Building for Equality: Select Committee notes Fry’s contribution

The Government must act to lead the charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment, says the Women and Equalities Committee in a major new report published this week HC 631 embargo This should include public procurement, fiscal initiatives and transparently modelling best practice – and bringing the full range of work on improving access and inclusion in the built environment into a coherent and transparent strategy, with the Department for Communities and Local Government held responsible for making this happen.

The report highlights the challenges disabled people face in accessing homes, buildings and public spaces. Many workplaces 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. The report argues that these factors constitute an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality.

Disabling features of the built environment do not only pose problems for people with physical impairments, but also for people who have less visible disabilities including mental health and neurological conditions, or who are neuro diverse (such as people with autism).

The report proposes a range of practical policy solutions. Above all, the Committee calls for improved engagement with disabled people to ensure that they have a meaningful input – both nationally and locally – to the creation of inclusive buildings and environments.

The Equality Act 2010 requires reasonable adjustments to be made so that disabled people are not excluded from workplaces, public buildings, and places that serve the public. However, the Act is not having the kind of impact that it was expected to have: the Government has left change to be achieved through a model of enforcement that relies on litigation by private individuals.

Committee Chair Maria Miller MP said:

 

“Poor accessibility affects us all. Even if not disabled ourselves, most people are related to, work with or are friends with someone who is. Increases in life expectancy will mean that over time, an ever greater proportion of us will be living with disability, and our understanding of ‘disability’ has developed to recognise that those with mental health problems, autism or other less visible impairment types also face disabling barriers.”

 

“Yet 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 Government must be more ambitious. Our current environment was not created overnight and will not be mended overnight – but those with the influence to do so have had over 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 first set out the standards expected of them. Disabled people have the right to participate in all parts of life under the law; this is undermined if the built environment locks them out. Our report sets out a realistic but challenging agenda that, if adopted, can give this issue a priority and deliver the changes that we all need.”

 

Baroness Deech, who chaired the House of Lords Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability in 2016-17, said:

“I welcome the recommendations made today by the Women and Equalities Committee. They support and reinforce those made by the Lords’ report into the Equality Act 2010 and Disability. Our aim in that report was to enable disabled people to enjoy life, to participate in society, work and travel on an equal basis, as is required by the law. The ability to access public and private buildings, city centres and other parts of the public realm, is central to this and I urge the government to take the proactive leadership that this report recommends.

 

“This is not a minority issue. As the population lives longer more and more of us will find ourselves disabled by the barriers that remain in our built environment – whether through sight, hearing or mobility impairment or illness. If we are going to remain active into older age the government must respond to the wealth of evidence in both this report and the report of the Committee that I had the privilege of chairing, and ensure that all our buildings and public spaces – present and future – are accessible by everyone.”

 

Lord Holmes of Richmond, who gave evidence to the Committee’s inquiry, said:

 

“I’m grateful that the Committee has recognised the importance of this issue and consulted so widely with stakeholders and disabled people as well as disability groups. The impact on people’s lives when public spaces are not accessible is devastating. Inclusive design must be the golden thread that runs through all new buildings and works in the public realm.


“I’m also delighted that the committee agree with my recommendation that a moratorium on shared space schemes is necessary. Local authorities require clarity in this space and the exclusion of people from their communities and potential waste of public money must end.”

Key recommendations include:

·         Strategic leadership

The Government has a range of levers that can be used to achieve more accessible built environments, but is not using them well enough. Greater co-ordination 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’.

·         Designing for equality

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. Chris Fry’s evidence that the building regulations represent minimum requirements and that the Equality Act “is not minimalist in its purpose” was accepted and noted. He gave the example of a building in compliance with building regulations because it is equipped with the required accessible toilet, but the occupier uses that toilet as a storage cupboard—in which case they would be in breach of the Equality Act. Chris’ evidence that failures to install or maintain hearing loops (including) an Ear, Nose and Throat Department that repeatedly failed to install or maintain a functioning hearing loop was also highlighted as disconnects with the building system as it relates to the Equality Act duties.

 

·         Housing

More ambition is needed in the standards the Government sets for the homes that the country desperately needs. 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, and apply it to all new homes – including the conversion of buildings such as warehouses or former mills into homes.

·         Public buildings and places

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 and amending the Licensing Act 2003. 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.

 

·         Shared Spaces

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. The report recommends that the Government halt the use is such schemes pending the urgent replacement of the 2011 guidance on shared spaces, ensure that the new guidance is developed with the involvement of disabled people – and that it is followed in practice. This is particularly close to our heart as Chris has been involved with challenging Shared Spaces schemes with Simon Goodall and Guide Dogs and through the Unity Law Blurred Lines campaign report previously.

If you have personal experience of any of these barriers to access, and need advice about how to overcome them, please get in touch!HC 631 embargo

About the Author

Chris Fry

Chris is the founder of Fry Law.

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