I moved to Camden over 15 years ago to move in with my wife who was born and bred in the heart of Camden. I grew up in the industrial town of Luton in Bedfordshire. When Luton was redeveloped in the 60s and 70s it was done with inclusion in mind, which meant it was a very accessible place for me to grow up in as a disabled child. And when I became a full-time wheelchair user later on, Luton’s inclusive layout allowed me a level of independence that I now know spoiled me.
By contrast, Camden has been a disappointment. I spent a great deal of my youth in the 80s and 90s in Camden, clubbing at the Camden Palace (which became Koko) and the Electric Ballroom, where I also met my wife way back in 1989. I knew Camden wasn’t the most accessible place, but always felt a real desire to improve it. Encouraged by management staff who really wanted to do better, I even advised Koko and the Electric Ballroom on how to make accessibility improvements.
Yet after moving here, I soon realised this desire for change was not as deep-seated as I had hoped. For a while I just carried on enjoying the nightlife, though it was a struggle to do so. Crawling up and down stairs, expecting to find no suitable toilet for me, and knowing I had no chance of being let into some venues. Always some excuse, like I presented a fire risk.
Then, just after I’d finished a Greater London Authority (GLA) access advisor course for disabled people, I saw that Camden Market was being redeveloped. I thought this would be a chance for the market to become so much better for disabled visitors, but slowly I saw the exact opposite happen.
Huge slabs of York Stone pathways were taken out and replaced by poorly laid cobblestones while existing cobblestone pavements were damaged by heavy machinery and not re-set to make them safe.
So, I offered the market my services as a professional access advisor. For around six years I tried to get change, but my efforts amounted to nothing, mainly because there was no pressure from Camden Council. Rather than insist that all works be accessible, the Town Hall gave planning permission over and over again for works that either left things the same or made them even worse. In 2016 I stopped working for the market. I couldn’t be ignored any more. I still kept in contact with the market management and still received promises things would get better.
They used a powerchair and the cobbles shook them about so much, we had to tie them into their chair with bungee cords and tape their head to their headrest.
In 2011, before the Olympic and Paralympic Games came to London, I took a disabled representative of the games’ organising body around the market. They used a powerchair and the cobbles shook them about so much, we had to tie them into their chair with bungee cords and tape their head to their headrest. They decided that Camden Market was so inaccessible that all the athletes taking part in the 2012 games should be banned from visiting Camden in case they injured themselves. What a sad thing to say of such an amazing place to visit. Still, no one did anything to make things better.
Fast forward to today. Coming out of lockdown, disabled people in Camden Town are seeing changes that further exclude them at every turn. Here, on Camden Disability Action’s Community Journalism site, we’ve highlighted the issues with cycle lanes, bus bypasses, low traffic neighbourhoods and the widening of pavements. All done with little or no thought to disabled people it seems. We have had to be the voice of Camden’s disabled community, shouting to be heard by a council that seems to listen but then mostly ignores what we’ve said.
Yet again, Camden’s most famous tourist attraction has been allowed to open an area to the public that isn’t accessible to disabled people.
I discovered another example of how our council doesn’t push for our inclusion yesterday when visiting a friend who runs a business in Camden Market. All the businesses in the basement, one of the few more accessible areas of the market, are being moved out to be replaced by an entertainment business. The only accessible toilet in the market is in the basement too so who knows if that will remain open. The businesses are being moved to a new first floor area that can only be accessed by steps.
I watched the new cobbled floors being laid and was shocked to see the builders smashing level cobbles to make them look like the older historic paving. They were building inaccessibility into the market and yet the council passed them as OK.
Yet again, Camden’s most famous tourist attraction has been allowed to open an area to the public that isn’t accessible to disabled people. The poor business owners don’t know that by leasing these units they are liable for any legal action brought by disabled people feeling excluded. The market should not be making these inaccessible illegal units available to businesses and the council should not have passed any planning permissions to do so either. Yet again it seems that Camden Market can do whatever it likes and the council will allow it.
I watched the new cobbled floors being laid and was shocked to see the builders smashing level cobbles to make them look like the older historic paving. They were building inaccessibility into the market and yet the council passed them as OK. The flooring throughout the market is a major barrier to disabled people but is also unsafe for all visitors. I met a young woman just after moving to where I now live who had her leg in plaster. She had tripped on the market’s cobbles and broken her ankle. She was not disabled and was wearing flip flops at the time. I have lived in my current home for 12 years, yet I have seen no improvement to the floors in the market.
I went to bed last night, unable to sleep because I was so cross at being excluded from yet another part of my home town and angry at it’s happening again. Angry at the market for doing it, angry at the council for letting them. I can honestly say I have never felt as disabled as I do now in Camden and what’s worse is this feeling grows every year. Rather than feeling less disabled as Camden improves with time, as anyone would expect, I feel less and less welcome in the place I call home.
I went to bed last night, unable to sleep because I was so cross at being excluded from yet another part of my home town and angry at it’s happening again. Angry at the market for doing it, angry at the council for letting them.
Surely, it’s time for this to change? Maybe not for me, but for future generations? I ask Camden Council and Camden Market to start really making change for the better. Start building a borough that welcomes disabled people and lets the disabled people who live here take part in everything this amazing place has to offer.