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Inclusive environments: a moral issue, a business case, and a statutory duty

Posted: 8th August 2017

Julie Fleck RTPI OBE

Built Enivironment & Professional Education (BEPE) Project Lead


Despite 20 years of anti-discrimination legislation and over 50 years of technical standards, a recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry has found that disabled people still find their lives needlessly restricted by features of the built environment.

The findings point to a stark fact: the burden of creating an accessible environment falls too heavily on individual disabled people, and the bodies who create, occupy and manage the environment are not doing enough.

As built environment professionals that means you and me! What can we do more? When we are designing a scheme, drafting policy or making decisions on a development proposal, do we fully understand the human aspect of how people use and interact with buildings? Do we really understand how disabled and older people perceive, use and experience buildings and places? If we don’t fully understand these issues, accessibility can become a tick box exercise that results in compromise and sometimes exclusion for a large section of society.

Not just “nice to do”
The business case for access and inclusion has been made by the Design Council in its Inclusive Environment Hub. The government’s own statistics stress that excluding over 12 million disabled people in the UK and the increasing number of older and very old people who wish to remain active and engaged citizens, can result in a loss of over £212billion to the economy.

The Women and Equalities Committee questioned how the planning system can better design an environment that enables disabled people to take part in society on an equal basis. The report also made a number of recommendations to government, including making clear the legal status of achieving an inclusive environment, so that it is no longer treated as a ‘nice to do’ but a statutory requirement.

Another recommendation was to amend the NPPF "to incorporate a dedicated section on access for disabled people and inclusive design for local planning authorities and decision-takers”. It also calls on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to look at how the Equality Act is enforced.

Enforcement currently relies heavily on litigation by disabled people who have already been disadvantaged by the situation they are seeking to redress. There is a fundamental need for national and local government and the professionals concerned to take seriously the challenge of creating an inclusive environment. That means you and me!

Built Environment Professional Education Project
We have a tool box full of legislation, policy, standards and examples of best practice, but how can we embed this knowledge from the beginning of our built environment education?

One of the projects to emerge from the Government’s Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Programme was the Built Environment Professional Education Project (BEPE). Launched in 2013 and supported by many built environment professional institutions (see the BEPE Report of Progress March 2016, ODI), BEPE transferred to the Construction Industry Council (CIC) in 2016 to become an industry owned and led project.

Education can change attitudes, challenge perceptions and deliver behaviour change. BEPE aims to embed inclusive design as a core part of the required curriculum in the education and training of built environment professionals, with student and professional competence assessments that reflect this.

The response so far
CIC summarised the latest progress in a report published in March 2017 (BEPE Report of Progress March 2017, CIC ). A key stimulus for change within the higher education sector is the revised Quality Assurance Agency’s Subject Benchmark Statements for Architectural Technology, Town and Country Planning, Landscape Architecture, and Land Construction Real Estate and Surveying (SBS Land Construction Real Estate and Surveying) which now ask graduates to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of inclusive design. Educators will have to take this into account when assessing graduates. The CIC will shortly be publishing a Teaching and Learning Briefing Guide to illustrate the key issues in terms of improving knowledge, skills and understanding in the creation of an accessible and inclusive built environment.

Other improvements include changes by RIBA to its CPD Programme, publication by the RTPI of a planning practice guide on Dementia and Town Planning and the requirement that all entries to the RTPI Planning Excellence Awards demonstrate inclusive planning. The aim is that all institutions make inclusive design a key aspect of their award programmes. This will I hope result in some great submissions to this year’s CIC Inclusive Environment Award.

What can you do?
Your work as a built environment professional can have a huge impact on the accessibility and inclusivity of the built environment. CIC published in March 2017 six essential principles to support you when making decisions:

  1. Contribute to building an inclusive society now and in the future
  2. Apply professional and responsible judgement and take a leadership role
  3. Apply and integrate the principles of inclusive design from the outset of a project
  4. Do more than just comply with legislation and codes
  5. Seek multiple views to solve accessibility and inclusivity challenges
  6. Acquire the skills, knowledge, understanding and confidence to make inclusion the norm not the exception

Many of the key built environment institutions endorsed these principles and we ask you to adopt them in your work. You can also help by sharing with your institution examples of case studies and examples of best practice, supporting and demanding the provision of new and better educational resources, becoming Disability Confident, refreshing your disability equality training, and engaging with and learning from disabled and older people.

Students: Learn the skills that make inclusive design second nature
Educators: Inspire your students to acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to make inclusive planning the norm not the exception
Professionals: Integrate the principles of inclusive design into all your projects

Contributor: Julie Fleck is the Project Lead of the Built Environment and Professional Education Project at the Construction Industry Council. She is a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute and was awarded the OBE for services to disabled people.