South Tyneside’s main market place poses a danger to the blind and visually impaired and should be remodelled, support groups have said.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) North East and South Tyneside Visually Impaired Council (STVIC) say South Shields Market Place - which underwent major redevelopment just four years ago - has serious design flaws and is a danger to people with sight issues.
Both groups – and visually impaired South Tyneside grandmother Sandra Nesbitt, 66 – say South Tyneside Council is failing to heed their warnings and claim a report by the RNIB, which made a series of recommendation in 2017 to correct faults, has been largely ignored by council bosses.
They have also slammed the design of the multi-million-pound, award winning The Word library.
Based at the western edge of the market square, they say its interior is difficult to safely manoeuvre due to its curved architecture leaving no easy sightline markers.
Council bosses say both the Word and Market Place meet accessibility standards and that they worked closely with various user groups independent experts on the design and layout of the area.
They also say they will continue to liaise with the RNIB and other accessibility groups.
Marian Stead, a STVIC volunteer, said: “We can’t understand how or why the council has made these mistakes with the market place and the library.
“The result is that the market is virtually out of bounds to people with sight issues, and the library is not much better.”
Former airport security police officer Mrs Nesbitt, of Laygate, South Shields, added: “The main issue is that the market place is a shared space for pedestrians and cars.
“This has resulted in low or different sized kerbs, which are extremely difficult for blind or partially sighted people to identify or for guide dogs to know where to stop at.
“This is putting people like me in real danger from cars.
“The paving stones are all coloured grey, which are a blur to people with sight problems. Ideally, I want the council to rip it all up and start again.”
Peter Bennetts, 63, chairman of the RNIB North East, said: “These are issues that all our groups are united on and which must be addressed.
“This is all about the wider issue of how people with sight problems are supported in society.”
A report by Francesca Di Giorgio, the RNIB’s then regional campaigns officer, highlighted a series of sight-related issues with the new-look market.
These included poor colour contrast of street furniture, kerbs of varying heights, and a bollard built into the centre of guidance tactile paving.
In the report, she said: “The Market Place has a number of features which are routinely regarded as significant street based barriers to blind and partially sighted people’s equal access to their streets.”
Her short-term recommendations include the council meeting with blind and visually impaired support groups to discuss the issues.
In the long-term, she called for the replacement of some tactile paving, grey paving, and for a review of crossing points and kerb heights.
A South Tyneside Council spokeswoman said: “I can assure people that the Word and Market Place does indeed meet accessibility standards. We have worked closely with various user groups and drawn on independent design advice from professional bodies to ensure our public areas are as safe and accessible as possible for all members of the community. This has included walkabouts with disability groups to assist with the design process.
“Tactile paving is used throughout the Market Place. This helps guide visitors with sight impairments and act as a warning that they are approaching the kerb. The kerb also drops in height slightly at the junction with King Street to provide a level surface for pedestrians on to the market from King Street. This is a common design in many town centres and complied with national guidance.
“We appointed a leading accessibility consultant and accessed the North East Design Enabling and Review Service (NEDRES). This was in addition to carrying out extensive consultation with the public on the proposals.
“We will continue to liaise with the RNIB and other accessibility groups in relation to the public realm elements of the new transport interchange.
“Whilst each group has its own set of wants they don’t necessarily align with other competing requirements. It is important that we strike a fair balance in supporting our commercial centres while also recognising the needs of our disabled residents and visitors.”