ideas before consulting, and were reluctant to change some aspects of their plans:
"We spent many weeks discussing what would be best, and at every meeting we said we must have audible crossings, but the response we got was 'We can't do that, it's not part of our project'." (Blind person, Hull)
"When it comes to comments, finance seems to dictate what actually happens." (Blind person, Newbury")
Part 6: Deciding Applications for Orders Granting Development Consent
Guide Dogs is pleased that this part of the Bill requires the applicant to publicise an application once it has been submitted and that clause 52 provides for criminal penalties were false statements are made in this regard. However, Clause 50 (7) say that the application must be publicised in the prescribed manner and Clause 50 (8) provides for regulations to make provisions covering publicity requirements, which we hope will address the publicity concerns outlined above. Due to the difficulties outlined above it would also help if Clause 50 (2) was amended by the Committee to ensure that local disability organisations and local visual impairment societies were always consulted.
Part 7: Development Consent Orders
Part 8: Enforcement
Part 9: Changes to Existing Planning Regimes
Bearing in mind the concerns about the effective involvement of blind and partially sighted people outlined above we do not support the proposals in Clause 146 (3) (a) to remove the requirement for the local development documents to include a statement of community involvement or Clause 146 (4) ( c) for that statement to be subject to independent examination and would suggest that the Committee remove both sub clauses from the Bill.
Clause 156 introduces a new express permission of local authorities to make non material change to planning permissions. Whist we do not object to the principle of this Clause we hope that both the Government and planning authorities will be careful that changes are agreed under this procedure will not reduce the accessibility of developments to disabled people..
Part 10: Community Infrastructure Levy
Guide Dogs believes that the community infrastructure levy could potentially be used to fund access improvements for disabled people. We hope that in drawing up the regulations under Clause 167 the Government will look for opportunities to improve access for disabled people and consult with disability organisations in drawing up the regulations.
Part 11: Final Provisions