Action on York river safety ‘was long overdue’, says mother of Megan Roberts

THE MOTHER of a 20-year-old student who died after falling into a York rivers on a night out says council leaders in the city have been forced to act to improve safety after “neglecting it for years”.

Megan Roberts with her mum Jackie at Christmas 2014. (S)

Jackie Roberts, whose daughter Megan went missing last January before her body was found in the River Ouse, has been campaigning since the summer to make revellers more aware of the dangers of York’s rivers and bridges.

She says heavy drinking on nights out is just one part of the problem that resulted in three young people drowning after falling into the Ouse or the River Foss in a matter of weeks. There have been 24 such deaths in 15 years.

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But she said City of York Council has a responsibility to make sure everything possible is done to prevent future tragedies and that the authority should be “addressing the dangers”.

Joint press briefing on river safety in York. Pictured Jackie Roberts, mother of Megan Roberts and Steve Pearson, father of Tyler Pearson. 19th September 2014.

The council has allocated £100,000 for riverside improvements, including better safety equipment and fencing, but it says “increasing awareness and personal responsibility is central to preventing future tragedies”.

Mrs Roberts told The Yorkshire Post: “There seems to be a delay in the priority work the council promised to undertake on the river, starting, I believe, with improvements to existing life saving equipment and adding further equipment to help save lives.

“I don’t pretend to understand politics, but my own personal perspective on the council’s involvement with the river safety issue is that they have neglected it for years then, when forced to act, jumped on the bandwagon set up by others to appear to be doing more than they actually were.

“I believe York now has a new council leader and hope that he will prove to be someone with a positive approach who is prepared to listen and support the wishes of the community.”

Megan, 20, a fine arts student at York St John University, went missing on a night out with friends last January. Her body was found in the water near Acaster Malbis almost six weeks later.

The inquest heard Megan died after becoming disoriented after drinking. The cause of death was drowning.

Mrs Roberts and the families of two other young people who drowned in York’s rivers, student Ben Clarkson, 22, and soldier Tyler Pearson, 18, were highlighted in The Yorkshire Post’s Christmas Honours for their work to publicise the dangers the water presents.

As well as taking part in the campaign organised by police commissioner Julia Mulligan, the 50-year-old, who works part-time in equine management, has joined the Royal Life Saving Society in trying to improve water safety education in schools.

She said local students had been involved in “brilliant” work protecting the vulnerable and that the police and crime commissioner’s office had been “very caring and supportive”.

But she said the three deaths last year prompted local authorities to take “long overdue action” and that a report carried out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents was the first risk assessment carried out in years.

She said: “It does seem that the local authorities would like to put the onus on the individual to look after their own safety and their view is that the drinking culture is a large part of the problem.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with the fact drinking is part of the problem but in a city such as York the river itself is a major hazard that bisects the city and for people enjoying a night out, the chances are at some point they will be near it or have to cross it.”

She added that more should be done to support initiatives such as the York Rescue Boat charity founded, which will patrol the River Ouse at peak times from this Spring.

She said: “Dave Benson,the charity’s founder, raised the issue of river safety long before the deaths in 2014.

“He is more than happy to work with the council and the fire and rescue services to add a valuable presence on the river alongside education and awareness.

“I also feel that the bars and clubs could be encouraged to do more to promote the safety of their customers and I believe Dave shares this viewpoint.”

Mrs Roberts said it was “quite difficult to put into words” the devastating effect Megan’s death had on her and her family. She said: “I think I was in shock for months after the trauma of losing her in such a sudden, tragic way.

“The pain is never going to go away, it’s physically debilitating at times and it isn’t getting any easier to live with.

“With grief such as this you end up being strong for other people because it’s too awful to burden them with the enormity of it. My two other children are the most important thing to me and life has to go on.

“I feel as though I have grown as a person because, in order to carry on you just have to become a bigger person. Life still has its good times. Megan wouldn’t want us not to have those. It will just never be the same...I miss her every moment of every day and always will.”

Steve Waddington, Assistant Director of Housing and Community Safety at City of York Council, said: “There is ongoing multi-agency work around river safety including regular inspection programmes, river-edge maintenance and river safety awareness.

“While I have the deepest sympathy for Ms Roberts and her family following Megan’s death, increasing awareness and personal responsibility is central to preventing future tragedies and we will continue our ongoing work to educate people about the dangers of the rivers and promote personal responsibility.

“We are working in partnership with York St John University Students’ Union, the Canal Trust, the University of York, Street Angels and the emergency services in a Plan Safe, Drink Safe, Home Safe campaign launched in July which was refreshed for Freshers’ Week this year.”

A report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), commissioned after four people had died in the Ouse and the Foss earlier in the year, said York’s rivers are more than three times as dangerous as the English average.

The study found that while there were multiple slip and trip dangers near the rivers, the chances of self-rescue were slim. Alcohol was involved in 45 per cent of incidents involving people going into the river.

City of York Council, which commissioned the report, has set aside £100,000 to implement its recommendations and says it recognises “the significant role we have in supporting river safety”.

In September the authority said new fencing would be put in place near Navigation Road by late November, while post and chain fencing would be upgraded with new standard edge protection at Wellington Row, Blue Bridge and Queen Staith by the end of 2014.

The fencing at Blue Bridge has been completed but a council spokeswoman said work at Wellington Row and Queen Staith would now be finalised in 2015.

The authority says it has reviewed the condition and location of life rings on the rivers Foss and Ouse, replacing 49 and providing 16 more with the latest models, with floating ropes.

It is developing awareness programmes in schools in line with the new National Curriculum, while The Royal Lifesaving Society came to York to announce its Don’t Drink and Drown campaign during Freshers’ Week.

Steve Waddington, Assistant Director of Housing and Community Safety at the council, said: “In January, further work will include clearing silt from tow paths, and steps will be renewed or repaired where appropriate.

“When river levels settle chains and ladders will be repaired and new ones added to locations recommended by RoSPA while a review of grab rails is underway and will complete in the Spring. River and bank sightlines will also be improved by pruning trees.”