Heather Smith appointed disability champion to improve countryside access

Yorkshire Water has worked in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to improve pathways for disabled access at Grimwith Reservoir near Pateley Bridge. Picture: Experience Community.
Yorkshire Water has worked in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to improve pathways for disabled access at Grimwith Reservoir near Pateley Bridge. Picture: Experience Community.
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A new disability champion has been appointed by the Government to improve access to the countryside and heritage sites for disabled people.

Taking up the role, Heather Smith, national equality specialist for the National Trust, is tasked with using her industry influence to challenge the assumption that disabled people do not want to access the countryside or heritage venues.

Minister for Disabled People Sarah Newton said: “For too long our world-leading heritage sector has been missing out on the spending power of disabled customers and their families – worth a staggering £249bn a year.

“Getting out into the countryside is an experience that many of us take for granted, but for disabled people it can often be much more difficult to access nature.

“Our new champion will play an important role in ensuring everyone can enjoy the outstanding natural beauty our country has to offer.

The countryside and heritage champion is one of five new champions announced by the Government today to cover the technology, products and spaces, brand and design and web accessibility sectors. They join 14 existing champions who the Government said had progress in improving accessibility across a range of industries, from insurance to music.

Focussing on her brief and Ms Smith will look to build on recent improvements to countryside access, including in some National Parks where a project is underway to promote accessible routes for disabled people.

The Miles Without Stiles initiative is backed by, among others, the Yorkshire Dales National Park which advertises 17 routes and the Peak District National Park which boasts 20 accessible sites.

The routes through the Yorkshire Dales vary in length between two miles and five miles.

Rachel Briggs, access and recreation officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said there had been a cultural change in recent years.

“National parks have generally come a long way,” she said. “I’ve been doing this job for about 15 years and I have seen a shift in how we consider increasing accessibility.

“There is a lot more thought from park rangers now when they are replacing a stile and whether they should do that with a gate or a gap. That was a real cultural shift for them. Gone are the days when we would put in ladder stiles over a wall.

“On the ground we are doing quite a lot of work. We’ve done a full audit of rights of way in the park to see which routes we could improve and every year we make improvements.”

Elsewhere and Yorkshire Water, the county’s second largest landowner, has been working to improve access for wheelchair users around some of its most scenic reservoirs.

Working with community interest company Experience Community, it has encouraged more disabled group rambles around the likes of Langsett reservoir near Sheffield and Swinsty in the Washburn Valley near Harrogate.

Following her appointment, new countryside champion Ms Smith said: “There is a wealth of great practise across the sector but so much more we can do by working collaboratively with disabled people.

“I hope to foster more of this approach and improve conversation and understanding to deliver improved and innovative change.”

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