Inclusive access – small changes make a big difference

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Logo: Open Country

By David Shaftoe, Open Country Chief Officer

There is much to be gained from encouraging inclusive access in our countryside. Disabled people are a powerful force for good in the outdoors and improving access for people with a disability benefits all visitors. Although the UK has a long way to go, it is important to recognise the small changes to access provision that can make a huge difference.

Impassable paths can take seconds to rectify (Open Country)
Impassable paths can take seconds to rectify (Open Country)

It is important to acknowledge the wide variety of constraints that face landowners and managers, including limited resources, balancing access with the conservation of cultural and natural heritage, as well as preserving landscape character. In the past, disabled access has seemingly been relatively low on the priority list of countryside managers, with some paying mere lip service to the cause. However, the last couple of decades has seen a gradual shift in attitude towards ‘access for all’, with people recognising that making small, incremental changes, is better than ignoring the issue altogether.

Open Country helps people access and enjoy the countryside, running various weekly activities including walking, cycling, conservation and nature study. Planning our calendar of activities and destinations consumes us. Are surfaces wheelchair-friendly, are paths wide enough to guide a visually impaired person, are there accessible toilets, can the cafe accommodate mobility aids? Sites ticking these boxes are much more likely to receive our custom.

Just recently, we took a group on a lovely woodland and lakeside walk near Leeds. Close to the end, there were three large stones that a member in an electric wheelchair couldn't negotiate. With a tree stump on one side and a pond on the other there was no way of getting around, so we had to retrace our steps and extend our walk significantly. It was tiring, annoying and completely preventable. We won’t return any time soon, thereby depriving that site of the benefits of our ‘purple pound’. 

In an ideal world, landowners and countryside organisations would engage more with people with a disability when they're considering improving their access. Some organisations are doing brilliant things. Even here however, they sometimes fail in one or two minor ways that they probably had never considered. For example, a bird hide window that is just too low or too high, or uneven ground which manual wheelchairs could tackle but is too tricky for low wheel-based electric wheelchairs. Liaising with disabled people and their advocates can prevent costly access mistakes being made. Alternatively, set aside a generous ‘snagging’ budget for altering things retrospectively!

Height barriers exclude fly-tippers annually, but exclude disabled people daily (Open Country)
Height barriers exclude fly-tippers annually, but exclude disabled people daily (Open Country)

Disabled people form over 20% of the population of the UK. Any manager who did not consider a fifth of their potential clientele would surely be deemed a failure? There are forward-thinking councils and landowners who are making progress in this area. Here in Yorkshire, Bridlington converted its seafront and made it superbly accessible for all. Bolton Abbey estate has also done good work creating accessible paths and constantly strives to improve their infrastructure. ‘Build it and they will come’ often applies here - disabled people will love to visit places with good, inclusive access - with all the socio-economic benefits their presence will bring.

But there is still so much more that could be done.

As an organisation, we prefer to work with landowners rather than berate them. In the absence of statutory standards for outdoor access improvements, we advocate taking the ‘Least Restrictive Option’, as it’s better to do what you can rather than do nothing at all. To illustrate, start by clearing overhanging branches to at least 7’or painting obtrusive tree roots white so that visually impaired people can see them. Can simple benches be installed along your route for a few pounds, or height barriers be dispensed with in your car parks? If you have inaccessible stiles between nothing but fields of turnips, can they be quietly removed without impacting on livestock management? Use the access hierarchy of ‘gap-accessible gate-gate-stile’ as your mantra for improving your access network. Any movement towards ‘gap’ is to be welcomed; never head the other way! Simple access improvements today will be appreciated until you can do more in the future.

Quick access wins are still valuable (Open Country)
Quick access wins are still valuable (Open Country)

Sometimes access budgets can be preserved by NOT installing costly countryside furniture, bollards and barriers. Two of our neighbouring councils are currently embarking on a series of costly, probably ineffective and questionably legal barrier installations to thwart illegal motorised users. Yet many disabled people suffer mightily from these ill-conceived structures. Why not save your precious access budgets and deal with the off-road menace in a different way? Then plough what you have saved into positive access measures instead!

Every barrier excludes someone – avoid them and use your budget more positively! (Open Country)
Every barrier excludes someone – avoid them and use your budget more positively! (Open Country)

In many other cases, improving countryside access will undoubtedly cost a packet. It’s important to stress that this is not a disability issue – all access users benefit from a more accessible countryside. As a result, there are few ‘disability’ funding pots available. Try your councillors’ discretionary budgets, heritage funds or partner up with regeneration, sporting or health agencies. More importantly, much funding will be more easily obtained if you can demonstrate you are ticking diversity boxes. Set your stall out to offer inclusive access and the funding should roll in!

Importantly, inclusive access is more than just physical access. Other barriers to welcoming disabled people into the countryside can include a lack of accessible information, lack of support, lack of accessible transport and lack of financial resources. Thus it is important to think widely when spending precious resources in the countryside - a countryside manager could foreseeably have the most physically accessible site in the land yet still have few disabled visitors, if other access factors have not been considered.

Only a fraction of the countryside could currently be called fully accessible and there is no room for complacency. Improving access, even with a little-by-little approach, should be an ongoing concern for all of us working in the countryside.

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Posted On: 08/11/2021

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