HC Deb 09 July 1971 vol 820 cc1777-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Weatherill.]

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Michael O'Halloran (Islington, North)

I am glad of the opportunity of discussing the Archway Road Bridge, N.19. I have submitted some photographs to the Minister which will explain the difficulties.

The bridge was built in 1897 and under it flows the traffic of the A1 trunk road. Since it was built, it has been known locally as "Suicide Bridge". Practically every year there are one or two suicides and several attempted suicides. Not a week goes by when I do not receive complaints from people living in the vicinity about someone having been seen climbing on the railings of the bridge. When this happens the police are informed and the fire brigade is called to rescue the unfortunate person who feels that there is nothing left in life to live for.

The approach to the bridge is such that the smallest child can climb on to it. I appreciate that if an individual wants to commit suicide there is not much that we can do about it. After all, if he does not jump off Archway Bridge or even Westminster Bridge he can go home and gas himself.

The main problem with the Archway Bridge is that a person attempting suicide can involve the lives of others. From the railings at the top of the bridge to the main trunk road below is a drop of about 80 feet. In the most recent suicide from the bridge a man who jumped narrowly missed falling in front of a bus. It will be seen how the lives of many other people could be involved. The driver of a vehicle passing beneath the bridge in such an eventuality would have to swerve or make an emergency stop, and this could result in a serious accident.

The local weekly newspaper, the Islington Gazette, has over the years spoken out forthrightly about this great hazard. A major question principle is involved because we are left with no option. Either we do something about it or we go back to what has been said all along—that nothing can be done.

In the past three months I have asked a number of Parliamentary Questions about the bridge. I now ask the Minister to do something about it and at least to have a second look at the railings and approach to the bridge. I understand that it would not cost even £5,000 to provide a side wall or additional railings to prevent people from climbing up on it. Many people have suggested the provision of a net to stop would-be suicides from falling in front of traffic below.

This is the question: are we to wait until a very serious accident occurs, with heavy loss of life, or are we to take steps now to prevent such an event? I hope that I have said enough in this short debate to make the Minister appreciate the points I have been putting, both today and in Parliamentary Questions, and that he will have another look at this serious problem.

4.8 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I wish at the outset to thank the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. O'Halloran) for his courtesy in giving me notice of his views on this matter—though I was aware of them from the Parliamentary Questions which he has asked—and for supplying me with photographs. These photographs highlight the problem. Although I have not seen the bridge, it is obvious from the pictures that it is a very attractive example of a certain type of construction.

The hon. Gentleman was right in pointing out that a bridge at this point was first built in 1812. It was replaced in 1897 by the existing bridge, which has a span of 120 feet and marks the boundary between the section of the A1 for which the Greater London Council is responsible and the trunk road section for which my Department is responsible. The bridge itself is vested in the G.L.C.

The problems that arise from time to time as a result of people attempting to commit suicide or being successful in doing so from this bridge are of great concern to us all. There have been three suicide fatalities in recent years: a man in February, 1969; a girl in October, 1970; and another man in February this year. In addition, in May this year and then on 7th June there were two more attempted suicides, one a mental case and the other a drug addict. Both were rescued by the police from the bridge and taken to hospital.

Attempts have been made to try to deter people from using the bridge in this way. Some considerable time ago rotating iron spikes were fitted on top of the 5 foot high iron parapet fence, and the height of the parapet with the spikes is a formidable obstacle, as is clear from the photographs. Steel mesh panels have been fitted adjoining the centre and end pillars of the bridge where climbing is easier, again in order to discourage attempts.

It is difficult to devise a wholly effective safeguard which would not detract from the appearance of the bridge, which is of considerable architectural merit. If one were to build a high wall or an unclimbable fence to replace the existing railing, either solution would be considered aesthetically unacceptable.

This is a tragic problem and one that is not restricted to the bridge over this particular roadway. The difficulty is that if people are determined to commit suicide there are an endless variety of ways in which they can do so and a very large number of bridges which they can use—not only road bridges but railway bridges, bridges over the Thames, and others. The danger, therefore, is that if we were to highlight our concern about Archway Bridge in some way it is possible that it would have the reverse effect to that which we seek to achieve. By focussing attention on this bridge as one that has been used in this way, it is possible that we would even attract more people to use it in this regrettable manner than have used it in the past. As I say, if people have made up their minds to behave in this way, there is nothing we can do to stop them, because there are so many alternative methods open to them.

Nevertheless, I do not want to suggest that our concern is less than that of the hon. Member, particularly because of the danger—albeit, I hope, a small one, and one that has not so far led to any actual danger—of people jumping from the bridge, landing in the roadway below and possibly causing an accident, perhaps injuring people in no way otherwise involved.

I say at once that although the difficulties are well known, and that is why we have not been able to make further progress, we will discuss the matter with the G.L.C. to see whether anything can be done within the limits I have mentioned to minimise the problem. I very much wish that there were no such dangers but, as I have said, there will always be a proportion of people who are, regrettably, determined to commit suicide and it is impossible to anticipate every means they may use for their purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Four o'clock.