Welwyn Garden City wheelchair user challenges councillors to improve accessibility
PUBLISHED: 16:26 09 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:42 09 October 2018
A Welwyn Garden City power wheelchair user took local councillors on a tour in a bid to make public footpaths more accessible to people with disabilities.
On Wednesday, September 19, 72-year-old Ken Hurrell took four councillors on a neighbourhood tour to show the everyday difficulties of getting about in a wheelchair.
Taking a route from his home street, through Lumbards, along past Haldens shops, onto Bessemer Road and down to Mundells Ken pointed out numerous nuisances and hazards.
Some of them were things that all residents could be more mindful of in helping clear the path.
Almost straight away the group came across bushes that were growing far out onto the path, making it difficult to pass.
On Lumbards, Ken drove his chair over some unavoidable fallen crabapples, showing how the mess from the squashed fruit could be transferred by his wheels into his home.
“It gets in your tyres, you come indoors, and obviously I can’t just get up out of my chair to clear it up,” he said, adding that it is also a slipping hazard for elderly walkers.
Along Haldens, raised tree roots made the journey seem more like an assault course.
Too much of a jolt in a power chair can knock the battery out, leaving the user stranded.
Some of the issues were things that an able-bodied person would easily miss, such as the height of a dropped kerb.
“The amount of times I’ve walked down here and I’d never have noticed,” said Labour councillor for Haldens, Lucy Musk.
As the group reached Bessemer Road by the hand car wash, the footpath ended, giving Ken no choice but to take his chair onto the road itself.
It’s on a too-steep dropped kerb near there that Ken last winter actually tipped forward out of his chair and onto the busy road.
Thankfully, two cars saw him and stopped to assist him, but the terrifying incident could have turned out tragically for both Ken or the drivers.
The four borough councillors who came along were Lucy Musk and Mike Larkins (Labour, Haldens), Terry Mitchinson (Conservative, Panshanger) and county councillor Barbara Gibson (Liberal Democrat, Haldens), were among many councillors invited by Ken to see the problems with their own eyes.
“But I don’t want to make political capital out of this,” said Ken adamantly.
“What I want you all to do is say ‘let’s see what we can do together’.”
The maintenance of roadside footpaths is a County Council responsibility, paid for from the Highways budget and contracted to Ringway.
However, Cllr Gibson pointed out that although there is no specific policy decision to do so, the bulk of the spending in recent months has gone on roads and not footpaths.
Each county councillor also has a £90,000 Highways Locality budget annually, that they can choose to use on footpaths.
But this doesn’t go far, with Cllr Gibson estimating that repairs on a stretch of a couple of hundred metres alone would eat into a large chunk of the money, which is earmarked for their whole ward.
In February, Lib Dem councillors introduced a proposal to increase this budget to £120,000, but it was voted down by 26 to 44 votes.
Paul Bishop, CEO of Herts Action on Disability (HAD), said: “Good on Ken.
“It’s always important to regularly highlight access issues that confront older and disabled people on an almost daily basis.
“I don’t think the fault lies with any individual town planner or architect; it’s more a problem associated with society as a whole. In this country we can at times adopt a negative attitude towards the old and disabled.”
HAD is currently tackling this with a schools project called the Big Push, where able-bodied children spend some time in a wheelchair to gain an understanding of what it’s like.
For Ken, the fight is not only on behalf of himself and the wider community, but also in memory of his mother Joan, who campaigned for years for disability rights and was given an MBE for her services.
Now Ken, who only started using a wheelchair last year due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, wants to continue her work.
“My mother put 20 years into this, and it’s not going to waste,” he said.
“I may not have many years left, but what I have I value.”