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Scottish Executive overturn Disabled Access refusal

The Scottish Executive has approved an application to improve disabled access at a proposed mental health crisis centre in Edinburgh, overturning the decision of local planners.

Edinburgh City Council had previously refused charity Penumbra’s application for planning and listed building consent to convert a four-storey building in Smith’s Place, Leith, into a crisis centre providing a 24-hour helpline and accommodation.

Penumbra had applied to install an external glass lift at the rear of the building, as the only option to avoid a dark, narrow and steep circular staircase and allow access to all levels of the building for visitors and staff.

They argued that the stairs would be impossible for wheelchair users or people with sensory impairments to use, as well as elderly or distressed visitors. Other visitors might be taking medication that could cause dizziness, fainting or poor spatial awareness.

The council granted permission for a chairlift at the front of the building and a rear ramp but refused permission for the lift. Penumbra then appealed to the Scottish Executive’s Inquiry Reporters Unit (SEIRU), who overturned the council's decision.

SEIRU Reporter Jill Moody said the impact on the listed building, which is currently empty, should be balanced against the benefits of making the building fully accessible. "The alternative of bringing visitors and staff into the building and then isolating them at any level is untenable", she said.

Jacquie Watt, of Penumbra, told the appeal it had taken a long time to find suitable premises and refusal meant the project would have to be abandoned. The proposed alterations would enable compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), benefitting both visitors and employees. Councillors had based their decision on "an especially narrow view of disabled access needs", she said.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) gave evidence to the inquiry, explaining that service providers have a legal obligation under the DDA to make themselves physically accessible to disabled people and that planning authorities must take that into account when making decisions.

It also pointed out that the council and the Reporters Unit – along with all other public bodies in Scotland – are now covered by the Disability Equality Duty (DED), which requires them to promote disability equality and prevent discrimination.

The DRC's Irene Henery told the appeal: “Planning authorities must consider the needs of disabled people, and the requirements of disability discrimination legislation when making their decisions. This becomes even more pressing, when the service to be provided from a building is particularly aimed at disabled people, as in Penumbra’s application.”

Adam Gaines, the DRC’s Scottish Director, said: “This is a very significant decision. The DRC rejects the notion that access and conservation are mutually exclusive, with one agenda automatically taking precedence over the other.”

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