An historic English city has beaten off competition from across Europe to become the first in the UK to win a prestigious access award from the European Commission.
Chester learned this week that it had won the 2016 Access City Award, ahead of 42 other cities in 21 European Union countries, partly because of its efforts to improve access across its tourism sector.
Among its achievements are ensuring that most of its Roman city walls are now wheelchair-accessible, while the medieval, double-level walkways, balconies and shops known as The Rows now have ramps, lifts, level access and escalators.
Information guides point out where those ramps, lifts and escalators can be found.
The Access City Award “recognises and celebrates cities which proactively support accessibility” for disabled people and “take exemplary steps to improve accessibility in the urban environment”.
The European Commission (EC) said that by making its main tourist sites wheelchair-accessible, Chester “proves that ensuring accessible tourism for all and preserving historical and cultural heritage can go hand in hand”.
It praised both the public and private sectors, and particularly highlighted measures that have targeted disabled people with the highest support needs.
Dial West Cheshire (DWC), a Chester-based disabled people’s organisation which was involved in shaping the council’s competition entry, said the award was “excellent news”.
Keith Roper, chief officer of DWC, which runs a disability rights centre, a Shopmobility service and an access group in Chester, said the message the award sent to other councils was of “the importance of involving disabled people in plans and planning” and then listening to what they say.
One of the reasons for Chester’s success, he suggested, was that the council employed a senior access officer, something many councils had dispensed with as a cost-cutting measure.
Another was the council’s decision to set up – following a suggestion from DWC – a “corporate” disability access forum to examine strategic issues, which has allowed DWC’s access group to feed in its views on future developments across the city.
Roper said the existence of DWC’s access group had “undoubtedly” played a part in Chester winning the award because it had given disabled people “the opportunity to be heard”.
Cheshire West and Chester Council said that providing accessible information, including a guide to accessible facilities in the city, provided by DisabledGo, also helped disabled residents and visitors.
And it pointed to plans to double the number of Changing Places toilets, while all the city’s Hackney taxis are wheelchair-accessible, all buses have ramps and wheelchair spaces, and DWC’s Shopmobility scheme takes 3,000 annual bookings.
Marianne Thyssen, EC’s commissioner for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility, said: “Chester’s efforts to make its historical and cultural heritage fit for persons with disabilities deserve the highest praise.
“People with a disability should be able to participate in all aspects of life without limitations: social, cultural, economic, touristic, and more.”
Cllr Angela Claydon, Chester’s lord mayor, said: “Improved accessibility brings not only reassurance and the necessary support to those who struggle with mobility issues, but lasting economic and social benefits to the city and the borough and we will continue to place accessibility at the heart of everything we deliver.
“We appreciate that Chester’s not the finished article and there is plenty of room for improvement but we are absolutely committed to working with disabled organisations to ensure that the whole of the borough is as accessible to all as it can be.
“This is a process that, whilst we know will take time, we have clear and deliverable plans to make happen.
“We want to learn from previous winners about how we can now build upon this in the coming years.”
Picture: Dial West Cheshire Shopmobility customer Evelyn Morris accessing the city walls