The Clydebank ramp and professional reasoning

Many people will have seen the recent news stories about an access ramp installed outside a council property by West Dunbartonshire council. It’s been discussed and commented on in various newspapers, including The Grauniad, The Mirror, and The Clydebank Post, which gives a slightly different take on it.

Unsurprisingly, given the dimensions and appearance of the ramp, it’s attracted a lot of negative attention. I make no bones about it: the ramp is very very ugly. Comments have ranged from the well-meaning but misguided “there must have been another solution, it’s obvious” from people who know nothing about disability adaptations, to the downright nasty (as per the Express and the Daily Fail websites) which I’m not going to repeat here because – well, because why would you?

Given the complete lack of understanding of this issue displayed by so many people, I thought it might be helpful to go over the kinds of things OTs and technical officers have to consider when they’re looking at major adaptations like this.

Building regulations require gradients of no more than 1:12 for powered wheelchairs, 1:16 for attendant-propelled and 1:20 for self-propelled, plus there needs to be a 1400mm resting platform at the door and at the bottom, and more resting platforms every few metres. If they had relaxed building regs for this ramp, it would have been shorter, but much steeper, and possibly unsafe and/or too difficult to use. Remember that the small girl now will eventually be a heavier teenager, and will require a larger, heavier wheelchair. Look at the pictures of the property and the garden – there are three sets of four or five steps each from the pavement to the house, with longish platts between them, then a right-angled turn to the right, with a couple of steps up, and then a right-angled turn left to the front door with a step and probably a high threshold (uPVC doors have high thresholds) to get into the house. There’s a big height difference between the pavement and the door – it should be obvious that the ramp is going to have to be very long.

They will have looked at

– the little girl’s needs, now and in the longer term, and her expected lifespan
– her type of wheelchair (pictures on one of the news websites, it’s a power chair which might not be suitable for a stairclimber attachment)
– family as a whole – siblings, parents, other carers, location of other family support – how physically able are they? how much care do they do? what are their lifestyles? how often will the little girl be going out? who takes her out? will it always be family or paid carers? Six years from now, does she want to go out independently with her friends? Will she need a bigger, heavier chair later that nobody could push up a shorter but steeper ramp? Is it better for the family to stay in that house because it’s close to family support than move to another part of town?
– proximity to hospital and school – good reasons not to move to another house
– adaptability of interior of the house
– access rights and needs of whoever lives in/owns the first floor flat above – if the shared access is jointly owned by the council and an owner occupier above, the o/o might have refused permission for a steplift
– availability of other suitable housing – houses in hilly areas will generally have steps at the door
– feasibility and cost of all possible solutions – stairclimbers, steplifts, vertical lifts.
– impact on the property. When no longer required, semi-permanent ramps can be removed in a couple of hours with minimal impact on the garden. Lifts require more structural work, before installation, and if it’s a vertical lift, after removal. Something’s holding that hill up, after all.

Stairclimbers require trained operators. Family members and/or paid carers would have to be trained to use it, if the girl has a wheelchair suitable for use with a stairclimber. This would restrict who could take her in and out, whereas most people would manage pushing a wheelchair up a ramp. And I really wouldn’t want to be taking someone up and down those steps using a stairclimber on an icy day.

Looking at the layout of those steps, it would need either four separate steplifts, or three and ramping from the door to the top of the path, or one steplift with a very very very long track plus ramping from the door to the top of the path. The last steplift I did was four years ago, covered 6 straight stairs and cost £12k. You’d be looking at at least £40k to do those steps. Steplifts and vertical lifts get stolen, get vandalised and break down. Do you want to be standing in Clydebank in the pissing rain in January in the dark with your daughter, unable to get into your house because the lift has broken/been nicked/been destroyed? And I don’t even want to think about the massive structural work that would have to be done to dig out the ground and shore up the hole to put in a vertical lift.

Having looked at the photos over and over, and drawing on my 14 years experience of doing major adaptations, I can’t think of anything else they could have done to that property that would have worked. Obviously we were talking about it at work today, and OTs and technical officers alike were in agreement that there was almost certainly nothing else that could be done to the property. But we all did wonder why the family hadn’t been rehoused. I think the Clydebank Post article sheds some light on that. It reads to me as if the family had been waiting to be rehoused to a ground floor property for a while and were offered this one on the understanding that they could manage the steps. It’s possible the little girl was mobile when they moved in and her use of a wheelchair has been a later development. It’s possible that they were offered and accepted the property on the understanding that rehousing or adapting the access would be offered if and when the little girl became unable to do the stairs. And it’s also possible that West Dunbartonshire’s housing policy says that if you refuse 3 properties they’ve offered you, you lose your priority and go to the back of the queue, so they felt they had to take it. I couldn’t find anything on their website which says so, but it’s pretty common in housing policies. But as mentioned above, there could be very good reasons for the family wishing to stay in that property.

What I don’t understand is why the woman is saying she didn’t realise what the ramp would be like. I accept that most people don’t know much about the building regulations applying to ramp installations, but surely it must have been discussed with her. Surely it was pointed out during the assessment and when they were looking at possible options. Mind you, I’ve done bathroom adaptations where I’ve taken plans out, gone over them at length, explained very clearly “this is where your bath is now, the bath will be removed, the floor will be relaid with a fall towards the drain, the shower will go in this area where the bath used to be, the floor will be a wet floor so there won’t be a step for you to worry about…” only to have people complaining at the end of the job that they wanted a shower cubicle and they’re pissed off we removed the bath. So it is possible that it was explained and the family just didn’t take it in, especially seeing as most people are not familiar with the drawings ramps.

But as for the nonsense about the gate – garden gates open inwards. There isn’t a housing developer in the land who would fit a gate so that it opened onto the public pavement.


7 thoughts on “The Clydebank ramp and professional reasoning

  1. Thanks for this – knowing absolutely nothing about either building regs or ramps of that type myself I did assume that someone had botched the plans, so I’m very glad to have been corrected!

    • That’s just it Sam – people who have no knowledge of the issue (and why would they? it’s not something most people ever have to think about) automatically assume that it’s botched. And the vast majority of commenters are assuming that because a council did it, it must be botched, because everything councils do is botched. I have no problems with people not knowing about disability adaptations but I get so weary of the constant “councils are useless” groupthink.

  2. Perfectly reasonable rationale, there are other solutions but cost benefit is critical. We have similar issues with FES for foot drop, everyone acknowledges that it is a more elegant solution but it is roughly £1800 for the first year and a fixed AFO is £60-80 with a three year life span. The local commissioners have assessed FES as low priority so it can only be provided to exceptional cases.

  3. To correct all reports about this case it’s worth stating that provision of ramped access to an existing dwelling is not work that requires building regulations approval.
    The only sensible answer here would have been to have matched this family to more appropriate accomodation. I note that West Dumbartonshire have over 10,000 so surely something close to being suitable could have been found in the timeframe being discussed. Even if this entailed extending a property it would have at least been better use of the councils adaptation budget and left a useful property for future lets. On a final note the case was discussed on Jeremy Vines show on Radio 2 yesterday and one of the contractors who tendered for this adaptation rang in to say his tender was for £27k and he didn’t win the work.

    • Ramps do have to comply with building regs, and I don’t understand why you think they don’t. I can’t comment on the quotes as I haven’t seen them, but if they went for a more expensive quote, it’s because the cheaper ones weren’t suitable.

      • Ramps to non domestic buildings and new dwellings certainly require Building Regs approval. However ramps to existing dwellings will not require approval provided there is no material change of use or a worsening of current access provision.
        If the work was funded from a dfg grant then there is a top cost threshold of £30k over and above which the tenant would need to find the extra funds. Seeing as there has been no mention of this in this case then I would imagine the overall cost to be below that of the unsuccessful tender mentioned on the radio.

      • Ramps must adhere to building regulations. There is no such thing as a DFG in Scotland, it’s home improvement grants in Scotland, and as this was a council property, the adaptation would not have been funded by a HIG anyway.

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