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Councils and Accessibility

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21 September 2021

Obstacles to council accessibility. The issue of accessibility across different Local Government Authorities (LGAs), and how councils are approaching the need for more inclusive design.

Councils and Accessibility

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992 makes it a legal requirement for local government to provide equal access to employment, public buildings, goods, services and facilities. However, what this access looks like from council to council can differ greatly.

In our latest blog, MGAC Accessibility Consultant and Development Engineering Services Coordinator Shak Wais explores the issue of accessibility across different Local Government Authorities (LGAs), and how councils are approaching the need for more inclusive design.

 

LGAs varying approaches to accessibility  

Wearing two hats, one as an MGAC Accessibility Consultant and the other, as a council Development Engineer, presents a unique opportunity for me to write on this subject. As someone who works closely with town planners and building surveyors tasked with development assessments in one of Sydney’s largest metropolitan councils, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how LGAs approach and assess for accessibility design inclusions.

Before we dive into particulars, it’s first important to note a few generalities in this area. As with the many fundamental shifts in cultural attitude through education, understanding and greater focus on accessibility, LGAs are also shifting gears towards inclusive designs. The greatest improvement in accessibility in recent times by metropolitan councils have largely been around public domain, recreational spaces, and developments of council-owned properties. While most councils have strategic visions on vastly improving accessibility and equity, the area that is lagging are developments over privately owned land.

Of course, the pace of progress – or lack of – has inevitably varied from council to council. Referencing my own past and present working experience with some of Sydney’s metropolitan councils, there is a fundamental shift in approach and thinking on accessibility. However, the shape and form of this progress differs between councils, and often between departments within the same council. The latter point is largely due to some of the rigid organisational structures adopted by some of the larger LGAs. In short, while progress is being made, it is largely inconsistent.

 

Obstacles to council accessibility 

To better understand how difficult making progress with accessibility in structurally rigid councils can be, it helps to imagine the organisational makeup of a council as a silo within a silo. For example, in the design and construction space, the land title classification in which any development proposal is to take place determines which section of council handles and manages the proposal. Generally, the type of development work and sections of council managing it are mostly defined into three categories – public domain work, council property development, and developments within private allotments.

In the context of accessibility, public domain works, and council property developments are heavily assessed and scrutinised. It is common for metropolitan councils to directly employ architects and accessibility inclusion officers to oversee council managed and/or owned development works. Typically, these external parties will provide assessments for developments over public spaces and developments of council owned/managed properties. Further to this, councils will often engage external accessibility consultants – such as MGAC – to compile accessibility inclusion masterplans. These close coordination with accessibility consultants more often than not yield higher quality accessible developments and public recreational spaces.  

Developments on privately owned land are handled slightly differently. For instance, accessibility inclusive designs, compliances and assessments are largely deferred to the accessibility consultants submitting supporting reports or certificates for proposed development applications or with any construction certificate lodged with council. This is due to the fact that councils do not employ accessibility experts to work alongside development assessment officers to oversee the assessment and scrutinise the compliancy of these reports. As a result, council town planners and building surveyors are left with the task of assessing these important reports. While some of these assessing officers have a good understanding of accessibility concepts, others lack a great deal of insight on this topic.

Regrettably, it is common practice within councils for assessing officers to condition accessibility reports in development consents without thoroughly reading through the whole of the report or partially reading the recommendation sections of the report. This can lead to a whole suite of accessibility problems down the line, many of which could have been managed more successfully with earlier and more inclusive engagement of a reputable accessibility consultant.

 

Improving council accessibility 

In most cases, these condition accessibility reports are from credible, professional, competent, and highly experienced accessibility consultants. However, poor vetting between reputable and non-reputable accessibility consultants can lead to approvals and constructed developments that lack compliance with Australian Standards, Building Code of Australia (BCA) and the DDA.

In my estimation, the gains and future improvements in accessibility design inclusions in council owned/managed public buildings, external domain and recreational spaces will only continue to improve. On the other hand, it is difficult to foresee how the disparity in quality accessibility compliant developments on privately owned land can be reduced without LGAs provision of additional resources to their respective planning and assessment teams. This additional resource can either be direct by employing accessibility experts to join development assessment teams, or through the regular training and developments provided to assessing officers on accessibility. Either way, greater pressure and importance needs to be placed on accessibility consultants’ role in proposed developments to yield the most compliant and accessible design for the benefit of all who access these buildings and outdoor spaces. 

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