Campaigners have raised fears that ageing shopping arcades around the country could be putting the lives of disabled customers at risk, following an incident in which shoppers with mobility impairments were temporarily banned from their local centre.
The Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Macclesfield secured national attention after it suddenly introduced a ban on wheelchair-users and other mobility-impaired shoppers, following an inspection by the local fire and rescue service.
Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service told the centre on 27 January, following an inspection, that it had “serious concerns” that if a fire broke out “some people would simply not be able to get out”.
Emergency exits from individual shops are up a steep flight of stairs at the rear of the units, while the shopping centre reportedly has low ceilings and no sprinkler system.
After security staff working for Grosvenor – which is believed to have been opened in the late 1960s – started barring mobility-impaired shoppers from entering the building, the equality watchdog wrote to the centre to warn that its actions could be breaching the Equality Act.
The ban was lifted on Friday (5 February) after Grosvenor agreed to introduce interim measures across the centre and its 32 shops.
The shopping centre said it had simply agreed to introduce “more communication” between centre staff and retail staff and “more radios”, but the fire and rescue service has so far been unable to confirm this.
Laura Smith, chief officer of Macclesfield’s Disability Information Bureau, which runs the town’s Shopmobility scheme, said they only found out about the ban after shocked members told them what was happening, even though the scheme is only “a stone’s throw away” from the shopping centre entrance.
She said: “Nobody told us. The majority of people using scooters [in the shopping centre] are from our service. The lesson to be learned is you need to communicate better.”
Smith said that security staff at the shopping centre had shown a lack of sensitivity, empathy and knowledge of disability.
And when she asked Grosvenor how disabled staff in the centre had coped while the ban was in place, she was told that they had never had any disabled members of staff.
Smith warned that other such shopping centres across the country could have similar safety concerns that have yet to be uncovered.
She said: “I think this could have a knock-on effect [elsewhere] and that could be a good thing.”
Lord [Chris] Holmes (pictured), disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Service providers have a responsibility to plan in advance for the needs of disabled people and ensure they can get in and out of their premises safely.
“We have asked Grosvenor to send us written confirmation of what action they are taking to meet their legal obligations and ensure that people with disabilities can use their shopping centre easily and safely.”
Simon Gibbins, head of fire protection for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We have been able to reach agreement with the owners of the Macclesfield Grosvenor Shopping Centre on interim measures to ensure the safe evacuation of those with mobility issues from the premises and we believe that the centre is now fully open.
“We will now continue to work with them to reach an agreement on a permanent solution which will fully satisfy our concerns on public safety.”
The centre has been unable to explain why it took so many years to uncover the safety concerns, although it said that they had previously “not been considered an issue”.
It also refused to explain why there were no disabled people employed in the centre; why Grosvenor failed to contact the Shopmobility scheme before introducing the temporary ban; and why its security staff were apparently so poorly-trained in disability equality issues.
But in a statement, Grosvenor said: “The centre considered all options to meet the requirements of the authority (including centre closure) and ultimately considered that temporarily restricting access to those at risk, rather than closing completely, was the most proportionate approach.
“This took into account the interests of customers, staff and retailers, including those retailers whose primary source of income is from the businesses they run from the centre.”