Former SDP leader David Owen said he had donated to Labour to help it "rescue our NHS". Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Owen joins Miliband's big tent with donation to Labour of more than £7,500

With the former SDP leader, Tony Blair and Len McCluskey all backing his reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large coalition of support.

David Owen is so impressed by Ed Miliband's party reforms that he's donated more than £7,500 to Labour (the exact figure has not been announced but £7,500 is the legal threshold for declaration). As party treasurers estimate the cost of Miliband's reforms, it's money that will be gratefully received. Labour figures have long hoped that the former SDP leader, who has previously spoken of his admiration for Miliband (and is close to him and his strategist Stewart Wood), could be persuaded to rejoin the party. He hasn't (yet) - he will now sit as an "independent social democrat" rather than a crossbench peer in the House of Lords - but his decision to donate is still a significant endorsement of Miliband.

Owen's stated reason for giving money is to help Labour "rescue our NHS". He was one of the fiercest opponents of the coalition's health reforms (as a former GP) and warned in the New Statesman in 2011 that "[if] the Liberal Democrats cannot call a halt to or, at the very least, slow down, these ill-conceived health reforms they will no longer be able to claim to be the heirs of Beveridge" (they did not). He said last night:

This is a brave and bold reform ... and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday 25 January 1981. This very desirable change, nevertheless, threatens to weaken Labour's financial support at a critical time, when I and many others are hoping to see the party produce a plan for government from May next year to rescue our NHS. Saving the NHS is my main political priority, and I suspect that of many others.

To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganisation, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of government, the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.

In response, Miliband said:

Today Labour has come together and shown the courage needed to change our party. The reforms agreed today are supported across the party, by trade union general secretaries, grassroots activists and former prime ministers.

In the 80s and 90s these reforms were seen as impossible but there is broad consensus within the Labour Party that change must happen. That is testament to how far we have come as a movement.

Lord Owen’s support today is welcome. It is 33 years since he left our party and much has happened since. In our many conversations over the past few years, I have come to value his friendship and insight into politics. I value his support and respect his decision to remain an independent member of the House of Lords.

With Tony Blair, Len McCluskey and Owen all enthusiastically backing the reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large tent (as I said last night). One of the quiet successes of his leadership has been maintaining the support of all wings of the party, while also attracting support from former Lib Dems and other progressives.

Before he announced that public spending would be cut under a Labour government, many predicted that the unions would break with the party and run their own candidates. Others warned that Miliband's repudiation of New Labour would lead to Blairite resignations. But both fears proved mistaken. Miliband has retained the support of all Labour's affiliated unions and leading Blairite figures (Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne) have chosen to accept demotions, rather than retreat to the backbenches. The maintenance of party unity is one of the key reasons why he is in a strong position to win the general election next year.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.