Public spaces 'can be prohibitively excluding' finds Women and Equalities Committee in built environment inquiry

Committee calls on Government to 'lead the change' to improve access and inclusion in the built environment, in inquiry report published today.

A shared space scheme in Bournemouth. Image: Chris Downer/
A shared space scheme in Bournemouth. Image: Chris Downer/

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 report published today.

The report following the committee’s Disability and the Built Environment Inquiry, found that The Equality Act 2010, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made so that disabled people are not excluded from workplaces, public buildings, and places that serve the public, was not working as intended.

The committee recommended much more should be done to make the public realm and public buildings more accessible in a report which highlights the many challenges disabled people face. 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, it says. And it concludes that this leads to an unacceptable reduction in quality of life.

It points out that disabling features of the built environment do not only affect people with physical impairments, but also hinder people with less visible disabilities or conditions, such as mental health or autism.

In particular, it found that so-called ‘shared space’ schemes, where features such as controlled crossings, kerbs and roadside railings are removed, designed to produce a more pleasant public realm where motorists, cyclists and pedestrians can share the space, was particularly problematic for many disabled people, some of whom said their movement was severely limited by such schemes.

"We heard worrying evidence that Government inaction on this issue has caused real harm to the ability of many disabled people to live their lives, even in one case preventing an older man from leaving his home unaided," the report said.

The committee called on the Government to "urgently replace the 2011 guidance on shared spaces and ensure that 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," it said.

The report proposes a range of practical policy solutions but most importantly, it says, disabled people must be engaged more with the creation of inclusive buildings and environments on a national and local basis.

Committee chair Maria Miller MP said the Government "must be more ambitious".

"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.

"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."

The committee considered ‘public realm’ to be publicly owned streets, pathways, right of ways, parks, publicly accessible open spaces and any public and civic building and facilities.

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