How can we make our city safer?

Megan Roberts
3 Feb 2014 @ 10.00 am
| Opinion

Megan Roberts
Megan Roberts

Miles On Monday

The weekly thoughts of York writer Miles Salter

A few weeks ago, a diagram was doing the rounds on social media websites. It was a pie chart of the months of the year, showing how long each month felt.

January was grossly distorted, taking up far more than its share of the circle. It was funny, and felt true, but this week it took on a new significance in York.

Because the final week of January 2014 has been a dark one.

The news emerged on Monday 27th. A 20 year old student, Megan Roberts, had been reported missing. A friend had contacted Megan’s mother, who immediately rang the police.

Megan hadn’t been seen since the previous Thursday morning, at around 2am. She had been on a night out with friends that culminated in a visit to York’s Popworld nightclub.

As the news spread, people in York became increasingly alarmed. The incident had eerie parallels to the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence in 2009. Claudia was never found, and police launched a murder inquiry.

Could the same thing have happened to Megan, a pretty girl with a lovely smile? Reports surfaced that Megan had Tweeted about being “stalked” recently, when a man followed her and a friend from pub to pub.

Could this have led to her disappearance?

The prospect was sickening. I thought of her parents and family, and couldn’t imagine the distress they were experiencing.

A dark place

A friend of mine told me the other day that his daughters, who are about the same age as Megan, feel safe in York. On the whole, the city centre is a safe place.

Even the gangs of drunken men and women who inhabit the town on a Friday or Saturday night are, for the most part, good natured, if a little rowdy.

But beneath a colourless sky and in temperatures that could at best be described as chilly, York felt, for a few days, like a dark place, as prone to the perils of modern suburban life as anywhere else in the UK.

It was a sobering reminder of how a city landscape, even one as pretty and lauded as York’s, can be haunted by the same concerns and preoccupations.

On Wednesday I watched for a few minutes as police divers searched the Ouse for Megan. The river, brown and bloated, seemed to carry a dreadful secret.

Underneath the river’s surface, a passerby reminded me, the currents would be moving much more quickly.

By Thursday, the news seemed to have circulated the nation’s media outlets. The Mirror said the police had come to a conclusion: it was unlikely that Megan’s disappearance was the result of crime, but instead that the gang she was with on Thursday morning, ‘heavily affected by alcohol’, split up as they walked home.

Walking beside the river, the police suspect, Megan entered the water by accident, and didn’t come out.

If Megan fell in the river, she is one of a string of victims that have met the same fate in York. Several other incidents have occurred in recent years.

Intoxicated and unable to walk in a straight line, men and women wander home, fall in the river, and are gone. Perhaps it’s time the city provided a river patrol, or city centre wardens, to prevent such incidents?

Close knit university

What has happened to Megan is also a tragedy for York St John University, where she was studying for a degree in fine art.

Although the number of students there has grown significantly in the last five years, it is still a relatively close-knit community.

The university will doubtless chew over what, if anything, can be done.

As somebody who has studied at the university more than once, I felt a tangible sadness for the impact of what had happened: I can’t remember anything like this happening to one of their students before.

A few weeks ago, and some time before Megan vanished, one of the university’s lecturers reflected on Facebook about the possibility of alcohol being banned. I chipped in: an interesting idea, I thought, but couldn’t see how this would be workable.

Alcohol is used, enjoyed or abused by far too many people in the UK (and results in a vast amount of VAT) for a ban to be realistic.

In the light of Megan’s dreadful disappearance, the idea carries greater currency. Raise the drinking age to 25 to stop incidents like this occurring?

The alcohol industry would protest, and perhaps students would too. But after a dreadful week in York, we owe it to ourselves to consider how to keep our fantastic city as safe as possible.