York Guildhall’s council chamber is “not fit for modern day life” and should not be used for public meetings, according to an independent report.
City of York Council moved out of the 15th-century building in 2013 but recently started holding full council meetings in the Victorian chamber again after a £26m redevelopment of the wider Guildhall complex.
But the decision has caused controversy among disability rights campaigners and councillors, who say the chamber’s fixed wooden seating and raised platforms are excluding them from fully participating in York’s democratic process.
The council-commissioned report, by consultants About Access, was completed in August, but last week’s full council meeting went ahead in the chamber, despite calls from the Labour group to move elsewhere.
York paralympian Beth Moulam was told there was not enough room for her wheelchair in the public gallery following a protest before the meeting about the council’s blue badge ban.
Independent councillor Mark Warters has backed campaigners and said he will not attend full council meetings until they are held in a venue with better access.
He said: “All this money spent and they can’t come up with a fully accessible council meeting place for full council.”
Most council meetings are held in the modern West Offices, but full councils are among the most high profile meetings, which all councillors attend.
Labour councillor Margaret Wells, who has had a stroke, has spoken of the difficulty she had taking part in meetings at the Guildhall, while Coun Katie Lomas has described the “agony” she has experienced.
The access report noted that the chamber “is not accessible for elected members or council staff who use wheelchairs, or who are unable to use the fixed seating” and that the public gallery is “barely accessible” for disabled people.
“The Guildhall chamber does not offer inclusive or equitable access to the democratic process of City of York full council meetings,” it added.
“The chamber is not fit for modern day life in terms of accessibility and without major interventions it won’t be.”
Ms Moulam said she was “horrified” by the report.
She added: “More disappointing was the fact this report had been with the council for weeks and no action had been taken to address the location of the meeting.
“I’m looking forward to seeing swift action now the council has voted unanimously to accept the social model of disability in relation to working practice.”
Bryn Roberts, the council’s director of governance, said: “The Guildhall has been the seat of York’s democracy and governance for hundreds of years.
“While we recognise how hard it is to deliver ideal levels of access in such an historic space, we have requested an accessibility review of the chamber to inform work – which will be led by a cross-party working group – to identify and deliver any further improvements.”
Coun Wells said: “The council chambers are beautiful and historic, but we need to consider whether we, as a city, value culture and history more than people.”
Campaigner Flick Williams added: “Just because something has been a certain way for hundreds of years is not a justification for continuing.”
The report also made a series of other recommendations to improve access to the Guildhall as a whole, including improving signage, redesigning the blended steps and ramp at the entrance, and more handrails.
Mr Roberts added: “As part of the restoration work carried out at the Guildhall, improvements were made to the building’s accessibility, including the provision of a lift and accessible toilets, removal of stepped access and improved circulation space and power assisted / hold open doors.
“The report raises a number of challenges which that cross-party group will now seek to address, as far as – in the words of the independent report – it is “possible and reasonable” to do so.
“Other adjustments to facilitate access to meetings, such as live streaming remain in place.”