Prince Charles delivered the Queen’s Speech today (10th May), detailing the Government’s plans for the upcoming year. We take a look at what is included for accessible transport, and how this may impact upon disabled people across the UK.
At the beginning of each parliamentary session, the Queen’s Speech sets out the Government’s legislative plans. The speech – usually delivered by the Monarch, but written by ministers – listed some of the 38 Bills (proposed new laws) the Government hopes to introduce in the coming year.
However, not everything announced today will become law. Time constraints, fierce opposition or political wrangling can mean some Bills are delayed or scrapped entirely.
Below is a list of the Bills announced in the Speech that will have an impact on disabled people’s access to transport and streets, and what we make of the announcements.
Great British Railways
Included in the Queen’s Speech is a Transport Bill that seeks to officially establish Great British Railways (GBR) as a new body with powers and duties to plan and manage the railway network, following the publication of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail last year.
The Williams-Shapps review identified a host of issues with the rail network that pose barriers for the 14 million disabled people in the UK. Decades of privatisation and mismanagement have created a fragmented and patchy system, where boarding a train can feel like a gamble as to whether or not you will be able to get off at your destination. Just prior to the pandemic, non-disabled adults made 3 times as many journeys by rail than disabled people, and this is the disabled rail travel gap that we want to see closed.
The Transport Bill will create GBR as a legal entity, which will then absorb and replace Network Rail, the current track operator. GBR would then function a little like Transport for London’s model, setting timetables and prices and contracting private companies to operate services to these specifications under ‘passenger service contracts’, while also managing rail infrastructure. The Government argues that the proposal would create a simpler structure and make the running of the railways more efficient.
In evidence to the House of Commons Transport Committee in March, Rail Minister Wendy Morton said that the Government hoped the legislation would be in place by “early 2024”. A 30-year whole-industry strategic plan (WISP) for the railways, which Transport for All has sought to influence, is being developed to provide overall strategic direction for the rail sector.
Transport for All’s ultimate vision is for disabled people to be able to travel freely and with independence, door to door. This will require seismic, sustainable change in how the nation’s rail network – and intermodal changes – are designed, delivered, and run. We hope that the creation of GBR will present an opportunity for accessibility to be foregrounded as a non-negotiable, and we look forward to working with rail industry colleagues to ensure disabled people are at the heart of these plans.
Legalisation (and regulation) of e-scooters
The Transport Bill will also include measures to legalise and regulate e-scooters, according to a Downing Street briefing document on the Transport Bill published earlier this week.
E-scooters are widely sold and seen in towns and cities, but are currently only legal for use on private land, or on roads only if they are hired as part of government trials. More than 30 areas – including Bournemouth and Poole, Derby, Liverpool, Newcastle, and certain London boroughs – are already operating rental trial schemes, which use e-scooters with safety features such as speed limits of 15.5mph and automatic lights and require riders to hold a driver’s license.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had previously confirmed that the government would soon be reviewing the use of e-scooters on public roads in England.
“We will take powers to properly regulate and then be able to decide the usage of them,” he told MPs on the Commons Transport Committee in April.
“The first thing to do is to set standards. How powerful can they be, how fast do they go, do they have indicators, do they have lights at night and so on,” he said.
Commenting on the news, Katie Pennick – Campaigns and Policy Manager at Transport for All said:
“Disabled people make on average 30% fewer trips per year than non-disabled people, affecting our access to employment, education, community and opportunity. Any new transport service coming to market should be seeking to close this gap, not widen it further. At a critical time for action on climate, and with disabled people being among the most severely impacted by the affects of climate change – particularly air pollution – we welcome any initiative that aims to provide people with more sustainable ways to travel.
However, micro-mobility services must be accessible to and inclusive of Deaf and disabled people, while being delivered with minimal negative impact on other disabled street users including pedestrians. We know from our members that many people, particularly blind and visually impaired people, are facing new barriers due to the introduction of e-scooters: from more cluttered pavements to safety concerns around collisions.
We are concerned that, without in-depth empirical data from the trial showing the number of collisions and near-misses (broken down into impairment groups), the Government cannot adequately ensure that disabled people will not be adversely impacted by this change.”
Leveling Up and Regeneration Bill
Also announced in the Speech, a Levelling up and Regeneration Bill will give councils new planning powers with the aim of regenerating high streets.
During the pandemic, Local Authorities were given temporary powers to grant hospitality businesses (restaurants, pubs, and bars) licenses to place furniture of pavements and serve guests outside. This was done to mitigate the impact of social distancing requirements which saw businesses unable to serve guests inside.
Through new legislation, the Government is planning to make these powers permanent.
Transport for All is well aware of the concerns many disabled people hold around pavement licensing, having campaigned last Summer to bring attention to the additional barriers many were facing – street clutter, crowded pavements, and blocked routes.
We will be seeking to influence the direction of legislation to ensure any proposals properly consider and address the accessibility of pavement dining. This includes setting non-negotiable conditions, to apply to any and all licenses, that protect accessibility, for example maintaining minimum 1.5 meter clearances on footways.