Lights out for Edinburgh Union Canal

By Anika Aylward Blake

A view of the canal at dusk; the light of lights along the waterway has concerned some members of the public.

After a young woman was sexually assaulted on the Union Canal, Edinburgh, earlier this year, the lack of visibility on the canal is becoming an issue with the public.

The Union Canal, previously known as the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal, has recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its reopening as a useable waterway. Over its 92 year life, the canal has been accessible to pedestrians.

“Since this pretty 32-mile waterway was brought back to life, it has become a tremendous community asset.  It is now a great place to spend time walking, cycling, running or simply enjoying the heritage and wildlife,” said Waterway Manager Phil Martin, from British Waterways Scotland.

A recent investment of £240,000 from the City of Edinburgh Council saw the towpath redeveloped at the Union Canal, Edinburgh, which will open it to the local community. There are, however, no lights along the canal to guide walkers during the evening.

Between January 2005 and December 2009, there were 11 recorded crimes committed on the Union Canal, Edinburgh. These crimes can be categorized by groups: violent crimes (including Serious Assault, Robbery and Assault, Robbery and Assault with Intent to Rob): 46%; sexual crimes (including Rape, Indecent Assault and Public Indecency): 27%; and ‘miscellaneous’ offences (which includes Minor Assault): 27%.

Earlier this year, a young woman was seriously sexually assaulted while walking along the canal. This led to the Lothian and Borders Police establish a police patrol of six officers to follow an 8-mile route on bicycles, discouraging crime and anti-social behaviour. They are scheduled to be on the canal during busy periods; namely, the summer months during the day. This leaves the darker hours with no lights to guide the way.

With the majority of these crimes occurring after dark, some citizens have become concerned. Marian Taldie, retired, had never noticed any police presence on the canal. She believed that the lack of lights on the canal could be a large safety risk. “It allows more opportunity for criminals.” She did, however, state that she felt that the canal was “for the most part” safe.

In a press release from the Lothian and Borders Police in regards to the Canal Cycles Patrol Initiative, it is stated that: “The aim is to prevent crime and increase confidence among the many members of the public who now use the footpath, either for recreational purposes, or to get to and from work.”

In a recent statement, Chief Inspector Kevin Greig said: “The Union Canal has experienced a resurgence in recent years in terms of the number of pedestrians using the route, and we recognise the importance of ensuring that the public can feel safe and secure there.”

The initiative will see police officers travel on bicycles from Fountainbridge, where the canal ends, to the city boundary, in a bid to discourage antisocial behaviour and crime. Alongside this scheme, the Lothian and Borders Police intend to send mounted cycle patrols in other areas in Edinburgh, which may not be easily accessible by vehicle. This will focus on the west of the city, in recreational grounds, woodland areas and many different tracks and walkways.

This has not encouraged all canal-walkers, however. With the lack of visibility at night, some fear that that police presence will not be enough.  Jamie Burnett, 22, said: “I’ve only seen a police officer once on a bike. He just passed by; he was gone in a minute. I haven’t seen anymore.” He continued: “It’s dangerous, and not just for the walkers but for biking as well. If someone fell in the dark, no one would see.”

Edinburgh City Council spokeswoman, Laura Varney said: “Police patrol the canal one day and then a community safety officer does the next.” She went on to say that there are night patrols in addition to the ones occurring during the day. It is the commuting cyclists that pose a safety risk, she stated, and that the police control the education of cyclists on the canal, teaching them things such as the code of conduct (including a 7 mile/hour speed limit). She continued: “There are no plans to improve lighting at the moment.”

However, the Edinburgh City Council are encouraged by the Canal Cycles Patrol Initiative. Councillor Gordon Mackenzie, who holds the role of Transport Convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, has said: “Schemes like this make these outdoor spaces safer for the whole community by reducing antisocial behaviour and criminal activity.” He went on to state that he is delighted this initiative has been created, and welcomes anything that improves cycle paths or canal walkways.