September 04, 2004

Report: Access Groups in England and Wales

In Autumn 2003, the Distability Rights Commission in the UK commissioned research to explore the work of local access groups in England and Wales. The research was carried out by SURFACE at the University of Salford and will be published as ‘Towards Access Standards: The Work of Local Access Groups in England and Wales.' The full report, including an executive summary is available to download from the DRC web-site

Towards Access Standards: The Work of Local Access Groups in England and Wales

A summary report by the Disability Rights Commission, including recommendations

1. Introduction

This summary paper has been written to accompany research commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) on the work of local access groups in England and Wales. It summarises the key findings of the research and identifies recommendations.

In Autumn 2003, the DRC commissioned research to explore the work of local access groups in England and Wales. The research was carried out by SURFACE at the University of Salford and will be published as ‘Towards Access Standards: The Work of Local Access Groups in England and Wales.' The full report, including an executive summary is available to download from the DRC web-site

The aims of the research were

§ To identify the role of local access groups in providing access advice and to explore constraints and challenges in doing this work
§ To establish the range of statutory and local consultation processes to which groups are expected to respond
§ To establish the range and types of activities outside local and statutory consultation processes in which they become involved
§ To identify any support that groups are receiving
§ To compile the views of groups about what their roles should be and what resources are necessary to sustain their work.

The research consisted of
§ A scoping exercise to map the number and range of local access groups in England and Wales
§ A questionnaire survey sent to all groups identified through the scoping exercise
§ Telephone interviews with a sample of 30 groups
§ Telephone interviews with a sample of 10 national and umbrella organisations
§ Three focus group meetings with groups in England and Wales
§ Post focus group telephone interviews with 25 groups unable to attend the meetings.

A postal questionnaire was sent to all local access groups on a database compiled by the DRC in September 2003. The original database comprised 660 groups (30 returns identified themselves as groups disbanded or no longer contactable) and 229 groups returned completed questionnaires, representing a response rate of 35%. All respondents were assured of the confidentiality of the survey and hence none are named in the research report.

Key findings from the research:

2. The Composition of Groups - Structure and Membership

§ The majority (80%) of local access groups in England and Wales comprise only a small number of members (less than 30 members). Most people participating in groups do so in a voluntary capacity and two thirds of groups are managed entirely by volunteers.

§ The majority of groups include disabled and non-disabled members, and only one fifth of groups (18%) had a membership consisting of disabled people only. Of disabled members, people with mobility impairments had the greatest representation in groups, with other impairment groups also represented but in lower numbers.

§ Involving more people in local access groups, in particular disabled people, was mentioned by the majority of participants as an issue of concern. This issue was seen to relate to the two other recurring themes; that more widespread and positive publicity would encourage new members and that the participation of new members would also be made easier by being able to offer expenses and administrative support.

§ Local access groups typically have an older age profile, with the majority of members aged over 50 years. Only 7 per cent of participating groups had members aged under 25 and membership from black and minority ethnic communities is disproportionately low.

§ The majority of groups (82%) are constituted bodies which have office bearers, usually a chair and a secretary. The involvement of a local access officer is perceived as highly beneficial to groups, particularly in facilitating communication with local authorities and as a source of up to date information. There was some suggestion that involvement should be limited to working with groups, rather than fuller involvement as a member of the group.

3. Scope - Activities and achievements

§ Local access groups have a strong reputation of trying to promote and facilitate an inclusive environment for local communities. This was recognised by the majority of study participants, including national and umbrella organisations, who gave a clear consensus on the benefits of working with local access groups, whilst also valuing their independent nature.

§ The key function of the majority of groups is to provide informal access advice to improve disabled people’s access to the built environment. Groups are also involved in a range of other activities and can therefore be broadly defined as providing consumer representation in campaigning, awareness raising, responding to public consultations, and providing direct advice to local authorities and organisations on specific local issues and projects.

§ A substantial number of groups (over two-thirds) have strong links with other disability /voluntary organisations and local authorities. However approximately half of participants surveyed felt that the relationship with local authorities could be improved and that a formal link could be useful in achieving this. The majority of groups were also keen to be involved in work undertaken by access auditors/consultants either in an evaluation role or in a general consultation capacity.

§ The advice provided by groups is underpinned by users experience in providing direct experience of access issues, but there is a growing trend towards the provision of more technical advice, such as referring clients towards best practice solutions e.g. BS8300, without directly taking responsibility for the application of best practice in a particular situation. In doing this, groups remain within their consumer experience base. A few groups had consolidated their experiences into their own best practice guidance available for professional use and this has received take up in one instance at an international level.

4. Capacity and sustainability of groups

§ Many groups believe they have a diminishing capacity due to the limited amount of time and commitment voluntary members can give to the group, often with a few active members doing the bulk of the work. This is also linked to groups operating in an environment of finite resources, which impacts on opportunities for development.

§ Capacity is linked to recruitment. The older age profile of groups, deteriorating health of some members and problems with transport to attend meetings all contribute to a problem with shrinking membership and the sustainability of groups. Recruitment of new members, especially younger members, was a major concern for many groups, especially for groups whose members were all aged over 60.

§ Capacity is also linked to advertising. Many groups found it difficult to advertise who they are and what they do, with advertising often limited to leaflets and poster campaigns. Groups are often not well known within their local area and with some volunteers operating from their place of residence, there is often no contactable person publicly available. Where groups did have a contact point and/or office space, it was either through the local authority or some other organisational structure such as Shopmobility scheme. Groups emphasize that they would like to be more proactive in campaigning and effecting change, but are limited in what they can do due to capacity.

§ Suggestions on how to build capacity (all of which require additional resources to be successful) included:
§ recruitment of younger members through establishing closer links with educational establishments/community organisations which involve younger people
§ to deal with issues which directly appeal to younger people
§ to improve opportunities for training across groups

5. Funding

§ Securing sustainable funding is a major concern for all access groups; none of the groups in this study had core funding. Instead, groups typically fell into one of two categories; those groups who survive on minimal funding, typically received through donations, membership subscriptions and small grants; and groups which have secured specific project funding and employed some paid staff.

§ Lack of core funding has meant that fundraising has become a full- time activity for many groups, taking up disproportionate amount of their time. This further impacts on the groups capacity to deliver its core consumer representation function.

§ The majority of groups indicate that they would benefit from additional funding resources, which would cover expenses of members adequately, extend their current remit and provide additional training for members. However there was consensus among groups that they wanted to remain in control of their agenda and not driven by that of their funding source.

7. Conclusions

Hundreds of local access groups throughout England and Wales provide an ongoing commitment to promoting better access to the built environment through giving their time voluntarily to provide high quality consumer representation on access issues.

The value of local access groups is in their independent role in consulting, monitoring and advising on access to the built environment . This role, relevant to all public services, has become increasingly significant in the light of legislative changes impacting both on the rules governing the planning of the built environment and transport.

Despite being valued in this way, local access groups are currently caught up in trying to establish levels of sustainable funding and support mechanisms.

8. Recommendations

The demands on local access groups are likely to increase significantly over the next few years, particularly in the light of:
§ the introduction of Community Involvement Strategies through the Planning and Compulsory Purchases Bill and
§ the new Public Sector Duty on local authorities to promote equality for disabled people proposed in the Disability Bill.

In the light of the problems identified in this research, the importance of the work undertaken by access groups, and the increasing role they are likely to play in the future, it is recommended that government recognises the importance of access groups and the invaluable role that they undertake, and makes interventions to redress their diminishing capacity.

The DRC therefore recommends that government should identify a mechanism to underpin the core consumer representation function of local access groups in the following ways:

1. That the government should take immediate steps to halt the diminishing capacity of local access groups

2. That appropriate funding should be allocated to support the ongoing work of existing groups and the establishment of new groups to represent the access needs of local communities

3. That government should resource national networks in England and Wales through which the development of local groups can be co-ordinated and new guidance and information can be disseminated on an ongoing basis

4. That regional and local authorities should ensure the involvement of local access groups in the development of their spatial strategies and development plans as part of their community involvement strategies

5. That local authorities should seek to develop ongoing formal relationships with local access groups and where groups are agreeable to develop formal links and structures with local authorities

6. That government should coordinate a role for local access groups in relation to local authority performance in areas such as Best Value, Local Transport Plans and the forthcoming Public Sector Duty.

7. That further research be conducted into the reasons for the under representation of black and minority ethnic groups and younger people in local access groups.

The full report, including an executive summary is available to download from the DRC web-site

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