Allowing Network Rail to build an inaccessible footbridge in north Yorkshire would set “a bad and dangerous precedent” for its plans for other parts of the country, a disabled activist has told a public inquiry.
Flick Williams was one of several disabled activists who gave evidence this week to the inquiry, a process that could be crucial in preventing the public body building a string of other inaccessible footbridges across the country.
The inquiry, which began last week and is expected to end tomorrow (Friday), is examining proposals to build a footbridge with steps, rather than ramps, at Copmanthorpe, near York.
Access campaigners have previously warned that the inquiry will be a “line in the sand” for Network Rail’s plans to build other inaccessible footbridges as a cost-saving measure, in breach of its duties under the Equality Act.
Williams, who lives in York, told the inquiry that giving Network Rail permission to build the inaccessible footbridge would set a “bad and dangerous precedent” that would allow it to ignore the requirements of the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty in other parts of the country.
She said this would allow Network Rail “to go ahead with their plans in other locations that will have even greater harms attached where more densely populated communities are divided by rail lines, denying access to an even greater number of disabled and older people and confirming to them their status as second-class citizens”.
She highlighted a freedom of information response obtained by Disability News Service in which Network Rail admitted that it planned to build at least 17 more inaccessible footbridges across England, Scotland and Wales in 2022, 2023 and 2024, but had no idea exactly how many because it was too time-consuming and expensive to find out.
Williams told the inquiry: “This to me speaks volumes about the organisation’s lack of commitment to equality and accessibility.”
She said that if Network Rail was allowed to build the inaccessible footbridge at Copmanthorpe, in place of an existing level crossing, it would build in inaccessibility “for at least 120 years to come” and “probably longer”.
The retired disability equality trainer and access consultant told the inquiry that when she attended a meeting in March with members of Copmanthorpe Parish Council, Network Rail executives “made it very clear that a ramped footbridge was not regarded as value for taxpayer money”.
She said: “It was deeply offensive to be told to my face that my access, my civil and human rights, come at a cost that Network Rail do not believe worth paying, with our money, as we are all taxpayers.”
She also told the inquiry that a diversity impact assessment of the plans, carried out by Network Rail, was “frankly disgraceful” and clearly intended to be used to justify going ahead with a stepped footbridge.
An accessible footbridge would allow wheelchair-users, others with mobility impairments, cyclists and parents with prams to use a footpath between Copmanthorpe and the neighbouring village of Bishopthorpe, she said.
Network Rail has argued that the crossing is not currently used by people with reduced mobility because of rough terrain on either side and that an accessible bridge would cost millions more pounds to build, while the ramps needed would be “visually intrusive”.
But local campaigners eventually hope to secure funding for an accessible “active travel” route between the villages, along the footpath.
Williams said the government’s policy was apparently to “promote active travel” and health and wellbeing by encouraging people to access the countryside.
She said: “This footpath is a means of doing that and to go ahead with a stepped only footbridge precludes forever the development of this path into an active travel route between the villages.”
Another disabled activist, Doug Paulley, who also lives near Copmanthorpe, has previously tested the footpath (pictured) and believes it could easily be made accessible.
He told the inquiry that it was morally reprehensible and legally wrong to be building inaccessible infrastructure, and that such a plan was fundamentally offensive.
Paulley told the inquiry that accessibility seemed to be treated as an optional extra by Network Rail for such projects.
And he said the public body was clearly not going to follow its moral or legal obligations, so needed to be forced to do so by the inquiry.
Paulley said that Network Rail figures showed that two people had died on the existing level crossing, while there had been multiple near misses, and yet the public body was bringing back a proposal for a stepped footbridge that was previously shelved in 2015 after “significant local opposition” and due to the cost of alternative plans.
He said this suggested Network Rail was treating the local community and disabled people with contempt, and that it did not appear to have done anything to look for potential alternative sources of funding for the extra cost of ramps on a new bridge.
A third disabled activist, Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and co-founder of the Campaign for Level Boarding, told the inquiry yesterday (Wednesday) that Network Rail was “prioritising cost and early delivery over accessibility and inclusive design of footbridges, which will have devastating consequences for disabled people”.
He said: “Being clinically extremely vulnerable, Covid and lockdown highlighted the importance enjoying the countryside has on our well-being and mental health, and if an inaccessible footbridge is permitted, already marginalised groups would be socially excluded, which is totally unacceptable.
“Disabled people are bored of fighting for their rights to be upheld and I believe an inaccessible footbridge would be a fundamental breach of the public sector equality duty and morally wrong.
“An inaccessible footbridge unreasonably bakes in inaccessibility for generations to come.
“Network Rail should have an ethical and moral obligation to make [the] footbridge inclusive and accessible for everyone.”
Williams had earlier told the inquiry that she accepted that the current unsafe level crossing needed to be replaced but that she could not accept the inaccessible alternative proposed by Network Rail.
She told the inquiry: “The reason we live in such an inaccessible and disabling world is because decisions are made, one at a time, not to include us.
“Infrastructure must be accessible to all or should not be built at all.”
Network Rail had not responded to requests to describe its position by noon today (Thursday).
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