Dear town council, your lack of action is starting to become a lack of empathy

Make our river safe

make our river sdafe 2Sope Peters, Luke Pearce and Euan Coulthard were average students.

In the midst of their degrees all three of them lost their lives in the last 14 months.

While nearly all students return safely to their rooms after a night out, these three students were reported missing and later found in the waters of the Wear.

Yet students are finally losing patience with a slow moving town council, and an unflinchingly static University.

There are structural issues that need to be addressed, and no doubt after a couple more students die someone will get off their arse and do it. But there are also issues about a general lack of empathy.

Durham’s town-gown divide is shockingly acute, and it was epitomised by Superintendent Huddleston’s remarks yesterday with what many interpreted as victim-blaming of innocent students for their own tragic deaths.

The day Euan’s body was found, he said: “One of the areas we will be looking at… is late night drinking… It’s broader than simply putting barriers at the riverside.”

With embedded victim blaming like this coming from someone in such a position of authority, is it little wonder that, with the lack of action, many feel the council seem completely incompetent and almost unwilling to do anything?

As any rower will tell you, if asked (or not), the river is changeable and can be extremely dangerous. The icy waters move fast; large weeds grow in the riverbed, while deep patches are just a few feet away from easily accessible banks.

The BBC local news rather bizarrely projected floodlights along the footpath running beside the Framwellgate Bridge in a bid to show just how poorly lit the place is.

Supt. Huddleston addresses the press. Credit: Durham Constabulary

Although one might expect poorly lit alleyways in a small rural town in the north east of England, the deaths of our fellow students bring home the danger posed by a lack of preventative measures.

Most students only encounter a proactive council, or police force, when being asked to stop shouting or reassuring pensioners that clubs will shut at two in the morning, as if that’s the most crucial thing council tax should be spent on.

A petition started by Robyn Travers (her of ubiquitous Overheard at Durham posts) was a well-intentioned, although perhaps slightly ill timed, petition.

She, along with several thousand students, rightfully demanded action. At first it started out asking for some sort of request for a gate locking system, which wouldn’t have worked anyway (as was pointed out).

It’s since been transformed into an expansive river safety petition that earned a spot on the nightly TV news, and asks for the most basic things such as proper lighting and fences to be erected along parts of the river.

Feigning interest in the North East, David Cameron said on Capital Radio: “My thoughts are with Euan Coulthard’s family first up because this must be a really worrying time for them.

“I understand the strong feelings people have with the petition signed by 10,000 people and given to Durham County Council and I think there are certain things about safety measures, closed circuit television, lighting, railings, practical things that people want done and I’d encourage the county council to look carefully at what it can do.”

St Mary’s College, presumably also well intentioned, refused to descend into panic mode, defcon-5 sort, verbal exchanges with students. Its quasi-condemnation of the petition just massively pissed everyone off: and rightly so.

Instead of hiding behind the tragic loss of students it should be used as an opportunity to deal with the causes behind it.

The paths that stem from the centre of the city across the river right up until Maiden Castle are generally maintained poorly with the occasional haphazard barrier. Evidently these are inadequate.

Clearly erecting large-scale floodlights are not the answer either. But lighting isn’t a problem – what else does the council actually do? Fortnightly bin collections can hardly be the world’s greatest strain.

And what of CCTV? A student-hating town would love to prove just how awful we all are wouldn’t they? Video evidence of a rugby player pissing into the river would prove just how anti-social and Southern we all are. So what’s stopping them?

Can it really be just a general reluctance to do what students want? Presumably it’s easier for those in authority, those charged with our safety, to simply condemn students?

But drinking too much simply isn’t the explanation. What’s different at York that means that, although accidents happen, they’re much more rare? What about Cambridge, where the river twists and turns throughout the city and yet student deaths are scarce?

With possibly the exception of Thursday (and even then it could be a rogue night) every night in Durham has some sort of drunken-induced early-finishing club night.

Clearly Durham council, or the pathetically impotent SU, aren’t going to change the drinking culture overnight, as much as they’d like to. Stopping a drunken person from falling in the river is easier than stopping excessive drinking.

And even if putting unsightly temporary barriers, expensive CCTV or intrusive streetlights along a rural English footpath, seems an inconvenience to the council: who cares?

A student death is a tragedy. All deaths are. Why make it more likely? How many deaths will it take for some action?