Accessible London – finding the way to a more equitable city

With thanks to South Bank BID & AccessAble’s Katie Dyton

Disability affects more than 13m UK citizens, with an estimated ‘Purple Pound’ spending power of £249bn. But their personal opportunities – and their economic participation – are severely restricted. Research by AccessAble suggests that 98% of people with accessibility needs check location criteria before visiting a place for the first time, and 76% have not visited a place specifically because there is no or inadequate accessibility information.

Late July marked one improvement in the picture, with the launch of the ‘Accessible South Bank’ Access Guides – helpful to anyone, but critical for disabled people who need to use area services or simply want to enjoy all the cultural hub has to offer. The initiative was run by AccessAble, with support from South Bank Business Improvement District (BID) and South Bank Employers Group (SBEG).

To produce its guides, AccessAble conducts in-person visits to venues and routes across and beyond London. The organisation has been making a difference for disabled people since 2000, as founder Dr Gregory Burke pointed out: “For us, this isn’t Day 1, it’s Year 19.” Aside from not being able to get to places, encountering hazardous, confusing or embarrassing situations while out means people miss life and work opportunities, and can lead to truly crippling social isolation. Burke and his colleagues are calling for an end to that. “What I want to see is an end to the postcode lottery in London, and the capital as a worldwide beacon on how to have a 21st century accessible city that communicates its access and empowers its citizens.”

Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, London Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility & Community Engagement, told the capacity crowd how encouraged she was by this project, and said she’d continue to work with fellow deputy mayors to join up regeneration, economic and housing policies and programmes to support disabled people.

You can see South Bank BID’s post on the launch here. The event, hosted by scheme participant Sea Containers and compered by SBEG CEO Nic Durston, was the most positive built-environment event I’ve taken part in for a while, and made it an extra pleasure to moderate the roundtable that followed – see below. Its goal was to explore how to expand or replicate this effort across London, and participants represented organisations who can guide, make and/or share improvements at all scales. Several participants committed to connection or communication actions – watch this space for initiatives from Future of London among others!

Key take-aways from the roundtable:

Accessibility across London: The big challenges

  • Funding for any project is challenging, particularly for local authorities. Ambition and drive are often limited by budget. BIDs may be a useful mechanism here.
  • Consistent geographic coverage – Many parts of London have good access information, but it’s patchy from borough to borough and there are whole areas of London that need to be reached.
  • Organisations at different stages of evolution – Spreading coverage across areas owned or managed by different organisations is difficult, e.g. where TfL stations with good wayfinding connect with rail stations or venues that don’t yet have accessibility guides.
  • Communication – On top of the physical state of a building or route, information on access must be shared with the public so people can make informed choices. However, access information is often a ‘best-kept secret’ even in places that do have what’s required.
  • Travel methods – The Mayor and TfL are committed to reducing car use and resulting pollution, but (a) many disabled people must rely on vehicles and can’t be forgotten and (b) public transport journeys can still be difficult for people with access requirements. TfL staff and systems do well, but journeys often don’t connect.
  • Input from disabled people – Tourism, education, property development and public projects often don’t consider visitors with disabilities at the start. Building standards are one thing, but asking disabled people what features are required/useful may produce different answers.
  • Specific building needs – Environments e.g. SEND schools and hospitals involve particular considerations that architects may not be aware of; involving people with the right expertise can mean asking the right questions.
  • Beyond the physical – Poor mental health and isolation can be a major issue amongst people with access requirements. It can be hard for disabled people – particularly those with learning disabilities – to travel confidently, including navigating their own high street independently and safely.

Accessibility across London: Opportunities to make progress

  • Timing – To avoid accessibility being an ill-considered add-on, organisations from owners through architects and engineers can talk with disabled people early in the design process to understand what they need – and need to know – when visiting a new place.
  • Standards – Accessibility design standards – enforced and applied to all buildings – could come as a ‘starter pack’ to help investors and designers understand the need for certain access features. More experts are needed; reviving and expanding the Built Environmental Professional Education Project is a way to train people.
  • Toilets – Toilets are a huge next step in improving access in London. AccessAble is surveying public toilets as part of the ‘West End Project’ to identify and share info on the location of accessible toilets; the Mayor’s office is keen to support improvements to the dire shortage of public accessible toilets.
  • Sharing best practice – To make access information a normal part of business rather than a specialism, leading organisations such as South Bank BID, SBEG, Future of London and councils like Lambeth and Southwark can share impact stories that promote accessibility practice and guides to inclusive design professionals.
    • Information on the public realm – as well as venues – is really useful for disabled people. The South Bank Access Guides, with the involvement of TfL, are a good example and can serve as a pilot for other areas.
    • London’s 60 BIDs, supported by the GLA, are a good way to grow. The latest guides are funded by South Bank BID, whose levy-paying members know that this is the right thing to do and that it’s good for business.
    • Future of London can bring the issue to its cross-sector network, helping local authorities and delivery partners really understand what’s at stake and how to help, as Leaders Plus did in Croydon (photo right).
    • AccessAble guidance and recommendations matrix can help organisations gain confidence and take part.
  • GLA initiatives & support – Deputy Mayor Debbie Weekes-Bernard works closely with fellow Deputy Mayors whose budgets and responsibilities cover different sectors. Together, they can combine varied efforts toward the same goal, e.g. drawing together social integration and economic benefit.
    • Workspace Accreditation – The GLA is rolling out a Workspace Accreditation programme and is willing to work with AccessAble and others to maximise the accessibility and information offer.
    • Borough of Access – The Borough of Culture has become something local authorities aspire to and compete for, seeing the promotion and benefits it brings to their residents and town centres. A ‘Borough of Access’ might be an equally aspirational target, backed by Mayoral funding.

Watch this space for Future of London events. In the meantime, FoL’s Speaker Diversity Network is actively seeking speakers on the built environment and related topics. Contact Oli Pinch at oli@futureoflondon.org.uk for more info.

Roundtable participants

  • Nadia Broccardo – CEO, Team London Bridge BID
  • Dr Gregory Burke – Founder, AccessAble
  • Maria Diaz-Palomares – Principal Policy Officer, GLA Regeneration & Economic Development
  • Rachel Dingsdale – Head of Marketing, SBEG / South Bank BID
  • Nic Durston – CEO, SBEG / South Bank BID
  • Florence Eshalomi, AM – London Assembly Member, Southwark & Lambeth
  • Nicole Gordon – Deputy CEO, Better Bankside BID
  • Craig Hurring – Director of Marketing & Communications, SBEG / South Bank BID
  • Fiona Jenkins – Associate, Steer
  • Lettice Kemp – Digital Content Supervisor, London & Partners
  • James Lee – Member, Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Equality, Diversity & Inclusion
  • Catherine Mahoney – Charity & Philanthropy
  • Nicola Mathers – Chief Executive, Future of London
  • Anna Nelson – Executive Director, AccessAble
  • Ruth Owen – Advisor, Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Equality, Diversity & Inclusion
  • Alison Pinner – Deputy Group Director, Coin Street Community Builders
  • Natalie Raben – CEO, We Are Waterloo BID
  • Fiona Ross – Senior Policy Advisor, GLA
  • Barry Smith – Head of Policy & Strategy, West End Partnership
  • Barry Stevenson – Chair, AccessAble
  • Lisa Taylor – Founder/Director, Coherent Cities (Facilitator)
  • Simone West – Inclusive Design Advisor, TfL
  • Peter Williams – Commercial Director, South Western Railway
  • Cllr Sonia Winifred – Cabinet member for Equalities & Culture, LB Lambeth