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Construction must change diversity culture as it did on health and safety

Contractors have been urged to overhaul the way they work to improve access for disabled people and expand their own diversity.

Former government construction adviser Paul Morrell said construction businesses needed to change their attitudes to diversity, including disability, in the same way they had to previously with health and safety. 

“Having watched first sustainability, then health and safety move from the margins of the industry’s interest to the mainstream, with an associated and necessary change in cultural attitudes, I think diversity in its broadest sense is now on the same journey, and that includes thinking about how welcoming we are to disabled people, both in our own businesses and in the places we make.”

Mr Morrell, who chairs the project board for the Built Environment Professional Education (BEPE) Project, said the shift would require a change to both products and practice, which could take some years, but that “the issue is now on the agenda”. 

His call came as the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee today published the evidence submitted to its inquiry into disability and the built environment, which it said showed the sector still creates many barriers for disabled people.

Committee chair Maria Miller said the volume of submissions demonstrated that this is “a serious problem for many people”.

Mr Morrell said a few construction firms were now showing leadership: “Those are perhaps the ones who see that, apart from being the right thing to do, failing to open our doors to the widest possible constituency represents a waste – of talent and, above all, of opportunity.

”They are also the ones who provide answers to the question that all of us who work in construction should regularly ask ourselves: just what would an industry we can be proud of look like?”

Julie Fleck, formerly access adviser at the Greater London Authority and now lead for BEPE, said the principles of inclusive design must be integrated into the design, development and management of all construction projects from start to finish.

To do this, construction businesses need to engage and involve disabled people in the construction process and improve their own knowledge and skills.

The industry as a whole also needs to improve its knowledge and skills in this area, she said, and that simply meeting minimum standards doesn’t necessarily create an accessible environment.

“Fifty years after the first British standards were published, we are still not getting it right, or not as right as it should be,” she told Construction News.

BEPE is working with professional bodies, including the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Chartered Institute of Building to embed inclusive design into accredited training and education across the built environment.

Ms Fleck said it is as important to change attitudes as it is to equip people with the skills and knowledge they need.

In addition, she called on more employers to sign up to the government’s Disability Confident scheme to help recruit and retain more disabled people. The number of contractors signed up is thought to be in single figures.

Ms Fleck said improvements in inclusive design are often led by clients, such as the Olympic Delivery Authority, who ensure they filter down the supply chain.

Margaret Hickish, access and inclusion manager at Network Rail who formerly worked at the ODA, introduced the railway’s inclusive design strategy last year.

She said contractors often told her they had met the minimum legal standards – and she was working to encourage them to see the difference between meeting those standards and actually creating “usable places and spaces”.

Network Rail has also been asking contractors to complete diversity impact assessments and to supply data about the diversity of their own staff as part of their PQQs.

“It’s a bit of a wake-up call sometimes for them,” she said. “It’s about getting that light going on in people’s heads.”

Iain McKinnon, senior inclusive design manager at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, part of the London Legacy Development Corporation, said the LLDC was a proactive client that embedded the principles of inclusive design throughout the process. Development partners and contractors are scored on their approach to design during the procurement process, and expected to recruit disabled people if they win the work. 

“There’s good will towards it,” he said. “People know that it needs to be done but it’s about understanding the details of why stuff is designed the way that it is.”

When mistakes were made it was generally because the people doing the work did not know why something had to be done a certain way, he said. Putting inclusive design into training would help prevent this.

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