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Building for equality

Posted: 25th April 2017

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 today. 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.

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.

  • 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.

The full report can be downloaded here.