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One Building Surveyors honest view of how things aren’t progressing

Bairbre McKendrick

Building Surveyor

Bradley Mason LLP

The BEPE project aims are clear, more training and education is need to improved inclusive design knowledge and skills would make a positive impact on the work surveyors and designers produce.  This in turn has an impact on the independence of building users whatever their access needs may be.  But is the scale of the problem bigger than envisaged? And is the willingness of some working in the industry to upskill and change how they work lacking?

When I started my journey into the area of Inclusive Environments it was 1997 and I was working for a major retail bank that had a profile and reputation to protect and enhance.  The British Banking Association provided us with guidance and the business was committed to respond to the ‘new’ legislation; the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.  All areas of the business were responding; changing ATM’s and developing telephone and then internet banking.  Budgets were of course an issue and works were phased while in some urban areas providing a number of accessible branches i.e. not all was thought to address our duties as a Services provider.

I left the bank in 2005 and can see no evidence of an access improvement programme continuing, indeed sadly closure programmes seems to be prevalent. In a small town near where I live Natwest, HSBC and Barclays have all closed and the vital services provided by the post office, which are also under threat, must certainly be protected. Back in the late 90’s the Post Office was one of the larger service providers to go out and spread the word that access must be achieved across their network, designing  a wheelchair accessible counter unit. However, my local post office which relocated about 3 years ago is now in a building with stepped access and has a wooden ramp which they use as and when needed – their previous location had level access. This unfortunately all points to the Post Office neglecting their commitment to access.

Is anyone currently procuring retrospective access projects for example relocating entrances to a level area, enlarging doorways and fitting automatic door gear?  Are occupiers seeking accessible units? I would advocate that all service providers write this requirement into their policies and when their typically short 5 year leases are up for renewal they use this to relocate to a more accessible unit or negotiate with their landlord to make the necessary improvements to their current unit.   I recently read some letting particulars for a city centre office building with retail at ground level. Mention was made of ‘DDA complaint’ toilets. This tells me letting agents haven’t noticed that the DDA was absorbed into the Equality Act in 2010 so is no longer with us and indeed their clients haven’t noticed or don’t care.

The lack of well publicised relevant case law has meant that businesses have left their access projects to gather dust. The deadlines which the DDA set out were easy to grasp and like the Millennium bug the fear of the unknown meant that resources were committed to the project. Now there is no urgency and little or no interest.  My downbeat assessment is that the strategy of ‘doing nothing’ is seen as low risk and this wins the day. However, as the evidence provided to the Women and Equalities Committee earlier this year in their Inquiry into Disability and the Built Environment demonstrated – disabled people still face challenges when accessing and using homes, buildings and public spaces. This constitutes ‘an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality’ – not good news for the construction industry more than 20 years after the DDA made discrimination illegal.

I would like to be more optimistic in relation to new schemes but again the evidence is that old habits die hard. Why are designers still wedded to the notion that all handrails must be brushed stainless steel and WC cubicle doors should be hidden along a wall of usually white glossy panelling?  Public seating which should be for all is another area where standards are ignored.  

Where designers are proposing such schemes and Approved Inspectors are appointed I feel strongly that the latter should not be shy in pointing out the failings that contravene Approved Document M (ADM). I spoke to an Approved Inspector recently on this issue and they confirmed that they had tried to enforce ADM - they raised the lack of visual contrast in a toilet. ADM paragraph 5.4 k requires; “the surface finish of sanitary fittings and grab bars contrasts visually with the background wall and floor finishes, and there is also visual contrast between wall and floor finishes”.  The Approved Inspector asked that the walls be redecorated but said they were left with the impression that at the next redecoration this would be undone.

Maintenance is the poor relation in property but if this is undertaken without care and attention then the original design is compromised and any good access features can be lost. Every time you can’t take the lift as it is out of order consider how lucky you are to be able to use the stairs. When an access platform is out of order a wheelchair user is excluded from the building. Yet such features may be chosen as a solution without suitable consideration given to maintaining this feature and the associated costs. Educating building managers is a must; they are on the ground and see what is and is not working; but if all their choices are made based on costs then access will be relegated to ‘nice to have’ status. Businesses are losing out however, as disabled people will take their purple pound (estimated at £249 bn) and spend it elsewhere.  

Contributor: Bairbre McKendrick is a Building Surveyor for Bradley Mason LLP

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