All too often, disabled people find their lives needlessly restricted by features of the built environment. Many workplaces and service premises are inaccessible, there is very little choice of where to live, and the public spaces through which people need to move can be prohibitively excluding. Together these factors constitute an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality.
This is an issue that affects us all: not just because, even if not disabled ourselves, most people are related to, work with or are friends with someone who is, but because increases in average life expectancy will mean that, over time, an ever-greater proportion of the population will be living with disability.
Legislation is in place which should, in theory, prevent inaccessible buildings and public spaces being created and enduring. The Equality Act 2010 requires employers and bodies providing services to anticipate the need for reasonable adjustments so as not to discriminate against disabled people; this is relevant not only to the occupiers of buildings but also to the planning and building control process. However, the burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people, an approach that we consider to be neither morally nor practically sustainable. That burden needs to lie more obviously with the bodies who create, occupy and manage the environment.
The Government has in place a range of levers that can be used to achieve more accessible built environments: national planning policy and guidance states that local planning authorities should take inclusive design into account, and building regulations stipulate that reasonable provision should be made for people to gain access to and use buildings. The levers also encompass tools such as Disabled Facilities Grants, and they cross departmental boundaries. We believe that greater coordination and leadership is needed to make this framework effective, and to make it clear that inclusive design is a statutory requirement, not just a ‘nice-to-do’.
Our first key conclusion is, therefore, that the Government must act to more visibly lead the charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment, through public procurement, fiscal initiatives, transparently modelling best practice, and ultimately, showing strategic leadership by bringing together the full range of work on improving access and inclusion in the built environment into a coherent and transparent strategy. The Department for Communities and Local Government should be held responsible for making this happen.
Secondly, the Government should make it easier for local planning authorities to follow this lead through revision and clarification of national planning policy and guidance. Local Plans should not be found sound without evidence that they address access for disabled people in terms of housing, public spaces and the wider built environment; to support this, the Equality and Human Rights Commission should investigate the Planning Inspectorate’s compliance with the Equality Act. Planning consent should only be given where there is evidence that a proposal makes sufficient provision for accessibility.
More ambition is needed in the standards the Government sets for the homes that the country desperately needs. There is ample evidence, nationally, for the Government to require a reasonable level of accessibility for all new homes. Sadly, the ability to ‘visit’ a home is the current mandatory minimum—and sometimes the standard is not effective at achieving even that. In particular, the exemption for conversions means that substantial developments of dwellings can proceed without any provision for accessible housing at all; we recommend that this be changed. In order to adopt a higher standard, a local authority currently has to prove that there are enough disabled people already living in the area to warrant building homes that are, or could be made, accessible. This is the wrong way around. Housing standards need to be future-proofed and to produce meaningful choice in housing, not just to respond to immediate local need. The Government should raise the mandatory minimum to Category 2, the equivalent of the former Lifetime Homes standard.
Much more can be done to make the public realm and public buildings more accessible: through building accessible workplaces, and incentivising employers to improve existing ones; by updating the regulations for new buildings, which are currently based on a 16 year-old standard; and by amending the Licensing Act 2003 to make it clear that equal access is as important a consideration as, for example, having adequate measures to prevent noise nuisance. Greater provision of Changing Places toilets should be a specific priority: such facilities should be required in all large building developments that are open to the public.
Finally, we address one specific issue relating to inclusive streetscapes. Shared spaces schemes are a source of concern to many disabled people across the country, particularly features such as the removal of controlled crossings and kerbs and inconsistency in the design of schemes from place to place. We heard reports from many groups and individuals that their ability to move about freely in the public realm had been severely curtailed by the implementation of schemes which they considered to be unsafe. In light of such evidence, we recommend that the Government urgently replace the 2011 guidance on shared spaces and ensure that the new guidance is clearly founded on an inclusive design approach. In the meantime, the Government should require local authorities to call a halt to new shared space schemes and to review existing schemes, in partnership with local disabled people.
In the course of our inquiry we heard from housebuilders, standard setters, inspectors, lawyers and local authorities, but no voices are more important than those of disabled people themselves. We have also made recommendations for improving engagement with disabled people to ensure that they have a meaningful input, at both national and local level, to the creation of inclusive buildings and environments.
24 April 2017