In the last week I have found that my life is being massively impacted by the desire to maintain history in my area. Camden does have many areas of historic interest, and a large number of buildings that are listed, whether that is as a whole or features of special historic value. I really believe that it is important to save and preserve this our history, but do feel that at the minute heritage is trumping other important factors unfairly.
On Thursday I visited a disability event at a local venue, but found that it had various problems with access. When I passed on my comments to the manager he claimed that due to the building’s listed status they couldn’t do any more than they already had. The next day I went on a site visit to a venue that was going to host an event I had been asked to present the coverage of. I must admit my heart dropped when the company that asked me to present for them told me where they were filming. I instantly knew it was an old building with loads of stairs to a warren of different levels. So I made some enquiries to as to what access provision might be available. I was told that trained staff would make sure I could get around the site.
This was not really the case. The guys who lifted me up and down flight and after flight of stairs obviously had no training and I really felt I was taking my life in my hands, or putting it in theirs, to even consider trying to take to job presenting from the venue. While I was shown around by the lovely manager and her assistant, we discussed how inaccessible the building was and how it’s listed status made it difficult to remedy. I could see her point, but didn’t see any evidence that anything had been done at all. Of course, even though I give access advice to businesses like this, I must admit I found solutions difficult to come up with.
But that’s not the point of this blog. Surely if English Heritage is going to give buildings listed status, then don’t they also have some kind of duty to ensure that they give each building guidelines on how accessibility can be built into the site? I don’t mean dedicated access consulting, with a full plan of works to be carried out, but somewhere for the owners of the building to start from. Just an understanding of what can and can’t be done would do. But even if EH feels that they are not the right people to give this advise, they should make sure that the legal requirements of access, health and safety and fire regulations are fully clear to all concerned.
Now maybe they actually do this, and history, heritage and listed status is just used as an excuse by owners of these buildings to not have to spend what can be considerable sums of money on access. I know that many venues see this expense as hard to justify, as they claim they see very few disabled customers. Of course the reply to the that is, if your venue isn’t accessible then how could disabled customers use it? It’s the chicken and the egg problem that is easy to answer. And trying to retro fit accessibility features into old listed buildings is always really expensive, especially with the rules that EH stipulate.
That is the real root of the issue. Money. The costs of owning or running a business in a building listed by English Heritage are already made higher by that listing. Once the building or it’s features are listed finding access solutions become harder, and purchasing and installing them shoots up in cost dramatically. I truly believe it is unfair to place that cost entirely on the buildings owner, as listing a building is saving the heritage of the country for the country as a whole. So surely there should be some financial help from the country? This would also mean that so many more historic buildings would be open to visit and use to disabled people. At the minute, a listed status is such a great block to access works that I am finding local groups in Camden are trying to gain it to prevent access provision being carried out by some of my clients. I do love the fact that there are people who feel that their right to live in historic surroundings is more important that my right to do the same, with the same ability to experience all that the area has to offer. But then they probably want to keep the historic theme going, and put us all in institutions or on hill sides to die. Nice.
I don’t know what the answer is. At a time of belt tightening everywhere I doubt that EH will suddenly find a pot of cash that will help fund accessibility for listed buildings, or their owners will be able to find a stash of money to make their buildings inclusive. But we do need to start a conversation with English Heritage, fans of historic buildings, their owners and anyone who feels access is as important as history with the hope of finding a solution that keeps everyone happy. There are solutions out there, but we all have to work together to find them. Because otherwise it will end up with a series of legal actions and the only people who win then are lawyers.