By John Pring Disability News Service 22nd March 2018
The government has accepted just three of 23 recommendations made by a committee of MPs that were aimed at improving disabled people’s access to the built environment.
The women and equalities committee concluded in its report last April that disabled people were too often finding their lives “needlessly restricted by features of the built environment”.
It had heard evidence from disabled witnesses of a catalogue of barriers, including the shortage of accessible homes; public and commercial buildings without step-free access or with poor signage; and inaccessible workplaces.
The Building for Equality report said the burden of ensuring an accessible environment “falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people” and that the government should “act to more visibly lead the charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment”.
It also called for “more ambition” in the standards of accessibility the government sets for new homes and said that “much more” could be done to “make the public realm and public buildings more accessible”.
But the government’s response, from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), has dismissed nearly all the report’s recommendations for improving the accessibility of new homes, and access to public buildings and public spaces.
Among the recommendations the government has rejected are: to ensure that all new public buildings meet strict inclusive design and access standards; to consider granting VAT exemptions for building work that improves access; and to force public bodies to publish access information about their buildings.
The government also rejected the suggestion that planning permission for a development should only be given by a local authority if there was evidence that it made “sufficient provision for accessibility and inclusion”; and that the government should put pressure on councils that do not do enough to improve the supply of accessible housing in their local plans.
It also dismissed a recommendation to remove the controversial requirement that local authorities must prove there is an immediate need for accessible housing if they want to apply optional access standards to new housing developments.
And it rejected the latest attempt to persuade it to use licensing laws to ensure basic levels of access to licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants.
Another recommendation rejected was to require local authorities to halt all controversial shared space street developments.
MHCLG agreed just three recommendations.
It says it will issue new planning guidance, which has drawn on “stakeholder engagement”, particularly with “disabled people and the groups that represent them”.
It has also agreed to look again at building regulations on disability access; and to fund and support training and development activities by the built environment industry.
Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, which gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry, said the government’s response was “overwhelmingly disappointing”.
She said: “The intention of the committee’s inquiry was to find solutions to urgent situations such as the lack of accessible housing supply or barriers to disabled people’s participation in the community, based on a social model approach to removing the burden of enforcement away from individual disabled people.
“The government’s response shows an unwillingness to hold local authorities, developers and licensees to account on accessibility, despite all evidence that without this there will be no improvement and disabled people’s exclusion will continue.”
One leading disabled access consultant, Tracey Proudlock, of Proudlock Associates, said she was “shocked and disappointed” that the government had accepted only three of the committee’s recommendations.
She also criticised the government’s references to inclusive design being “best practice” rather than a statutory requirement, and to the need to have “consultation with” disabled people rather than “having disabled people involved at the heart of the processes that ultimately create inclusive design”.
She said: “We are currently working on a development based on the principles of co-production – with local disabled people as part of the design team – and we know from our experience how important a step this is to take on the road to equality.
“The government should be far more on-board with this.
“Indeed, more should be done to improve inclusive design at every opportunity, both in regulations and in legislation and licensing.
“Laws prohibiting development without improvement are currently full of gaps and at best unclear, especially where smaller commercial buildings are concerned.
“What can’t be achieved by licensing must be met another way and it should be up to the government to find that means, not to turn down suggestions.”
She added: “It is a continuing failure that so many people still do not have adequate access to buildings, in particular homes, work places and to heritage buildings.
“In particular, we do not feel that housing standards should require research into local need before being applied, as good inclusive design enshrined in the right national standards should meet everyone’s needs and desires.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “The government response is very disappointing.”
She said there was “little to cheer about”, except the government’s decision [although this was not in response to a recommendation of the committee] to commence long-awaited measures in the Equality Act 2010 that will impose a duty on landlords to allow reasonable access improvements to be made to the common parts of blocks of flats, such as entrances and stairs (see separate story).
She added: “There’s much ‘we are committed’, ‘we share the committee’s view’, etc, but very little tangible action.
“It seems that access to the built environment is anyone and everyone’s responsibility except the government’s.”
The women and equalities committee said it was too early to comment on the government’s response.
Asked why the government had rejected so many recommendations, an MHCLG spokesman agreed that the government had accepted just three of the report’s recommendations.
But he said: “We fully recognise the importance of accessibility and inclusion when making decisions relating to the built environment.
“We expect councils to consider this when making planning decisions, and we are taking action on a number of areas identified by the committee.”