Government austerity cuts have meant that many local authorities have scrapped the vital role of specialist access officers to save money in the short term, even though it is eventually likely to cost them more, peers have heard.
The Equality Act 2010 and disability committee was hearing evidence from housing, built environment and access experts as part of its inquiry into the impact of the act on disabled people.
The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell (pictured) said that access officers had been seen by councils as a “very good thing and very helpful” in ensuring new developments and buildings were as accessible as possible, but she said their use appeared to be “on the wane”.
She said: “You need that expertise within the council, and many of these access officers were disabled people themselves with very, very high quality planning experience.”
Jonathan McShane, a member of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said many functions across local government were being “wrapped up into broader roles” because of “very constrained resources”.
But he said: “It would be dishonest to not recognise that that can mean you lose some of the really valuable expertise that you had before.”
Baroness Campbell said some new buildings had needed to be pulled down and built again because they did not meet the requirements laid down in building regulations.
She said: “If you have an access officer at the beginning, that cost saving would be enormous, so I don’t wholeheartedly accept that… this is something that needs to go, because it seems to me a very cost-effective way of ensuring compliance.”
McShane said it was “hard to put too high a price” on “a bit of really insightful advice at the beginning of the process” that might result in a public area that “really does serve the needs of everyone in that community”.
He said councils needed to recognise that it was “not necessarily wise” to make cuts “in the short term that do not make sense in the long term”.
Rachel Smalley, president of the Access Association, told the committee that many of her members were access officers in local government.
She said it was important that all local council staff working in this area should have some “background knowledge and training in terms of inclusive design”, but she added: “I think it is really important to appreciate the value of access officers and access professionals who specialise in access and inclusion for disabled people, [and] who have the specialist technical knowledge to make sure a development is accessible.”
Baroness Deech, the committee’s chair, said: “I am left with the anxiety that austerity and cuts are being used as an excuse not to hold onto access officers and that they are not getting the priority that they should, and it is – as Lady Campbell said – a false economy.”
Another witness, Martin Phelps, treasurer and trustee of Lewisham Shopmobility scheme, said he would like to see councils given a duty to ensure genuine access, and the appointment of an ombudsman disabled people could contact when access “falls short”.
He added: “I would like to see it impossible to ignore the needs of disabled people if you are coming up with any major planning activity.”
He said Lewisham Shopmobility was “absolutely next door” to a major redevelopment project, but that nobody connected with the scheme had “at any point” talked to him or his colleagues, except to answer their concerns “when we nag them”.
Asked by Baroness Deech for a recommendation that would “transform the really dire situation you have described to us”, he said: “Define the town centre as a core civic amenity to which people have a right to be able to get proper access.”