"Shut down pubs that don't cater for disabled people, says House of Lords", according to a headline in the Morning Advertiser (MA) about a House of Lords Select Committee report. In response, a spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said: “Shutting pubs isn’t the answer, but we should all be encouraging pubs to be accessible as possible." So there we have it: two diametrically opposed viewpoints on how to address the problem.
However, according to the Parliament website, the Select Committee actually said: "Many restaurants, pubs and clubs are difficult to access, with many not providing basic facilities such as a disabled toilet. Local authorities should be allowed to refuse to grant or renew these premises' licences until they make the necessary changes." The italics are mine, but the MA completely fails to mention that proviso, which I regard as quite significant.
Disability access has been a problem with many organisations ever since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in 1995. The Act allows establishments not to make alterations where the nature of the structure makes them impracticable or excessively expensive, or where they may cause major damage to an historical building. However, there's no doubt that many places have ignored the Act, or paid lip service; for example, in one pub I used to frequent, the disabled toilet could only be reached by climbing two steps.
Other bodies have used the Act as a pretext for cutting costs. For example, Birkdale railway station in Southport used to have public toilets until the day when they were locked permanently with a sign stating that closure was necessary because they didn't comply with the DDA. The obvious answer of Network Rail coughing up for suitable alterations was clearly not considered; closure was cheaper, and eliminated ongoing costs such as cleaning and maintenance. It was made clear when the DDA was passed that it was not the intention to close anywhere down: if there were genuine reasons why DDA compliance was not possible, that would be acceptable.
In relation to pubs, the incompleteness of the MA's article is unhelpful. Firstly, non-compliant licensees may be concerned that they might be shut down, and thus lose their livelihood, even though in very many cases the maintenance of and adaptations to the structure of the pub are not their responsibility. Secondly, I can see cashed-strapped pubcos using the cost of making premises and toilets accessible as an excuse to close the pub altogether, claiming that the cost of adaptations have rendered the pub unviable. Where pubs are situated in areas where the land can profitably be sold off for redevelopment, the temptation may become almost irresistible.
As Baroness Deech, who chaired the Select Committee, said: "We found that there are problems in almost every part of society, from disabled toilets in restaurants being used for storage, to schools refusing interpreters for deaf parents, to reasonable adjustments simply not being made."
Clearly much more needs to be done. However, many pubs are in a unique position in the hospitality industry in that they are owned by pubcos which have accumulated whole mountain ranges of debt (entirely their own fault); I fear unintended consequences may ensue.