Campaigners have written to the Department for Transport asking government to intervene to improve access for disabled people to York city centre.
Members of York Accessibility Action say they are worried that City of York Council has excluded many disabled people from the city by increasing the pedestrian zone and the hours when streets are closed to traffic at the same time as removing the rule that allowed blue badge holders to drive down certain streets.
The council has created additional blue badge parking bays on the edge of the city centre and has launched a consultation on access for blue badge holders.
Campaigners say the changes have caused “heartache and frustration” for many disabled people who feel excluded. They say many are now travelling to Easingwold or Harrogate to use services like opticians, dentists, banks and the Post Office, which some people say they now cannot reach during opening hours.
Under Government coronavirus guidelines the council removed an exemption that allowed blue badge holders to drive down certain pedestrian streets when they were closed to normal traffic.
More streets were also added to the pedestrian zone and the hours the streets are closed were extended – to 10.30am to 8pm daily.
The council says the decision creates space for social distancing, for queues outside businesses and for pavement cafes.
‘Heartache, frustration and anger’
In a letter to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP, York Accessibility Action members say: “This situation has brought heartache, frustration and anger to those in the disabled community who are absolutely excluded from the city they live in and have been unable to access since June 2020.
“We fear that without your help this situation could carry on for much longer and in the worst case scenario it could be implemented forever.
“We very much hope that you or someone in your department can intervene and establish a solution that allow disabled people access to the city centre as was previously the case.”
The council has said Fossgate will reopen to traffic in September – but it is looking to keep the rest of the newly pedestrianised streets closed to traffic.
York’s Shopmobility service, which offers mobility scooters and wheelchairs for hire, has also been running a reduced service during the pandemic.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Well-designed cycling and walking schemes can bring environmental and health benefits for everyone, but it is essential that proper consultation is undertaken with local stakeholders before they are introduced.
“Many schemes have been introduced on a trial basis and are expected to be further developed and optimised in response to feedback including their impacts on accessibility, air quality and traffic.
“When the schemes were introduced, we gave councils clear guidelines which means local authorities need to take into account the needs of other road users, including for disabled people, emergency services, delivery vehicles, and buses and taxis in the design and delivery of these schemes.”
What City of York Council says
Neil Ferris from the council said he is happy to discuss the authority’s approach with the Transport Secretary.
He said: “The changes to the city centre footstreets were not taken lightly, and have allowed the city centre to reopen safely following government guidance to support safe reopening of hospitality businesses last summer.
“These are currently temporary solutions whilst we consider the permanent measures the city centre needs.
“We know from conversations with local businesses that the extra space, the ability to maintain social distancing and trade outside has kept many in business and protected jobs.
“We also know this has limited the ability of some residents’ to access the city centre.
“Extensive engagement last summer showed a mixed picture around our disabled residents, with many appreciating the benefits of the additional space. But we want to reduce the negative impact, so we’re reviewing the major access issues in the city this summer.
“This includes further engagement work with the most affected communities on a range of topics including parking locations, cycling as a mobility aid, the shopmobility service and access routes into the city, on top of the consultation over potential additional parking bays carried out earlier this year.
“This further engagement work is being undertaken prior to the start of any formal statutory consultation process.
“We’ll be happy to discuss our response to these challenges – which are being felt by cities across the country – with the Transport Secretary.
“We understand the dedicated Shopmobility team have been offering a skeleton service to regular users, but are not expected to fully reopen until later this month.”