York Press column: Making sure our city is welcoming to all
April 6, 2022
It is with great sadness that I write another column with the Ukraine conflict ongoing as it means the suffering of innocent men, women and children has continued for another fortnight.
Against the backdrop of Russia’s heinous aggression, I have been moved by the outpouring of kindness and generosity from constituents who have registered for the Home for Ukraine scheme. As a city, I am confident York will welcome refugees from Ukraine with open arms and embrace new arrivals into our communities.
It is for this reason that I once again called for the red tape and bureaucracy that is slowing down the processing of refugee visas to be cut, this time at Prime Minister’s Questions. We must ensure that no offer of help is wasted and with each passing day our obligation to act only increases.
As local Member of Parliament, I continuously try to do all I can to ensure our city remains a happy and harmonious community. To achieve this, it is vital to constantly review how accessible our town centres and public amenities are to those with disabilities and care needs, who must never be second thoughts in York.
I am therefore delighted to see our city has been allocated £244,286 by Ministers to create new accessible toilets under the ‘Changing Places’ scheme, part of a £23.5 million national investment in these important facilities. Crucially, the ‘Changing Places’ scheme improves significantly on traditional disabled toilets, which have not always met the needs of all disabled people. Larger and better equipped than traditional disabled sites, these facilities will include special features like hoists, space for carers, curtains, and adult-sized changing benches.
They will be sited in existing buildings identified as priorities by users, like shopping centres, parks and gardens, cinemas, libraries, galleries, concert halls, and museums, opening up these spaces to those with additional needs.
An estimated 250,00 people nationwide could benefit from Changing Places toilets, such as those with cerebral palsy, multiple learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, acquire brain injury, and the very elderly. It is encouraging to think thanks to this government money our city can take serious steps to ensure the many cultural and recreational institutions we are blessed with are properly accessible to all residents.
New funding like this is especially reassuring given recent concern at the impact on access to the city centre for disabled blue badge holders from the Council’s ‘Footstreets’ programme, on which I have previously engaged with the Council on behalf of alarmed residents.
We must also work continuously to maintain and improve another area of specialist provision, that for children with special education needs, building on the tripling of funding for this in October’s Budget. Having worked on behalf of affected households for several years and raised this in Parliament, I am glad last week’s announcement of recommendations of the government’s review into Special Needs services suggests there is now the will to make further progress on this.
There is now a public consultation on the proposals until July, and I would encourage York sector employees, parents and children to contribute, so the actions that result can be properly informed by local experience.
Many of the initial plans sound encouraging, but I will watch carefully and push Ministers to deliver these in full, and also defer to the feedback of York families and service providers. These draft measures aim to ensure earlier assistance, with 5,000 more early-years teachers to be trained to handle Special Needs cases, creating some 40 new alternative and specialist schools, training 200 more educational psychologists to oversee needs assessments, and giving parents a better choice between mainstream and alternative schooling options, all backed by £70 million of dedicated funding. As a parent myself, I appreciate the anxiety and frustration households experience when trying to get the help their children need to obtain the same learning as their peers, and will continue to advocate for local families as these plans develop.
As I close this column, I hope that the next time I write for the Press that we can at least celebrate the successful resettlement of Ukrainian families in York, even if the conflict is still ongoing. York continues to stand with Ukraine and I know we will do everything we can as a city to help.