Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment Contents

Annex 1: Note of Committee Outreach Events


The Committee held three outreach events to hear from disabled people and those handling issues of accessibility on the ground: one in Bath (November 2016), one in Birmingham (January 2017), and one in Leeds (March 2017). Participants at each of these events included a mixture of individual disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, disability charities, built environment professionals, and representatives of local authorities. Discussions were facilitated by Committee Members, and anonymised notes were taken of the discussions.

Event 1: Bath

The group discussed barriers to accessibility in the built environment, changes that would make the built environment more accessible and the involvement of disabled people in decisions affecting accessibility in the built environment.

Attendees were asked what one change to the built environment would make the biggest difference in their lives. The response was that one change wouldn’t make a difference: participants felt strongly that the built environment as a whole needed to change. The group identified a number of barriers, some structural and some caused by behaviour. Examples cited were parking over dropped kerbs and frustration over dropped kerbs not being consistent, being unable to get into shops due to small steps with no ramp and people missing medical appointments because of barriers getting there.

Participants felt that too often accessibility was an afterthought, resulting in costly retrofitting, and that there was a need to recognise that access is not just about people with disabilities—it is about society as a whole. The importance of the design of the public realm to public health also needed to be better recognised.

The group argued that people have a range of disabilities, and that often a solution for one group can provide benefits for others. They gave the example of ensuring that the availability and location of dropped kerbs was consistent, which they felt would meet the needs of both wheelchair users and those with visual impairments.

The ‘heritage’ environment of Bath presented problems, and participants felt that there had been no noticeable changes in such ‘old towns’ since the Equality Act 2010. The apparent unwillingness of conservation officers to allow adjustments for the purpose of access was cited as a barrier. On a more positive note, participants welcomed the development of a Bath Accessibility App, which they felt could help people to ‘take control’ of their environment.

Further detailed discussion focussed on four areas: design and planning; legal issues; local authorities; and homes and housebuilding.

Design and planning

Participants were concerned that new buildings didn’t necessarily conform to access design standards, and this was not always picked up by local planning officers as they may not have the expertise to be able to make this assessment. They were particularly concerned that local authorities did not always have access to the specialist advice that they needed and while there were organisations that could offer such advice they could be quite costly. It was also felt that building inspectors were not as good on access as they used to be.

The group felt that the training of architects needed to be improved, and that ‘human factors’ in design were missing, meaning that it was not inclusive design. They felt there needed to be a ‘normalisation’ of assessing architectural designs for built environments, housing or outside spaces for inclusiveness and that planners and architects did not see accessibility as a process of continuous development.

Thirdly, the group discussed the role of developers and the ‘client’. They felt that there was a power relationship problem between developers and clients, local authorities and end users. Architects could only make a decision with the consent of their client, and participants were concerned that clients over-rode the built environment specialists as they did not understand their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

Legal issues

Participants argued that legal protections meant nothing if people weren’t held to account and legal protections enforced. They were concerned that the Equality Act 2010 watered down the protection for disabled people from that contained in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and that more specific legal guidelines for designers, builders and architects were needed. The existing guidance on shared spaces was felt to be especially flawed.

They felt that there needed to be greater clarity for service providers on their duties, that public bodies were not meeting their obligations under equality law and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should have ‘teeth’ to be able to enforce the guidelines, similar to what the Disability Rights Commission had done in the past. They felt strongly that enforcement needed to be followed through.

Local authorities

Discussing the role of local authorities, participants acknowledged that local authorities had suffered cuts and there were now limited numbers of access officers available. Some councils had responded by bringing in access specialists as contractors, but this was not always the case. Participants argued that an ageing population meant that simple things like putting hand rails and ramps in public areas would be a large help for a number of groups of people—both families and disabled people.

The introduction of shared spaces was felt to have had a particularly negative impact on people with visual impairments and other disabilities, due to the lack of push-button crossings and these areas being exceptionally difficult to navigate. They felt that consultation from local authorities on planning and development of open spaces was poor.

Homes and house building

The group felt that there was a lack of accessible housing, and that younger disabled people and those acquiring disabilities were particularly affected. A young person in the group talked about how he had struggled to find accessible housing in a location that allowed him to live independently, while another participant talked about the difficulties of getting adaptations to an existing home after a stroke.

The group felt that opportunities for construction companies to work with accessibility officers or to adhere to accessibility guidelines were being missed. They found this frustrating as “it doesn’t cost extra if it is included in the plans from the start”, for example putting in a ramp or space for a lift, and because they had found that volume housebuilders were reluctant to change existing designs to improve accessibility. They had found that builders didn’t ‘cater for the exceptions’, such as those who have disabilities. They spoke of people unable to get in or out of their front or back doors as they were not wide enough.

Event 2: Birmingham

The attendees split into two groups and discussed four questions. Below are the points made in response to each question.

Q1: How can we remove barriers, related to the built environment, that prevent disabled people from using services (public or private)?

Participants argued that accessibility was not just for buildings but also for the journey to get to buildings. They identified local concerns around poor access to local shops, parking, trains, and trams. Many felt that floating bus stops did not work for those with sight loss and that the ‘touchscreen culture’ was problematic. Concern was also expressed that new buildings did not adhere to inclusive design requirements.

Participants felt that the current rules allowed for too much subjectivity in deciding what was accessible, and were concerned that the building regulations do not go as far as British Standards. They felt that access experts were often not involved early enough, and that local authorities in particular should be doing more to involve disabled people in the design of future building projects. Involving the person who would be managing the building early on would also help to ensure that a building met accessibility requirements.

Participants felt that the concept of ‘reasonable’ adjustments did not go far enough and wanted to see ‘necessary’ adjustments carried out. They emphasised the need to recognise that there is a variety of disabilities and that disabilities are not always immediately visible.

Q2: Can local authorities do more through licensing, planning and/or enforcement to increase the accessibility of the built environment?

Participants felt that planning authorities were not doing enough to critically examine accessibility plans. They wanted to see new homes that were as accessible as possible and better minimum standards when properties go through change of use. People felt the Birmingham Council seemed to be making public spaces more attractive at the expense of accessibility.

Participants argued for better access leaders in local authorities who have knowledge of inclusive design and consequences’ on those who fail to comply with accessibility regulations. They wanted current laws to be enforced and have ‘teeth’, particularly those about parking on pavements, any premises requiring a licence to be better policed on accessibility and for an increase in the importance given to disability in national standards and guidance. They felt that local authorities, and Access Officers in particular, needed the ability to enforce the Equality Act 2010 and that access audits of all buildings were needed, alongside a budget to make changes.

Q3: What is your experience with shared spaces and what do people mean when they say ‘shared space’?

Participants told us that people with visual impairments were very afraid of shared spaces. They argued that shared space was a trend and fashion, suitable for those looking for aesthetic designs but not for disabled users. Participants wanted a moratorium on new shared spaces until proper guidance is in place, a ban on the removal of kerbs and controlled crossings and an immediate accessibility audit of current shared space schemes. Specific problems cited included:

Q4: How effectively are communities able to engage with the process of decision making that shapes the accessibility of the built environment?

Participants argued that “it should be do it ‘with’ us, not ‘for’ us when it comes to building consultations” and that statutory co-production would be better than the current system of consultation. They felt consultation was often used as an excuse to not do an impact assessment and argued that local authorities should be held to account by ‘equality impact and design and access assessments’. Concern was expressed about how consultation was carried out, for example a lack of direct contact with visually impaired people meant many were not able to engage with consultations that were advertised using mainstream methods.

Event 3: Leeds

Attendees were split into three tables which considered: their experience of local authorities, involvement of disabled people, and the use of shared space principles in street design.

Role of local authorities

Participants felt that the Equality Act 2010 had had less of an impact than anticipated. They questioned why new buildings were still being built with steps up to entrances, and access removed in existing places because it was not ‘aesthetically pleasing’. They felt that businesses were not reprimanded for lack of reasonable adjustments in their buildings, and that people tended to feel that if they accommodated wheelchair users then they had made adequate provision for all those with disabilities. They felt that access tended to be seen as an additional, not integral, aspect to consider.

Participants were concerned that current legislation did not require organisations and businesses to improve accessibility when conducting refurbishments. They argued that information on a building’s accessibility features should be displayed online and at the entrance, and that a kitemark system to rate building accessibility should be introduced as well as financial incentives such as VAT exemptions for refurbishments that improved accessibility. Organisations struggled to find accessible office spaces in Leeds, and it was felt that such an exemption could be particularly helpful in improving the accessibility of offices undergoing refurbishment. The group also wanted to see licensing used more effectively to improve accessibility, including more powers under the Licensing Act 2003.

Participants were concerned that the reduction in access specialists employed by local authorities and the lack of people entering the profession were having a negative impact. Leeds was hailed as an example of giving good planning guidance, credited to their in-house expertise, but participants were concerned that this was not true elsewhere in the country. They gave examples of where advice had been ignored: in Bradford a unit established to engage disabled people on work to a train station had advised that lifts be built but ramps were used instead.

Involvement of disabled people

Participants wanted to see active listening by public body decision-makers, enforcement of legislation and more building controls on redevelopment and refurbishment work. They felt that there was a need for overarching and well-established objective guidance, and that it should be a legal requirement to involve disabled people from the start.

Participants had seen examples of:

The group was not sure whether local authorities had the power to make public buildings more accessible, or whether they were using the powers they have. They were concerned that “austerity is pushing disability consideration to the bottom of the agenda”.

The group expressed a strong sentiment that local authorities and public bodies had little interest in hearing disabled people’s views on public space accessibility. They cited a survey stating that two-thirds of British adults feel uncertain about engaging with a person with a disability and one-fifth would go out of their way to avoid disabled people. Participants had seen fire safety used as a reason to remove disabled people from meetings. They felt that local authorities needed to have better systems in place, and publicise such systems, to allow disabled people to contribute to public planning on accessibility and that committees and platforms such as Public Engagement Advisory Groups and disability committees in local authorities needed to be better embedded.

Experiences of ‘shared spaces’ schemes

The group argued that a specialist is needed within each local authority to champion disabled people’s rights, provide accountability to avoid inquiries from being ‘passed around’ numerous members of staff across departments, and be active in enforcing any legal provisions or guidelines introduced on shared spaces. There was also a need for clear and consistent national regulations on access, in order to put equal access at the top of the agenda for builders and planners. The Department for Transport had promised an update of guidance on shared spaces in 2015, but had not yet delivered.

The group was concerned that as devolution and localisation progressed there was an increasing lack of consistent enforcement, and that police enforcement of obstruction of pavements was lacking. Some argued that local authorities need the confidence to upset one group in order to award rights of equal access to another. The group did not want to see shared spaces put in, arguing that flat surfaces mean guide dogs and cane users cannot use the texture of the ground to navigate the environment. Such factors caused confusion and created dangerous situations. They wanted to see kerbs raised from current average of 25mm to 60mm for guide dogs and cane users to better recognise them, hybrid and electric cars equipped with sound so they pose less of a threat to those who are blind and argued that the UK should adopt an institution like that of the US ‘federal road safety agency’ to better enforce, focus on and manage road safety.

Suggestions for recommendations

Each table was asked to consider the recommendations they would like the Committee to make. Proposals included:

24 April 2017