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Exit Strategy

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Chris Fry represents Deaf and disabled people who face barriers with access to services, advice, information and education in everyday life. Whilst access to get in to buildings is usually considered, Chris explains that less thought is given to getting out...

You can read this story on p48 of our digital magazine, or download the pdf below the image on this page.

After a decade or more of supporting people in litigating cases against venues without ramped access and disabled toilets, awareness about the importance of this to service providers seems well embedded. But there is still too little attention paid to the importance of evacuation strategies.

Many venues appear suitable for wheelchair users, but often have inadequate plans to help evacuate disabled people in case of emergency.

This was brought into acute focus in the Grenfell disaster in June 2017 where 41% of disabled residents died.

Claddag was subsequently founded by two disabled tower-block residents, Sarah Rennie and Georgie Hulme, to highlight the Government's decision not to compel owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings to have have Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPS) for residents with mobility issues or visual, hearing or cognitive impairments brought a judicial review at the High Court in December 2022.

This Judicial Review failed because the Government stated that its consultation had not yet concluded but it appears to have heeded the strength of feeling on the subject because on 19 February 2024, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, released a statement on the government's long-term plans for housing which included requirements that new buildings should have 'second staircases' in residential blocks above 18m in height and that consideration should be given to evacuation lifts.

There's some great guidance from the wonderful Rachel Smalley of Jacobs which is helpful to those looking at planning and which I'm repeating in this article.

The Building Safety Regulator has been asked to 'publish the new statutory guidance in the form of a revised Approved Document B on second staircases before the end of March 2024, making clear the need for a second staircase in new multi-occupancy residential buildings that have a top occupied storey above 18 metres, and confirming that evacuation lifts will not be called for as a matter of course, providing housebuilders with the clarity they need to progress developments.'

The justification for these changes is that a 'second staircase will provide new buildings with additional resilience to support exit from the building and enhanced options for fire-fighting in the rare event of a catastrophic incident...and...will provide people with further confidence in the safety of new homes.'

This brings to mind the usual tension between compliance with planning regulations and compliance with the reasonable adjustments duty under the Equality Act.

In other words, where a building may be signed off by the local authority under Building Regulations for example, but not comply with the physical features requirements under s20 of the Equality Act 2010.

As Rachel correctly states, "People who require level access/egress do not all come under one protected characteristic group, they could have protected characteristics relating to disability, age, pregnancy and maternity, or more than one of these at any given time. In addition people's requirements can change over time or with age, with different life events, or on a temporary basis."

What does this mean to disabled tenants in terms of equality rights?

Whilst it seems that new planning developments will be caught by this new legislation, the existence of them should mean that all planning decisions should be affected by the change in culture ushered in as a consequence. There can be no doubt that change of use applications should also involve the same assessment.

Challenging planning decisions which don't have due regard to the Public Sector Equality Duty s149 EqA has to be done quickly (there's only three months to issue a legal challenge) and has to be taken by an interested party directly affected by the decision. That party can be an organisation as well as an individual.

It would be important to obtain copies of any Equality Impact Assessments undertaken at development stage to confirm whether disabled access and exits have been taken into account.

Individuals may also bring claims through the County Court for reasonable adjustments and compensation. Arguably this can apply to tenants as well as visitors/contractors... and it's not just residential and work place properties that need to think about this.

Restaurants, hotels, conference centres, sports arenas and venues, festivals and theme parks are all expected to have evacuation policies designed to anticipate a safe means of evacuating disabled service users too. That should involve providing alerts and plans for people with sensory disabilities.

So, getting in to a venue may be less of an issue now than it was a decade ago, but having a means of getting out is no less important and may affect whether a disabled service user wants to use your service.

Click here to find out more about Chris' work.

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