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St Helens town centre passes wheelchair ‘road-test’

26 November 2008

Joanne Barrett (L) and Paul McQuade, manager of St Helens Shopmobility, are pleased with the efforts made by St Helens Council to provide wheelchair users with easier passage through the town centre by using paviour-inlaid metalwork - recessed tree surrounds, access covers and drainage gratings.

Paved-through metalwork eases the way for disabled users in refurbished town centre.

Early involvement of disabled users in the planning of town centre improvements in St Helens has ensured that streets are free, quite literally, of some traditional sticking points.

The award-winning £6.7 million refurbishment of the town centre, completed in phases between 2004 and 2008, has been delivered through an innovative partnership between St Helens Council and main contractor, Mayfield.

The council was keen to ensure that new landscaping would facilitate ‘inclusive access’ in line with its responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

The general public may not be aware that metalwork in the ground – drainage gratings, tree grids and access covers – can be a serious obstacle to wheelchair access. Uneven, dislodged or broken metalwork can create a raised edge within paving, obstructing wheelchair movement and posing a trip hazard to ambulant people.


This was a major issue flagged up by local disabled people invited to consult on accessibility in the planned refurbishment of St Helens town centre.

Asset managers at St Helens Council invited focus groups, including wheelchair users, to assess products planned for landscaping upgrades to the town’s shopping centre and neighbouring areas.

Jones of Oswestry, a DDA landscaping product specialist based on the Wales/Shropshire border, was asked to consult on and supply suitable access covers, drainage gratings and tree surrounds for major parts of the refurbishment. Their DDA technician, Pat Murphy, visited the town centre several times to provide consultation on paving compliance with Part M Building Regulations, relating to the design of approaches to buildings, and in line with the DDA.

The company originated the concept of the recessed access cover in the 1980s, which allows paving to be laid through infill trays forming the cover, leaving just slim edges of metal to view. In maximising paving coverage and minimising metal presentation within landscaping, recessed products reduce the presence of slip differentials between paving and metal, thereby reducing risks of a slip. They also provide a consistent travel surface to aid the passage of wheelchairs, prams and bicycles.


At St Helens, Jones of Oswestry has supplied over 100 recessed products, as well as specially adapted versions of its Aquadish grating following input from disabled users.

John Sheward, asset manager with St Helen’s Council Environmental Protection Department, said: “We set up a test installation of the Aquadish product to trial with access and mobility groups, enabling wheelchair users to travel over the unit. Based on this, we asked for a shallower profile to ease over-run by manual and motorised wheelchairs.”

As well as manufacturing the gratings with a gentler curve, Jones of Oswestry reduced the width of the drainage slots to avoid the possibility of trapping canes used by the visually impaired, in line with the DDA.

The unit was also lengthened to reduce the need to cut paviours, contributing to the scheme’s environmental successes. These have included reducing waste from natural stone products to 2.1%; re-using over 2200m2 of existing paving in other local schemes; and segregating, reusing or recycling 97% of all waste material, outperforming the target set of 90%.


As a focal point for people using mobility aids, St Helens Shopmobility, located at the bottom of Chalon multi-storey car park, hears the hands-on story of accessibility in and around the town centre. Manager for over 7 years, Paul McQuade is very familiar with the problems that wheelchair users encounter on the street.

Paul said: “Gully gratings can be a big issue for wheelchairs. People with severe arthritis, or spongylitis in the neck, for example, really suffer if they are jolted by rough metalwork and poorly designed landscaping.

“The impact for them is equivalent to a car going over a cattle grid. The grating used, with its gentler contour, is much easier to run across with a wheelchair.”

Phil Orchard, a St Helens resident and former chairman of St Helens Access Group, has spina bifida, so understands only too well the hardships of navigating wheelchairs across poor paving.

He said: “People with conditions like arthritis or spina bifida are very sensitive to jolts and vibration from travelling across the raised patterns and lettering on iron covers, running up against metal edges and getting stuck in deep gratings.

“Small front wheels can get stuck in the dip of a gully grating, but the new gratings are a big improvement.”


He also points out that people in wheelchairs may well be weakened by their condition and soon get tired if they have to make extra efforts to negotiate obstacles and poorly designed metalwork.

Phil said: “It takes a lot of effort to propel a wheelchair out of a drainage channel or gaps around metalwork. Elderly and more frail people will find it especially difficult to get moving if they get stuck.”

The recommended distance limit which wheelchair users should travel without a rest is 150m. If within this short distance their movement is hampered by problematic paving and metalwork, they will make very slow and exhausting progress.

Protruding metal edges, gaps and broken paving resulting from metalwork moving or flexing, and pronounced dips in drainage gratings, can even cause falls from wheelchairs. Occupants can be thrown out of the wheelchair, potentially suffering serious injuries such as broken bones. And if they are strapped in, as many are, injuries can be aggravated by the wheelchair falling on top of them.

Uneven metalwork also produces a lot of wear and tear on wheels, necessitating frequent wheel tyre replacement. Tyres can burst and small front wheels can get damaged, buckled or ripped off by raised metal and deeply curved drainage gratings. If the weld snaps in a wheel rod, the whole wheelchair will need replacing at a cost potentially into £000s. 

Tree surrounds

Recessed products also offered a solution to longstanding problems which St Helens asset and highways teams had experienced in sourcing serviceable tree surrounds.

John Sheward, asset manager with St Helen’s Council Environmental Protection Department, said: “We had encountered numerous problems in the past with the design and quality of tree grids and grilles. Due to ground settlement or heave, wheel loads and mechanical impact, they would come loose, displace and crack, causing hazards and leading to complaints from the public.

With plans for extensive tree planting to green up and soften the streetscape, the Council invited disabled users to assess Jones of Oswestry’s Arborslot recessed tree surround.

John Sheward said: “We outlined features of the Arborslot design and installations to our focus groups, including wheelchair users. They immediately appreciated the benefits of the even, paved finish in relation to their experiences of traditional grids.

“As well as providing structural integrity, the Arborslot recessed surround are visually pleasing, integrating seamlessly with paving and supporting excellent pedestrian and wheelchair mobility.”


Shopmobility manager, Paul McQuade, said: “Roots can force up cast iron style tree gratings, and weak units can break, leaving metal sticking up from the ground causing a serious obstruction and hazard. The recessed tree surrounds are much stronger and better, as they enclose and pave in the tree securely.

The Council’s John Sheward said: “We often received complaints about tree grids via Shopmobility. Since installing Arborslot in the town centre, there have been none, which is an excellent endorsement of the product.”
Overall, shopping in St Helens for disabled people has been significantly improved by the installation of recessed covers and gratings, which effectively conceal most of the metalwork under the paving to allow a much smoother ride across.

Paul McQuade said: “We used to get quite a number of complaints about mobility problems with broken or uneven tree grids, rough surfaces to ironwork or difficult dips in gratings where wheels can get caught.

“The recessed products installed have eliminated many of these problems, making life easier for users of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, walking frames and blind people who are also vulnerable to problems from uneven ground underfoot.”


St Helens’ consultation with disabled users on the town centre improvements responds to government calls for greater social inclusion in building development.

In ‘Planning and access for disabled people: a good practice guide’, the government has stated that it “is fully committed to an inclusive society in which nobody is disadvantaged.”

It goes on to say: “An important part of delivering this commitment is breaking down unnecessary physical barriers and exclusions imposed on disabled people by poor design of buildings and places. Too often the needs of disabled people are considered late in the day and separately from the needs of others.”

The document calls for changes in the way public assets are conceived and built, saying : “We want the needs of disabled people properly considered as an integral part of the development process.”  It encourages local planning authorities and developers to consider access for disabled people, and stresses the importance of early consultation with disabled people, when formulating development plans and preparing planning applications.

Some 11.7 million people - 20% of the adult population - have a disability and their estimated spending power is around £51.3bn. This percentage is set to increase as UK demographics shifts towards an increasingly elderly population. It is estimated that over the next 40 years, the number of people over 65 is set to rise by 40%, while the population as a whole is set to increase by only 7%.

Health and safety

The health and safety of all stakeholders has been closely considered at St Helens.

Jones’s Telebloc recessed covers, with ‘lift-and-slide’ for single person operation, have been specified over access chambers throughout the scheme.

Keeping lifting effort within the criteria of manual handling regulations, the covers show due diligence under CDM regulations for the safety of site workers and maintenance operatives testing and using them.

Use of recessed products combined with the skilled installation of paving has achieved safe, even surfaces where trip and slip hazards have been minimised.

The St Helens upgrades have also championed the development of good designs to minimise waste.

John Sheward of St Helen’s Council said: “The landscaping design was based on using modular, dimensionally coordinated systems of paving, street furniture and metalwork to reduce waste from cutting blocks, simplify risk assessment, improve construction efficiency and simplify maintenance.”

Waste reduction measures included adapting construction levels to minimise screed thicknesses without compromising design parameters. Service routes for lighting and power installations were grouped together to minimise site excavation, reduce material disposal and haulage. Paving sizes were also specified for ease of handling, and modularised to reduce waste.


With a key objective of setting KPIs (key performance indicators) that ‘challenged the notion of industry improvement’, the project has won acclaim for its sustainable approach to design and construction, and channeling benefits to the local community and economy.

Industry recognition has included gold medal winner for ‘Innovation/sustainability’ at the national Green Apple Awards, a Considerate Constructors award and ‘Environmental business of the year’ from the Groundwork Trust. Mayfield also won a 2007 BALI hard landscaping award for St Helens.

Involving local people at every possible opportunity, St Helens’ sustainable strategy has focused on four key elements: natural resources, environment, and social and economic impact.

Sustainability has been facilitated through wide-ranging measures and initiatives. These have ranged from minimising construction waste on site and recycling materials for other council projects, to providing job and training opportunities for young people and testing landscaping products on user groups.

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