Building for equality: Government must lead the charge
The Women and Equalities Committee has said the Government must act to lead the charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment. 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 Committee’s report, Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment, highlights the challenges disabled people face in accessing homes, buildings and public spaces. It says 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 Committee argues that these factors constitute an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality.
According to the report, disabling features of the built environment 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 report comments, the Act is not having the kind of impact that it was expected to have: it says the Government has left change to be achieved through a model of enforcement that relies on litigation by private individuals.
The Commission’s 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 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'.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 of 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.
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."