Manchester council decision to close off canal undercroft a ‘last resort’ in bid to save lives

It is a hotbed of crime and anti-social behaviour and the location of nine deaths in just six years right in the heart of Manchester city centre.

Now, in a desperate bid to make the Rochdale Canal undercroft near Piccadilly safe the City Council have applied for it to be gated off to walkers overnight as a ‘last resort’.

Security measures such as CCTV, better lighting and barriers along the canal to stop people falling in and drowning have all been tried but with no success.

And city centre chief Councillor Pat Karney says closing off this 200 metre stretch of the canal, between Dale Street and Minshull Street, from 10pm to 7am is the only way to start saving lives and stop the ‘nasty and vicious’ activity of the past.

‘YOU WILL DIE IN TWO OR THREE MINUTES’: Mr Karney explained how quickly the canal can take a life in winter

He told MM: “Most of the fatalities have been in the early hours of the morning – some of them have been people with some drink in them, some of them have been robberies.

“There have been some nasty vicious people down here and they want your wallet or they want your phone and if you don’t give it to them they will push you in this canal.

“And then chances of you getting out this canal are zilch particularly in the winter period when the water is so cold you will probably die in two or three minutes. I have seen what fire officers have to do in terms of pulling people out.

“So it is a very dangerous place and we are totally convinced than when we put this gate in we are going to start saving lives.”

SURVIVAL CHANCES ‘ZILCH’: Mr Karney described the undercroft as a ‘very dangerous place’

There had been some concerns that completely closing off a section of the canal would not only be a breach of the rights of the public, but a hindrance to commuters and canal boat owners or users.

This was of particular concern as initial plans were to close the gates from 7pm onwards but the council have spoken to people and adjusted the proposed timings accordingly.

The council worked closely with Greater Manchester Police, the Greater Manchester Fire Service and the Canal and River Trust – which manages the UK’s waterways – to ask residents and businesses for their views on the gating proposal last year.

WORKING TOGETHER: The council, the fire service, GMP and the Cana and River Trust have joined forces

Mr Karney added: “It has been our last resort. We have tried everything and none of it has stopped people dying.

“So I think it is a sensible compromise between the rights of canal boat users, which I completely uphold their rights to come through here and enjoy the canal, and walkers and late night activity.

“I think that it is a compromise that will start saving lives.”

It has been agreed the gates would only be closed between 10pm-7am as police statistics show the worst periods for crime and antisocial behaviour occur late at night.

Access for boating will continue but use of the towpath for walking through will be prevented.

GMP Inspector Phil Spurgeon said it is the brazenness of some of the criminals using the undercroft as cover that has forced the decision to put in gates.

CCTV NOT THE DETERRENT PEOPLE THINK: The layout near the canal makes it very difficult to give complete CCTV coverage

“We have had 63 crimes in this 200 metre stretch. The vast majority of those are robberies or thefts from persons,” he explained.

“We have also had a number of assaults and unfortunately people have gone in the water so 17 people have ended up in the canal – some have got out and some have not.

“In the last six year nine people have lost their lives.

“Because of the physical layout it is very difficult to give complete CCTV coverage and even with the cameras we have got we will see people commit a crime then smile and wave at the cameras so they’re not always the deterrent that people think.”

And the instalment of CCTV is not the only safety measure that has failed to make this area safer.

SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE: Inspector Spurgeon thinks the gates will be a big help in preventing any more deaths

Inspector Spurgeon said: “We have had CCTV for a long time and that is just one of a number of measures we have tried.

“We have increased enforcement and education to try to make people aware of the dangers and none of that has made the undercroft any safer.

“We are looking at whether we need additional barriers and chains that people can grab onto.

“When the gates go up we will obviously continue our work in terms of patrols and education but we think the gates will make a significant difference to the issues that we have at the moment.”

HOTBED OF CRIME: The undercroft is used as coverage for crimes such as robbery, theft and assault

David Baldacchino, regional waterway manager with the Canal and River Trust, said that while closing off the undercoft is not a decision that comes ‘naturally’ everything seems to have been building up to this ‘drastic moment’.

He told MM: “The decision to close off a section of the canal is not something we want to see and it is not our natural reaction to have.

“But I think everybody is in agreement that it is in the interest of everybody so it is right that we’re trying.

SPRING BOARD TO WIDER IMPROVEMENTS? Mr Baldacchino hopes this will be the start of change for the better in the area

“With the CCTV and the lighting and the safety equipment, it builds up and builds up to this drastic moment where you have really got to do something more significant.

“Because we want people to be able to use it so we are coming to a compromise here.

“This is a public safety measure to prevent any more fatalities in this area and we want to see it as a spring board to wider improvements in the area in the long haul.”

Anyone who uses the canal can find out more about the proposal or make comments here

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