Kezia Dugdale: Wheels set in motion for a truly accessible beach

The beach wheelchair scheme has proved a hit in North Berwick. Picture: Neil Hanna
The beach wheelchair scheme has proved a hit in North Berwick. Picture: Neil Hanna
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With some lovely summer weather, Portobello Beach could have been confused for Bondi beach in recent weeks (okay, maybe I’m stretching a little) but with most of the sand covered with families enjoying a day at the seaside and the new and improved beach volleyball courts packed with budding enthusiasts, you can’t deny it’s the place to be when the sun is out in Edinburgh.

Recent years have seen Portobello start to go through a bit of a revival, invoking memories for many of a time when it was one of the most popular destinations for a day out or a summer holiday. This is especially true for our Glaswegian cousins during the Glasgow Fair trade holidays in the mid-20th century with its pier and open-air swimming pool, the same swimming pool where one of the lifeguards would go on to become James Bond.

Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

But to continue this revival we must ensure that we build on making Portobello and the beach an accessible tourist destination for everyone.

I recently visited North Berwick beach with Iain Gray MSP where we saw first-hand the great work that has been done by Beach Wheelchairs, a group of local people who got together and worked their socks off to enable wheelchairs users to enjoy the lovely white sands of East Lothian.

They now have four different beach wheelchairs catering for both adults and children, and have built up a volunteer base to help with booking and accessing the equipment. They have also recently become a registered charity and are looking to help other areas do the same.

That’s how I became involved with a local group of likeminded Portobello residents who are trying to do something similar and make Porty beach accessible for all wheelchair users too.

This dedicated group has started with a survey to gain more support from the local and wider community to take their project forward. They are then hoping to secure the necessary funding through grants or their own sponsorship efforts to purchase the chairs and will be working with the council to find a permanent home to store them at the beach.

I want to support this project firstly because I know what joy it can bring to wheelchair users across the community and it is right thing to do for fairness and equality for people living with disabilities. But by supporting the project we can also look to build on Portobello’s recent revival by becoming Edinburgh’s epicentre for accessible tourism. With new cafes and restaurants, art centres and soft play, the potential is undoubtedly there for Portobello to shine again.

Many of the changes needed are simple, such as smoothing off or installing a few extra ramps along the promenade on to the beach to provide access, to ensuring pavements are kept clear from parked cars. Theses may seem small changes but they could make a huge difference to the lives of many. Our locally-owned businesses should thrive too; research has shown the accessible tourism market is worth over a billion pounds a year. We should be aiming to grab a slice of that.

The Portobello Beach Wheelchairs campaign’s survey is open for a good few more weeks. The group is looking for responses from all members of the public, not just wheelchairs users, so please take a minute out of your day to complete it and show your support so everyone can gain access to our beautiful beach.

Kezia Dugdale is an MSP for the Lothian Region and Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. You can complete the survey at www.keziadugdale.com