Councils and businesses across the country are taking seriously the issues of accessibility for all residents in their towns.
The disability discrimination act of 2004 ‘requires service providers to assess obstacles and make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access’. How have the premises and ‘highways’ in Oundle met this requirement?
Oundle is fortunate to be served by a bus services such as the X4 and CountyConnect that use wheelchair accessible vehicles. Drivers with Blue Badges can park in restricted areas, including double yellow lines, although recent changes to the parking layout in the market place have reduced the convenience of access to the centre.
Like many historic towns, businesses in Oundle have problems adapting because buildings are often listed, and therefore face restrictions in what can be done to make adjustments.
Bramston House in the marketplace is grade two listed, and when the Sherwin family moved in with their son, who uses a wheelchair, they needed to apply for permission to make adaptations to the house to ease access.
Fortunately, the council agreed to their plans, which allowed more independence for their son. Mrs Sherwin said: ‘The school was very supportive, as was English Heritage. We have been able to make some necessary temporary changes without affecting any original features.’
Elsewhere in town, plans for St Peter’s Church have been particularly imaginative at adapting what was a difficult entrance with a ramp and automatic doors to provide an excellent service while still preserving the integrity of the grade 1 listed building.
The Stahl Theatre and the Queen Victoria Hall have also made significant improvements to fit in with refurbishments, and the Great Hall’s access has also improved with ramps installed to the side of the grade two building.
Major retailers such as Tesco and Boots do not provide a ramp, but do still cater for customers who cannot manage the steps to the entrance. Boots clearly signposts a bell that customers can ring. The shop assistants will then help to either lift the wheelchair into the shop or bring products outside.
Tesco operates a similar system, although less clearly indicated, and assistants are available to fulfil a customer’s shopping list.
Most customers who require special access prefer the Oundle Pharmacy. Because of the level access, the shopping experience is far less problematic. The Pharmacy is mentioned often for its customer care.
One particular area for concern is the pavements. In 2009, East Northamptonshire’s Conservation Area Appraisal noted that a key negative feature in the town was the condition of the pavements. For those with mobility problems, it is not just the aesthetics or historic character that concerns them.
Ms Paskin, a resident in Oundle for 20 years, suffers from arthritis and uses a mobility scooter to get to town. She said: ‘The pavements are really bad, they can be very painful. I sometimes have to ride on the road.’ Residents who use scooters and wheelchairs say that the uneven pavements are problematic.
For specific problems involving uneven slabs, the Northamptonshire County Council operates an online Streetdoctor service where places needing immediate inspection can be reported.
There are plenty of dropped curbs around town at crossings and intersections to ease the transition from the pavement to the road. But it is the lack of consideration by car users that can cause problems. Parked cars often block section of the road where the curbs have been dropped for disabled access.
Mrs Styles said: ‘Cars are often parked in the areas where the scooters are supposed to go up.’ The danger of entering the street over the curb is that scooters can easily tip if the wheels become imbalanced.
Cars and delivery vehicles also frequently park partly on the pavement itself, which limits space and causes obstructions for users of scooters.
Sarah Barnwell, from NCC Highways said: ‘There are financial limits on what we can do, especially in the current economic climate.
‘However we are aware of the need for improvements, and we welcome reports of these issues to help identify potential schemes as funding becomes available.’
By Thomas Lambton