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Portas high street review ‘is making life harder for access campaigners’

Portas high street review ‘is making life harder for access campaigners’
24th January 2013 developer

A review by the government’s “high street tsar”, Mary Portas, has made it even harder to secure access improvements to local shops for disabled people, according to a leading access consultant.

Tracey Proudlock has been trying for more than three months to discuss her concerns with Portas, but has so far had no response.

Last year, the government chose 27 English towns to take part in pilot projects aimed at transforming their high street, the first recommendation taken up from an independent review of the high street’s future, carried out by the retail expert.

But the Portas review failed to make a single mention of disabled people in its 47 pages, although there was a brief reference to the need for older people to have “the same great access to high streets that they have to out-of-town centres”, in a section in which she called for high streets to be “accessible, attractive and safe”.

Proudlock said she fears the review’s focus on deregulation and “freeing up red tape”, and making life easier for retailers, has filtered through to local authorities, who now shy away from telling high street businesses to improve access.

Proudlock, a wheelchair-user, last year asked four retailers near her home in Muswell Hill, north London, to remove a step at the front of their premises while builders carried out “high value work” inside.

All four refused to remove the step, she said, while her local council failed to force the shops to do so as a condition of their planning applications.

Proudlock first wrote to Portas on 12 October last year, telling her how her local Liberal Democrat councillor had said that Haringey council – which is Labour-controlled – “did not want to burden retailers” and so would not campaign with her to remove steps from her high street, because of the Portas review.

She has now written two letters – sent by registered post – to Portas’s office, and made follow-up calls and sent emails.

Proudlock, a member of the government’s own Equality 2025 advisory network of disabled people, but speaking in a personal capacity, said: “I was trying to change things where I live, but Portas was quoted as the reason why it wouldn’t happen.”

Portas has so far been unavailable to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said it was “committed to supporting the high street so it’s a place for everyone to enjoy”, which was why it had already implemented “virtually all” of the Portas recommendations, doubled small business rate relief for new and smaller shops and “outlined new proposals to re-activate empty shops”.

She said local businesses must comply with the Equality Act and building regulations, but added: “We actively promote good design which is crucial to improving the high street and would urge local authorities to look at locally imposed red tape and byelaws that may have an adverse affect on the high street.”

But when Disability News Service asked whether the government believed the Portas review had made it more difficult to improve access on the high street, she declined to comment further.

Haringey council has so far been unable to comment.