Campaigners have accused a council of using the pandemic as a “Trojan horse” to make permanent changes to the city centre that are already having a “devastating” impact on disabled people’s ability to access services, after being introduced as temporary measures.
York Disability Rights Forum warned last summer that the short-notice pedestrianisation of several streets in the city centre and the removal of blue badge parking spaces – designed to aid social distancing and encourage cyclists and pedestrians – could discriminate against disabled people.
Nearly a year later, City of York Council has decided to make the changes permanent, as part of its Footstreets scheme, which restricts vehicle access to many streets between certain times of the day, or 24 hours-a-day in some areas.
The forum believes the council has simply used the temporary measures to make changes “they had wanted to make anyway, and in the process disregard the rights of many disabled people to access the city centre”.
It told a council meeting last month that it had been “horrific” to hear of the “devastating impact” the changes have had on many disabled people’s day-to-day lives, particularly their ability to access shopping, support and other amenities.
The forum told the council that it acknowledged that many disabled people had said in response to surveys and other engagement last year that they now felt safer in the city centre, but it also accused the council of using those results to present a “false picture” of disabled people’s views.
It said that the engagement results also showed that 78 per cent of people with blue badges disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “There is parking close enough to allow me access to the city centre.”
The council is now beginning a consultation on making the changes permanent.
Helen Jones (pictured), a member of the forum, said the council had already been considering changes to the city centre before the pandemic.
She said: “I think most disabled people always felt it would be permanent.
“When the pandemic hit, it felt like the council took advantage.”
When it introduced the temporary measures, there were some minor mitigation measures, including some new blue badge parking spaces in a car park and a taxi service that could take people to one set place in town.
But Jones said the taxi service “wasn’t well received and wasn’t well used and has been withdrawn”, while the reopening of a small section of a road a “long way” from the main city centre, which lacked anywhere practical to park, had also not helped significantly.
The council is now apparently considering a new shuttle system, but discussions are at an early stage, and Jones said the information so far had been “vague”.
She said: “This could mean that by September 2021, many of York’s disabled residents are unable to visit the city centre they live in. A city centre that has been out of bounds to us since July 2020.”
She said she feared the impact the changes in York could have on disabled people across the country.
She said: “Other local authorities who currently offer better access for blue badge holders could see what York is doing as a positive example and lead to a host of inaccessible cities throughout England.”
Elki Houston, a disabled member of the forum, added: “I feel angry, sad, ignored, forgotten and ultimately treated as if I have no value.
“Over the years I’ve figured out the places I could go in York that are accessible to me… but now those places are inaccessible to me.
“Not because they have changed but because I’m not allowed to get to them anymore.
“As the council returns other people’s freedom after lockdown, mine is set not to come back.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “The past year has seen dramatic changes to streetscapes, often with little or no consultation with disabled people.
“Most changes therefore have failed to address the needs of disabled citizens.
“Restaurant furniture has been placed on pavements, making it difficult for wheelchair-users and people with sight loss or mobility impairments to navigate safely and independently.
“Streets have been fully pedestrianised and disabled parking bays removed, excluding disabled people reliant on cars from accessing town and city centres.
“The Equality Act requires local authorities to take equality considerations into account when making decisions, but the reality is that across the country, the mobility needs of disabled citizens have either been an afterthought or ignored completely.”
A spokesperson for City of York Council said it was “trying to balance the access needs of all York’s residents, protect jobs, support businesses, and keep everyone in our city centre safe”.
They said: “Last year’s temporary extension to the footstreets allowed the city to reopen safely, with space for social distancing in our busiest streets.
“The extra outdoor space protected many jobs, allowing many businesses to keep trading.”
They said that last year’s engagement showed that “most respondents acknowledged the benefits of the footstreets”, with “tangible benefits of vehicle-free streets” felt by “many older residents, those with sight loss and those with mobility aids, who can now use the smoother road surface instead of narrow pavements”.
They added: “The advantages the footstreets bring have led to the decision to consult on making the temporary measures permanent.”
They also said that the council had taken some steps to improve blue badge access and parking spaces after the engagement revealed the impact on blue badge-holders.
And they said the council was working on improving access across the city centre.
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