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TX: 19.05.06 - Disabled Access to the Countryside

PRESENTER: LIZ BARCLAY
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY

BARCLAY
Now getting out and about in the countryside is meant to be a relaxing experience, taking us away from our increasingly stressful lives. But if you have a disability finding places that are accessible can be difficult. Next week a diversity action plan is being launched aimed at improving the situation. A new organisation called Natural England will oversee it and we'll be talking to its chief executive Dr Helen Phillips in a moment, along with the author Richard Maybe and head of the Disabled Ramblers Dr Mike Bruton.

But first there are already several pilot projects to improve disabled access and to find out more about one of them Carolyn Atkinson headed off along the coast near Margate near Kent with Helen a double amputee and other members of the Minis Bay Cycling Group.

ATKINSON
So we're at the beginning of the biking coastal route, I can see Reculver Towers three and a half miles away, is that where we're heading?

HELEN
Yeah that's where I normally get to or perhaps a little bit further and then back again for a cup of tea at the café at the end.

ATKINSON
The very important bit. Helen you are using your hands to cycle along.

HELEN
Yeah that's right, I'm on what's called a hand crank bike, it's three wheels so it's very stable and it's very hard work on your shoulders but it's great. And I normally go about eight miles when I'm here with the club.

ATKINSON
We've got the wind in our hair, we've got the most beautiful sunny day, we've got the coast - the waves are crashing in off to the right of us - it's very exhilarating isn't it.

HELEN
Yeah, yeah it's lovely, I mean I'll come back feeling really exhilarated and proud of myself.

ATKINSON
Coming up on the inside Steve and Pauline on the tandem, looking very coordinated, if I may say so. We've got a traffic jam here, it's worse than the M25. You'll have to pull over.

Alongside us here is Belinda Davies from Kent County Council, talk us through some other examples of the projects you're running.

DAVIES
We arrange camping weekends for adults with learning difficulties and this weekend we're going to be building barn owl boxes and bivouacs. We've also got a programme of walking activities and Viking sailing.

ATKINSON
And the feedback you're getting from people is what exactly?

DAVIES
Absolutely fantastic. People can't believe what is beginning to become available. You've got to remember that a lot of the disabled community have never ever been to the countryside before and it really is beginning to open up.

ATKINSON
Now Steve I'm alongside you in the wheelchair cycle, now this would be used by people who are full time wheelchair users who can't cycle themselves. Just sitting here I'm being cycled along by my assistant here behind me, but it's absolutely fantastic, it's really smooth.

LADY
Seeing your back, I've got a disabled friend who's got cerebral palsy.

ATKINSON
Now we've been just been stopped by this lady and she's just seen this wheelchair bike that I'm actually sitting in at the moment.

LADY
Oh it is fantastic.

My son's 13, he's got severe cerebral palsy and he has no trunk control. He loves being out and about and I'd love to take him out bike riding but there's nothing I can put him on, there's no possible way I could until now.

ATKINSON
And Steve can tell you that there's a club just down the road.

STEVE
Absolutely we've got two containers full of bikes, adapted cycles as well as standard mountain bikes, so come down and join us.

LADY
Fantastic thank you.

He would just absolutely love it, I know he would. And he would just belly laugh.

ATKINSON
Excellent, well that just shows you doesn't it, if the demand is there ...

STEVE
Demand is there, I mean it's quite difficult to reach individuals and these ideally are the people that I try and focus on because these are the people that don't have access to activities and outdoor pursuits that residential care homes and day services have.

ATKINSON
Coming up on the inside here.

CONNIE
I'm Connie Baysaw [phon.], I've had two minor strokes and it affected my balance as well, so although I've been a lifelong cyclist I could no longer ride on a bike on my own and thinking I would never ever be able to ride a bike again, you just think oh well I'm 79 so what else can you expect really. But I was wrong.

ATKINSON
And then you met Hazel.

HAZEL
Like Connie I've always cycled most of my life until I started losing my sight and then I couldn't cycle on my own anymore.

CONNIE
It's got three wheels, it's not a tandem it's a side by side, there is a difference - the tandem is one behind the other. They used to have them in holiday camps and they're great fun, you know, it's just been so fantastic.

HAZEL
The different sort of bikes and things they've got down here, I didn't know that they existed.

ATKINSON
Were you feeling quite isolated and quite stuck at home?

CONNIE
Oh really awful, really, really terrible. And not only physically but psychologically.

ATKINSON
We didn't quite get as far as the towers but we're now back here, five miles later, five miles of cycling, how do you feel now?

CONNIE
Just perfect, absolutely perfect. To come out here and have this - all this freedom, plus the fresh air, plus other people to talk at, things to look at, there is a party of four horses going along the track and they went down on to the beach and it's just indescribable.

BARCLAY
And the Kent Outdoor Pursuits Disability Project runs other activities in the countryside for people with disabilities such as archery and climbing.

Dr Helen Phillips from Natural England, just listening to that, one point that seems to come across is a lot of people don't know what equipment is out there that could possibly give them access to the countryside.

PHILLIPS
The issue of tools and kit is certainly something we need to do of. That lady with the son with cerebral palsy, I mean I was getting really excited listening to that, it was wonderful. But in addition to that I think we need to be careful that we don't just think about the kind of engineered solutions to access to the countryside for the disabled community because of the potential to kind of urbanise the countryside. The disabled community's requirements with the countryside are as varied as ours and some people want to have a pretty managed formulae welcoming sort of experience and others want that sense of wilderness. But I think it's really important that we raise the sights and aspirations and create a certain amount of bolshy behaviour in the disabled community about what it is they want because then the rest of us will have to work harder to provide it.

BARCLAY
Well I know that you have been hearing one loud voice from the disabled community and that's Dr Mike Bruton, who is head of the Disabled Ramblers. Mike, does what has been said so far tally with what the Disabled Ramblers know about the difficulty people with disabilities have using the countryside?

BRUTON
Yes it does very much. We, as our name implies, go for the rambling aspect, rather than just countryside attraction visits. So we make a lot of use of the public rights of way networks. The big problem is that the public rights of way network - footpaths in particular - were designed for able bodied people, they're usually enormously difficult hugely for disabled, even if you walk.

BARCLAY
There are about a 118,000 miles of pathways open to the public in England alone, how many of those miles do you think are accessible for disabled ramblers?

BRUTON
It could be as much as 10% I think, it depends upon the degree of robustness of the person taking the route. Some standards were produced some years ago which were very high indeed and the reality there is that well under 1% of the rights of way network conform to those standards. If you include things like forestry and haulage roads, the sustrans cycle networks, a lot of old railway trails that have been re-established, that goes up to probably round about 10% which is not. You see this is the problem, it's there, people don't know about it. And local disabled people say I don't go into the countryside, I don't know where I can go, we can't just go out and pick up a guide book to a public footpath and say go and follow it because they're designed for able bodied people and they tend to ignore things that affect us like steps and stiles. And so we have to use a kind of sixth sense or we have to work with local people. And we are convinced that one of the very biggest needs not being at all tackled at the moment adequately is to provide information so that you can actually build up a whole network of guides as to where people can go. And we're beginning to do this on our website actually, we've got a number of footpaths that we've surveyed and we're confident about.

BARCLAY
Now of course projects that improve access are often small scale and decided at local level. Mike has already been talking about stiles. Well one way of overcoming the problem of stiles is a new gate that's accessible for all types of wheelchairs, scooters and prams and it's being installed by Westbury on Severn parish in West Gloucestershire.

HYATT
Well my name's Alan Hyatt and I'm actually a member of the parish council. I should imagine we're actually two miles probably - two and a half miles - from the centre of village. At this access point we're probably only about 300 yards from the River Severn. The other day when I came down I actually got access on to the top of the Severn Way, so I've not been on the Severn Way for 12 years so that's really exciting. An excellent job and it just allows people like myself, who's in a wheelchair, to get access to the countryside.

BENTLEY
I'm the other Alan, my name's Alan Bentley, I'm from the Gloucestershire County Council public rights of way team. We have a small fund available, about £10,000 to spend each year on this sort of project and what we like to see is community buying and so when Westbury Parish Council approached us we took the chance with both hands, you might say. This is a slightly shiny galvanised steel kissing gate. I would accept that they look slightly industrial at first but they will mellow down with age. They cost about £300. And what we've got here is a bit of a - little bit of concrete as well to help people get up to the kissing gate because it's slightly higher than the road. This gate is especially designed disabled access kissing gate, so while it lets ordinary punters through and people with maybe a pushchair or a buggy, or maybe a large dog through with ease, there's also a specially designed key system, called a radar key, whereby you can get hold of these radar keys to allow a much larger mobility vehicle through, so that disabled people may access the land. There really aren't that many of these, we would aim to put in a handful each year. We have to work very carefully with landowners, particularly, because they own the gates and stiles that give you access to land along public rights of way and it's up to us often to approach them and to actually do some of the liaison. We don't get any special money from government though for this, it has to be funded out of local taxes, so we can only do what we can do with the money we've got.

HYATT
We're just going to make our way up now on to the Severn Way, which will be nice to see the river from here. Yes lovely, tide's out at the moment, there are quite a few wading birds about. Oh it's lovely, look at the beautiful view.

BARCLAY
Alan Hyatt enjoying access to the Severn Way in his wheelchair.

I do want to bring in the third guest who is the author Richard Maybe who has spent his life writing about and living in the countryside and his recent book Nature's Cure actually describes his personal journey coping with mental illness and his re-engaging with nature and he's in our Norwich studio.

Richard, what does the countryside mean for you in personal terms when you look at how it aided the recovery from your illness?

MABEY
I think it's a place that isn't for me an easy place, the kind of engagements that I find rewarding and which helped in my recovery from a long period of depression were really quite difficult and intense experiences. They were to do with learning to find my own way about the countryside, they were learning to re-ignite the kind of responses I used to get to other forms of life. One of the most tragic for me losses I had when I was in depression was that I got no reward from the countryside at all and particularly from some big birds in the Chilterns that I used to watch repeatedly, which would be the Red Kites, the most marvellous five foot wingspanned agile birds of prey, that soar about the hills in the Chilterns. When I got better the exhilaration which they gave me in seeing almost an emblematic ability to rise above the earth was astonishing. And I suppose that the lesson I've learnt is that the countryside, and particularly the wild places in the countryside, shouldn't be simple easy off-the-peg programmed experiences, they should be things that you have to have uncertainty about, that you should have to do some work to find your way into. I used to take inner city children round nature reserves some years ago and I could waste my breath talking to them about botany, what they really responded to were the elemental things about the countryside - about scrambling over fallen trees, about learning the physicality of different kinds of plants. Now those kinds of experiences are special to the countryside, even if you are disabled in one way or another, the idea that you remove challenge from the experience of the countryside would be very sad. What other creatures can do and certainly what wild places can do is to get you out of the confines of your own body and out of the confines of your own skull. If they are like the experiences that you have in an urban park well one really might just as well stay in a city.

BARCLAY
But saying that though Richard isn't there an argument that you sometimes have to make it a bit easier for certain people, otherwise they won't reap the benefits that you yourself reaped?

MABEY
Yes of course, I mean one gets people into the countryside, one gets them into engagement with different landscapes and different creatures but there has to be a balance there. I mean I'm old enough now to begin to accumulate my own disabilities but I'd be very upset for instance if there were public toilets all the way round the footpath system of Britain, just because I'm beginning to have a slightly old man's bladder, and I would not like kind of hearing stations where I could plug into a wayside amplifier to improve my slightly dodgy hearing. Once one has got there and begun to engage you must work for the emotional experience of the countryside.

BARCLAY
Dr Phillips it obviously is about getting a balance between the needs of everyone but costs are a problem, where does the funding come from, is there enough funding for perhaps improving access, allowing for buddy schemes, for instance, for other people to go out with somebody who has a disability where there is no other way to give them access to the countryside and what about getting access to the access, if you see what I mean, if you can't - if you're sight impaired perhaps and you can't drive yourself to the point at which you can get access to the countryside, all of that needs to be funded does it not?

PHILLIPS
It does and as the chap on that clip said, you know we can only do what we can do, but I'm absolutely convinced we could do a lot more by focusing on those things that require time and people's contribution and volunteering to make that happen. And also by really getting transferral of some good practice. I mean we've heard some terrific clips today and it's about sharing that learning in a kind of accelerated way, so we get more from what is available.

BARCLAY
Yes but if good practice costs £300, as in putting in your kissing gate, as opposed to a stile, which costs about £30 to put in, then it is not just a matter of cost but a matter of persuasion and encouragement and getting everyone on board.

PHILLIPS
And a matter of planning. And you know the highways authorities have a statutory requirement to put rights of way improvement plans in place and they need to be thinking well ahead, we need to be getting alongside them and helping the preparations for that because the Diversity Action Plan is not intended to come up with the ultimate plan in terms of what provision is going to look like from Scunthorpe to Scarborough, it's much more about setting the priorities and the framework that we want people progressively to work through.

BARCLAY
Richard, what would you like to see done?

MAYBE
I hope I haven't sounded too churlish about this but I think in terms of the gradation of experience, the American national parks have got it pretty well right, you go to a place like Shenandoah National Park there is motorcar access round some of the inner roads, there is then boardwalk access going out a few more hundred yards but when you get to the edge of that you're on your own. So I think that a gradated countryside, in terms of its access opportunities, might be one practical way of solving.

BARCLAY
If I want to go out this weekend and I'm in a wheelchair and I want to know where I can go, that I'm going to have a fully accessible day out to the countryside, where can I find that information?

BRUTON
Sometimes the local authorities produce little guidebooks. The National Parks are quite good, they produce guidebooks in general. We ourselves having explored over 1200 miles of trail and path and we have a lot of knowledge ourselves, so we can point people in the right direction. It really is pretty pathetic though when you consider what the need is and what's available at the moment. So this new Countryside Agency project sounds absolutely splendid.

BARCLAY
Thank you to Dr Mike Bruton for Disabled Ramblers, author Richard Maybe and Dr Helen Phillips, chief executive designate of Natural England. There will be more information on our website but that Diversity Action Plan that's being launched next week, we'd like to have your thoughts and experiences on what you would like to see done, so please do let us know and we'll pass your views on to Dr Phillips.





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