Two major cultural institutions in Manchester have been criticised for “designing out disabled people” by removing all of their on-site blue badge parking spaces during multi-million pound renovation programmes.
Manchester Central Library and the Whitworth art gallery, part of the University of Manchester, both offered several off-road blue badge spaces outside their buildings before huge new redevelopment projects.
But the library has now paved over spaces both in front of and behind the building, while the gallery has removed four accessible spaces that were previously within its grounds.
Both projects received millions of pounds of public funding, with the £15 million extension to the Whitworth – funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England – opening earlier this month, and the £50 million library redevelopment reopening nearly a year ago.
But both institutions are now less accessible to disabled people who need to arrive in their own cars.
The Whitworth expected the city council to place three new blue badge spaces – with drop kerbs – in a street beside the gallery, Denmark Road, but they have been delayed by pedestrianisation works to nearby Oxford Road.
One wheelchair-user, Guy, is now unable to visit either building without a carer or personal assistant, and said that both redevelopments had “designed out disabled people”.
He was previously a frequent visitor to the central library and the gallery because of his work as an artist, and even had his first date with his partner at the library.
He said: “They have designed out disability access. It’s all very well putting a ramp in, but if you can’t get to the building you can’t get to the ramp.”
He added: “I have visited the library a few times since the opening, but I have had to have someone with me to help me get into my chair on the busy streets, and to just stop me getting mowed down.
“As an independent wheelchair-user, I can never go in there alone again.”
A council spokesman said it planned to provide 16 new disabled parking bays on Peter Street and Mount Street, which both run past the library, but this had been delayed due to ongoing improvement work around the area.
He said: “Disabled badge-holders are also able to park for free and with no time limit in any pay and display bay, such as those which can be found on a number of streets very close to the library.”
But Guy said: “The original disabled spaces [pictured] were off-road, giving safe, secure space to unload a wheelchair and manoeuvre without the risk of being hit by a car.
“That’s precisely why they were put there in the first place. Disabled people have now been placed in significant danger due to their removal.
“It appears that the very last thing to be built in the entire project is the disabled access parking.”
He said he feared the provision of the 16 new bays “may still be years away”, while parking for free in regular pay-and-display bays was often suggested as a sub-standard alternative to dedicated disabled bays.
He said: “As an independent wheelchair-user, to use a regular parking space I have to wheel myself along the middle of the road until I find a drop kerb, usually at a junction. That is, if I have a death wish.
“Disabled people come last, are placed in danger, and are asked to lose good access for the sake of design. They should have designed it better. It’s a public building and I paid for it as well.”
Guy said that he cried in his car when he realised what had happened with the Whitworth spaces.
He said: “I told the Whitworth that I go in there at least once a week. I know the people in there, it’s an important part of my life.”
When he arrived outside for a recent visit, he called the gallery to tell them where he was and they had to send staff out to carry him onto the pavement and then help him across the road.
He said: “If you can’t get your car there, you can’t get in, but 99 per cent of disabled people with wheelchairs use the car.”
He said the three accessible bays that would eventually be installed in Denmark Road beside the gallery would not be available exclusively to gallery visitors, while the road itself was “probably not wide enough to accommodate extra wide parking to get a wheelchair out of a car”, and the pavement was “uneven and is not wide enough”.
A spokesman for the Whitworth said the council’s highways department would be painting double yellow lines on Denmark Road as a temporary solution. This would allow three hours free parking for blue badge-holders.
But he admitted that there were currently no dropped kerbs, and said: “I think the initial temporary solution is to get the double yellow lines in and then continue the pressure for the bays and changes to the kerb.”
He added: “At the moment we will have staff on hand each week to assist disabled visitors who need a drop-off point.
“We have posted a contact number on our website so that any disabled visitor requiring assistance can contact us in advance of our visit.
“We sincerely apologise to any visitors who have been inconvenienced by the current situation.”
But Guy said that offering a drop-off point would mean he would not be able to visit as an independent disabled person.
He said: “Once again, good, off-road disabled access has been removed without any thought to the replacement.
“I am told by the gallery that I must park on double yellows, am only allowed to stay for three hours and must place myself at greater risk.
“As an independent wheelchair-user, I have tried now on two occasions and cannot gain access to the gallery.
“The options that are supposed to be in the pipeline are years away, won’t be sufficient and so I will be excluded again forever.”
Meanwhile, two government ministers – the Liberal Democrat communities minister Stephen Williams and the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper – have backed a new industry action plan, which aims to make buildings and public spaces more inclusive.
The two ministers chaired a meeting of representatives from the construction and design industries to review the plan, which includes measures on vocational and professional training, promoting industry awareness, and supporting cross-industry collaboration on research and innovation.
John Mathers, chief executive of the Design Council, which hosted the round-table meeting, said: “Our goal is to ensure that creating inclusive environments for everyone becomes the standard approach to planning, design, construction and management practice.”
Organisations including the Construction Industry Council, English Heritage, the National Register of Access Consultants, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Access Association have signed up to the action plan.
Williams said: “In October last year we issued a challenge to key players in the construction industry to create buildings, places and spaces that work better for everyone by making inclusion a key part of their work.
“The action plan we have seen today is a great start in making a more inclusive built environment a reality.”