Students Union hosts ‘How can we keep students safe?’ debate

  • Mike Barton- Chief Constable, Durham Constabulary: “I am socially liberal, and I want to work with you. I just don’t want to fish any dead bodies out of the river. If my tone has been wrong I apologise. My tone is crucial in making sure we work together.”

  • Professor Towl-Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Durham University : “I do accept that there are things that we could do better. I agree that we can all get better with our communication.”

  • Terry Collins- Chair, Durham City Safety Group: “To make this work we really do need you all on board. You need to find a way to communicate your ideas. We do our bit, you do your bit and we make a huge difference.”

IMG_0141 (1)By  and Daniel Fox 

This afternoon, seven key figures answered questions on the subject of student safety at the Fonteyn Ballroom, in Durham’s Student Union.

The debate followed three student deaths in the River Wear in the past fourteen months and included:

  • Mike Barton – Chief Constable, Durham Constabulary
  • Robert Humphreys – Chairman, Best Bar None
  • Graham Towl – Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Durham University
  • Andy Hughes – Chair, Pubwatch Durham
  • Terry Collins – Chair, Durham City Safety Group
  • Carol Feenan – Durham City Centre Manager
  • Rita King – Local Partnership Manager, Portman Group
  • Mick McDonnell– National Best Bar One
  • William Mills- Third-year Criminology student

Chaired by Professor Fiona Measham, a leading expert in the field of drugs, alcohol and the night time economy, the issues discussed included the role of alcohol in previous riverside tragedies, whether students drink more than locals, and positive action that can be taken to prevent further tragedies.

The general consensus on the panel was that the cause of previous tragedies did not lie entirely with alcohol but that it was a “contributory factor”.

Graham Towl commented: “There are clearly inherent risks associated with the riverside. However alcohol was a contributory factor.”

A matter raised in the debate was the perception that students drink more than locals, an allegation that Carol Feenan denied.

“No they don’t. For local people the river banks don’t come into play, accommodation is not there.”

However, the panel reached the consensus that the growing popularity of ‘preloading’, whereby individuals drink prior to going on evening’s out. According to some members of the panel, preloading is the major difference between previous generation’s of students and those today. Mick Mcdonnell, for instance, claimed that: “students don’t drink more they drink differently”.

Meanwhile, Mike Barton argued: “I think the most significant difference is the preload. Students buy a lot of cheap liquor and then engage in preloading and that is risky behaviour.

wear riverbank1“Locals tend to come into town a little earlier and drink within on-licensed premises.”

Barton then proceeded to criticize the aggressive pricing and marketing of alcoholic drinks.

“The [drinks] industry should hang their heads in shame. They haven’t done enough to make sure that ridiculously low priced hard liquor is not available.”

Rita King retorted that it was “up to the government to legislate”.

One student commented that “students preload because [they] can’t afford to drink in a pub.”

All representatives were also emphatic in describing the effect the river tragedies have had upon Durham.

“Each of these incidents have had devastating effects on everyone, we all feel it… We can’t let this happen.” Terry Collins told the audience.

Collins assured the audience that the City Safety Group plan to release a plan to improve student safety within the next fortnight.

“Given what’s happened, we have to review what’s going on in city. The focus of the city safety group is to ensure we’ve done everything reasonable to prevent another tragic event occurring.”

The decision by the City Safety Group to introduce breathalyzer tests upon entrance to certain pubs and nightclubs in the city was met with criticism by some students.

However, Collins sought to assure that this was as a “wider community issue, it is not just students who are intoxicated of an evening.”

Professor Graham Towl, asserted that he was ready to communicate with students on issues surrounding alcohol and river safety: “I am very keen to pick up a sense of breadth of the views.

“We’ve been working very closely with Student Union; we’ve worked very much in partnership with our partners.

euan flowers1“I don’t think this is a situation where there’s a quick fix, we don’t want to demonize drinking”.

However, Professor Towl, faced criticism by members of the audience for a lack of communication on behalf of the University to students on measures that have been implemented.

Several JCR representatives also contested a lack of input by the University in communicating with College’s surrounding river safety and alcohol control measures.

“I don’t agree, I think there’s been a lot of good work. The Students Union have made a really positive contribution.

“I think the college bars are working hard. If there are specific and concrete proposals I’d welcome to hear them.

“We’ve got our JCRs, MCRs and SCRCs, I’m very happy to convey with heads of Colleges.”

Another highly contested issue of debate was the University’s decision to prohibit College representatives, such as ‘Freps’, from accompanying post-applicant offer visitors into the city centre after visitor day activities had concluded.

In response, Professor Towl commented: “I think it plays into a broader sense, and the extent to which we tell people what they can do and can’t do.

“Given what’s happened, we have to review what’s going on in city. The focus of the city safety group is to ensure we’ve done everything reasonable to prevent another tragic event occurring.”

“Another argument is to say is it fair to let students take responsibility for other people.”

Mike Barton also received animosity from some members of the audience in accordance to methods of policing, Durham Constabulary’s stance on drinking games and fining students for being intoxicated. However, Barton attempted to minimise the divide with students.

“The only thing that makes me different to you I have statuary powers of arrest”, he said. “I’m socially liberal, very broad minded, I don’t see drinking as deviant behaviour.

“We have to police differently, we have to police with people.”

Although Barton asserted that “regulating how 10,000 students drink is a lot harder than putting up railings” he recognised the police’s stance has altered following the rescue of an intoxicated student from the River Wear in late January.

The panel were asked to close by making one positive suggestion. One of the key points which the panel agreed on was that communication was an issue and had to be improved upon.

“I’m socially liberal, very broad minded, I don’t see drinking as deviant behaviour.”

Rita King concluded that: “there is a need for more constructive dialogue between students, police and the council”.

Amongst other ideas, Carol Freenam suggested that looking to “extend college bar licensing hours” might be useful, an opinion which seemed to go down well amongst many students in attendance.

William Mills who organized the debate with Sam Taylor reflected positively on the debate: “when me and Sam came up with this idea, this is what we want to happen. I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Afterwards, Palatinate spoke to Robert Double, Senior Man at Hatfield for his thoughts on the event.

“It was hugely beneficial for both students and the panel to help gauge the student mood but also for students to understand rationale behind decisions hopefully to led better communication and better for students and city.”

Dan Slavin, Durham Student Union President, added: “It was a really important opportunity for students to see what work is being done. The union will continue to engage with student groups to make our city as safe as possible.”

Photographs: and Venus Loi 

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