Why new buildings can be more hostile to disabled people

You might think that newer buildings would be better for disabled people than older buildings. Better access. Easier movement inside. More ramps and fewer steps, and so on. So why, increasingly, does it not feel like that when you actually visit a new building?

The devil is in the detail
The details of building design are controlled by the Building Regulations, through a process called Building Control. This process is different to Planning Permission, which looks at the outside design and how it looks to passers-by, the impact of parking on neighbours, and so on. The Building Regulations control what goes on inside. For example, making sure that the electricity sockets are safely away from any water taps, or that the bannisters are close enough together so that a toddler cannot fall downstairs through a gap.

Computer says OK
A few years ago the Government at the time gave into pressure from businesses for less red tape, less regulation, less burden on business as they claimed. Up to then, Building Control was something that the local council did, usually on the same corridor as Planning Permission. Well, said business, let us do our own Building Control. Don’t worry, they said, we will hire independent professionals, so we are not marking our own homework. And the Government let it happen.

Two bad changes then followed, one cultural and one technical. The cultural change is that the independent professionals challenge less often than a council official would, because they need the work, the next contract. It is a world of hire and fire. And the technical change is, to save money, that building designers use computer programs more often. So the computer counts up the turning circles and the accessible toilets, checks the ramp gradients and gives the design a green light. Even if it makes no sense to humans.

The result too often is, for disabled people, new buildings that are increasingly chaotic and hostile.

1 thought on “Why new buildings can be more hostile to disabled people

  1. flickh@mdpag.org.uk

    Hi Tony
    I agree about the problems with new buildings, including new award winning buildings in Manchester such as HOME and the Whitworth Gallery which have serious access barriers.
    One of the main problems though is not Building Control although private Approved Inspectors are more relaxed about enforcing Building Regulations, but at least they are enforceable. However the standards are very basic and don’t include many access design issues that are in BS:8300 or Manchester’s design standards Design for Access 2 or best practice design for specialist areas.
    The largest problem is the downgrading of Design and Access Statements required by Planning Authorities at pre-planning and planning stage. They are supposed to identify barriers and solutions and to consult with disabled people and users, amongst other things. In a recent training workshop for planners and building control officers in a nearby local authority, we were told that approving Design and Access Statements was a tick box exercise and that planners don’t really understand the access requirements of disabled people, especially those who are not wheelchair users, e.g. people with sensory impairments, learning difficulties, long term health issues including mental health, people who are neuro-diverse and people with multiple impairments.
    The other issue is the difficulty in making public authorities comply with the Equality Act, such as Highways, Parking, Planning, Building Control, Special Projects departments etc as it is too expensive for individuals or small groups to take issues to Judicial Review.
    Another problem I have found last year is getting the DCLG to respond to an enquiry about the interpretation of Building Control Regulations where there is some confusion. The Head of Building Control at DCLG refused to respond and instead, after prompting from my MP, referred me to local Building Control who are employed by the Council and therefore not independent.
    Long way to go!



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