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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 14:57 GMT
Access all heritage areas
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

How best to preserve the UK's heritage - whether it be a double-decker bus or an architectural gem - while respecting the right of access for disabled people?

A Routemaster passes Big Ben
The look of London
A Routemaster bus. The once-ubiquitous red phone box. A crumbling yet still-lovely historic building. Britons love their heritage, and are reluctant to see it change.

But improving access for people with disabilities is now a priority in the UK, and that means changes to many much-loved British institutions - including the aging Routemaster buses which once dominated London streets.

Pip Hesketh, of Transport for London, doesn't hold with this desire to preserve the UK's heritage in aspic. "British people all love their heritage. It's one of our idiosyncrasies, but in some cases it stops us meeting people's needs."

TfL estimates that as many as one in 10 bus users has some sort of impairment, which makes it hard for them to use the Routemaster buses. Nor are the buses only problematic for disabled people.

"People who have children in buggies end up having to hand their children to total strangers while they fold up the pushchair - it's just not acceptable."

And to those who just can't imagine London life without their favourite bus, she has a simple answer. "Go to the London Transport Museum, or better still, buy your own and drive it around, if you can keep it running."

Photo Bendy bus
Flexible replacement - London's new bendy bus
But for those campaigning to keep the Routemaster on the streets, scrapping the old lady is like putting down the family pet.

"Routemasters are to London are like bobbies on the beat and Beefeaters," says Ben Brook, who head the campaign to save the buses.

He and his fellow enthusiasts point out that the new bendy buses don't have conductors - and conductors often help people on and off Routemasters.

"They're like Grade One-listed buildings - you wouldn't knock down Buckingham Palace," says Mr Brook.

This is an appropriate analogy because legislation that will require greater access to buildings - including historic houses and monuments - comes into effect in October.

Open to all

Architects and access consultants have been busily carrying out audits and proposing and making changes to hundreds of historic properties in preparation for part three of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Whitby Abbey's striking new - and accessible - features
Walk this way at Whitby Abbey
Here again, the wishes of those who would not touch a single brick or cobblestone have to be balanced with the duty to make buildings accessible.

"I think one of the best examples of what can be achieved is Whitby Abbey," says Lisa Foster, an access consultant who specialises in historic buildings.

The abbey - a world heritage site which attracts more than 130,000 people a year - has undergone extensive refurbishment, thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It now has a ticketing point tucked into the landscape so people can come up on a new ramp, then walk across the grounds. And a museum and visitor centre has been built into the ruins of the 17th Century banqueting hall.

Architect Alan Stanton says building the museum inside a ruin needed an imaginative approach.

Rather than have a separate lift for disabled visitors to reach the upper gallery, it was decided that everyone would use glass lifts so that they were able to see the 17th Century rubble walls as they went up and down.

The key, says Mr Stanton, is to juxtapose old and new rather than trying to replicate the original style.

Photo wheelchair ramp at the Royal Academy
Old and new at the Royal Academy
"This has been something of a crusade in our practice - we think it makes things richer and more interesting and allows us to use contemporaneous technology for solving the problems of access."

Lisa Foster says there are similarly innovative and bold solutions.

"Harewood House in Yorkshire has a platform lift on the front elevation of the building and it just seems to melt into the overall design. And at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the whole courtyard was raised so that the ramps wouldn't be too steep."


Where the only means of visiting part of a historic monument is by using stairs, Ms Foster says the experience should be provided virtually by using video.

"In working buildings like libraries and town halls, access always wins over preservation - the idea being that unless changes are made the buildings will fall into disuse.

We need to break away from the idea that access is a battleship; grey and one size fits all
Martin Pagel, Manchester City Council
"In historic monuments and the like, access is carefully weighed against what the fabric of the building will stand. Each site is unique and any modifications depend on the existing constraints and inherent opportunities."

For disability campaigner and Manchester City councillor, Martin Pagel, it is time we stopped being so precious about the past.

"It's an absolutely basic requirement that we make the built environment as user-friendly as possible and open to all," he told a seminar examining access to listed buildings in his home city.

"We need to break away from the idea that access is a battleship; grey and one size fits all. We need to view access as exciting, sexy and glamorous."

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09 Feb 04  |  London


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