By Chris Somers
On Saturday, Durham was shocked by the news of the sudden death of 69-year-old Bill Grant.
Although, at the time of writing, a post-mortem has yet to be carried out, what is presently known is that Grant suffered some sort of medical episode while cycling along the bank of the Wear and this caused him to fall from his bike, down the bank and into the water.
The father-of-three was then pulled out of the river thanks to a joint effort between rowers and passers-by but, despite a commendably swift response from the emergency services, tragically died in hospital a short while later.
It’s a terrible story that acutely reminds us of the fragility of life.
But you won’t find it in this issue of Palatinate for the sole reason that it’s currently somewhat unclear and still unfolding as we wait for his post-mortem.
That is, of course, with the exception of this editorial because I believe it has raised some worrying issues about how the river safety debate is being approached.
Before I get to it, I’d like to express my belief that Durham Constabulary does a superb job of keeping this city safe and I’m grateful that Durham is protected by such an effective and active police force.
However, I was concerned by how quick the Constabulary was to take to social media on Saturday to push its agenda.
Though it’s admirable that the Constabulary’s updates on Facebook were regular, keeping the public up-to-date with the tragedy as more information emerged, its Facebook updates were calculated and measured, carefully emphasising that Grant had suffered a ‘medical condition’ while giving as little mention as possible to the fact that the 69-year-old had fallen into the Wear.
With each update, less and less emphasis was put on the river until, on Monday morning when the police identified Grant online, we were merely reminded that he had “fallen down a riverbank”.
The message was clear: a man had tragically suffered a medical episode on the riverbank. That he had then fallen from the path into a freezing river was irrelevant and it would be a waste of police time to even mention the fact.
Seemingly out of the blue, two hours prior to this identification, the Constabulary boasted on Facebook that the student who fell into the river in January was to be fined for drunkenness and would take part in a diversionary alcohol awareness scheme.
This was a prime example of the kind of approach that Durham Constabulary has adopted throughout the river safety debate.
Mike Barton and his force have robotically repeated their well rehearsed warnings about the demon drink, backed alcohol awareness initiatives and even threatened to fine intoxicated students causing trouble in town.
Recently, the chief constable explicitly spoke out against fencing along stretches of the river on BBC Newcastle, ruling out the idea as if it would not have made any difference whatsoever in recent tragedies.
The Constabulary’s attempt to divert our attention away from the river at the weekend was an irresponsible move.
As opposed to acknowledging that Saturday’s tragedy raised questions yet again about the dangerousness of the riverside path, the police chose to dodge the issue so swiftly and blatantly that it almost appeared stubborn.
Instead, they delivered a rather distastefully timed reminder of the dangers of drinking and the irresponsibility of students in an attempt to neutralise any possibility that a lack of proper safety provisions along the river could have contributed to the tragic death of a 69-year-old man.
In the past 16 months it has become acutely clear that the riverside in Durham is unsafe.
In order to tackle this fact, what’s required is a pragmatic approach that looks at all sides of the problem.
We’ve seen much positive action in the past weeks to attempt to reduce the risks of walking home alone, notably the student volunteers who have given up their time to ensure their peers get back safely after a night in the city.
But if the wider problem (that is, the problem that stretches further than simply alcohol) is to be dealt with then the whole community must accept that safety in the city is a multifaceted issue.
I implore Mike Barton to approach the coming months with an open mind.
Of course, it won’t be the Constabulary’s responsibility to improve safety on the riverside.
But the police must ensure they do not allow their agenda to hinder meaningful steps towards making Durham safer for everyone.
Photograph: Peter Roberts