This weekend at Leeds Waterfront Festival!

The Multi-Story Water project moves downstream along the Aire a few miles this weekend — to present two special promenade performances for visitors to Leeds Waterfront Festival. Both are completely free of charge for spectators, so do come along!

After the Flood jpeg

There’s another chance to see Seven Bridges - a hit at last year’s Waterfront Festival. This playful walking tour of the Leeds waterfront between Clarence Dock and Granary Wharf features Steve Bottoms and David Calder as “Don and Ron” (two rather questionable executives, planning for future redevelopment) and guest stars Eddie Lawler, on guitar and lead vocals.

SevenBridges jpeg

We also feature a brand new, family-oriented piece, After the Floodcreated in collaboration with Leeds’ Common Chorus Theatre Company. During this unique, self-guided tour of the area around Granary Wharf and the Dark Arches, spectators meet a series of characters seeking to come to terms with the flooding that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. Some have been directly affected, others are planning for future defences. It sounds serious, but there’s a theatrical, visual, and sometimes comic emphasis that should make it accessible and entertaining to all.

We hope to see you there!

Water margins

I’ve been continuing, in recent weeks, to nose around Shipley and Baildon to get more of a sense of how the Boxing Day floods affected people in different areas. Come September, at Saltaire Festival, we’ll be presenting a new storytelling piece called Wading Home for Christmas that will seek to capture some of these accounts in an engaging and pointed way. Last weekend I paid a visit to Aire Way, one of the streets off Coach Road which opens out onto the flood plain area east of Roberts Park. What the residents here told me really underlines just how narrow the margins can be in terms of who gets hit by flooding and who doesn’t.


These are the houses on Aire Way — the gap in the middle is where the road comes in for car access — with the odd- and even-numbered houses extending from either side of this entry point. Here we’re looking west, in the direction of the park. If you imagine taking the photograph above, and then turning through about 180 degrees, this is what you would see looking the other way….


The line of trees in the distance marks the edge of the River Aire, with the large buildings all being on the other (Shipley) side of the river. Here you see one of the several cricket pitches that populate the local flood plain areas… But what’s amazing to contemplate is that this corrugated tin cricket hut was — according to the residents — completely under water on Boxing Day. I said, what, completely? You couldn’t even see the ridge of the roof? They said that’s right. Back in 2000, when the last major flood hit, you could still see the roof — but not this time.


Taking a closer look at Aire Way, we can see a waterworks manhole in the grass just in front of the houses. This, I was told, is the point that the floodwater got to back in 2000. Just shy of the final slope. On Boxing Day 2015, though, the water came right up and into people’s homes — filling the ground floor and flowing out of the back. It also came up through the foundations of the houses — quicker, in fact, than it arrived at surface level. Residents had to wade out of their homes, and some have only recently been able to return. But look at this…


To the right in this picture is the most westerly house on Aire Way, and to the left is the most easterly house on Tennis Way (the next street opening off Coach Road as you head towards the park). As you can see, there’s just a slight rise in the banking between Aire and Tennis, but this extra bit of height made all the difference. The homes on Tennis Way remained unaffected by the flooding — safe as houses.

Incidentally, the other people who were safe as houses were those living upstairs on Aire Way — who had a grandstand view of the flood from their balconies. These houses are actually split-levels, with the upstairs apartments being accessed by stairs leading straight up from front doors on ground level. So the worst the upstairs residents got was some damage to their stair carpets, but by all accounts, Bradford Council paid out its £500 per household in flood relief to anyone on this stretch who asked for it, regardless of whether they were upstairs or downstairs. One might question whether this money was really going where it was most needed.

If the level of the water made a big difference, depending on where exactly you live along here, it’s also worth noting that seemingly small differences in residential status also really made a big difference. Aire Way and Tennis Way are still mostly (if not all) social housing stock — run by InCommunities. Among the residents I spoke to were Kenneth, who is a regular tenant with In Communities, and was really happy with the help that he received from them in the wake of the flooding. He was back in his repaired house by mid-March, and has no complaints. His only problem is that — like a surprising number of people living near the river, it seems — he had no contents insurance for his belongings, and so has had to fork out for an entirely new set of furniture.

However, just along the street from Kenneth is Chris. He did have contents insurance, but he also has his home on a 99-year lease from InCommunities (he’s sort of halfway to being a home-owner). Being a leaseholder meant that Chris found himself right at the back of the queue in terms of getting the flood damage repaired. InCommunities were still responsible for sorting it, since ultimately they are the property owners, but they were apparently in no hurry to do so. Perhaps they were working on the basis that Chris can’t move anywhere else because of the length of his lease. So Chris literally just moved home two weeks ago — mid-May — after nearly five months being put up in Abbey Lodge guest house, up on Kirkgate in Shipley. He was still unpacking boxes when I met him…

Speaking of which, here is Margaret Wright — an old friend of this blog. She normally lives on Lower Holme, off Otley Road — near the new Wickes. But I took this photo in April, when she was still living in a room at Shipley’s Ibis Hotel (just by the canal).

IMG_0874Margaret finally moved home on April 28th — after being stuck in the Ibis for four months, without even any self-catering facilties. Her housing association, Accent, gave her and her grandson James a daily allowance of £25 between them to feed themselves … which, needless to say, doesn’t go far when you’re eating out all the time. Even so, this and the hotel bills do add up, and as Margaret points out, you would think it was in Accent’s interests to have got her back into her home quicker than this! And unlike InCommunities, it was not even as if Accent had the excuse of having a lot of clients to deal with after the flooding. They admitted to Margaret that they had just one other property in the area — in Bingley — affected by the floods. But this very lack of impact on them as an organisation seems to have led to a general lack of concern.

The particular irony is that the water didn’t even reach Margaret’s house at ground level. It’s set back far enough from the river that the only impact was from water coming up through the basement. Margaret’s neighbour Lynda had exactly the same situation, but remained safely in her home throughout (despite losing power for six days around New Year). However, where Lynda’s ground floor had apparently been reinforced on some previous occasion, Margaret’s had not. Yet another small difference that made a very big difference… Margaret’s kitchen and living room floors were undermined by the flood water, and caved in. It then took four months for Accent to get it fixed — although the actual working time, Margaret says, was a matter of only three weeks. The rest of the time was simply taken up with interminable bureaucratic delays, for the visits of loss adjusters, surveyors, and God knows what. And no doubt for the paperwork to sit around on a pile for a while, until it got attended to. Margaret had been almost six weeks in the Ibis before anyone even began to do anything to the property…

Fortunately, Margaret is able to joke about her experiences as a kind of black comedy — but the strain on her has been clear to see. She’s in her later sixties, and suffers from arthritis – and you would think that, as a resident of 33 years, Accent had a duty of care towards her. Instead though, their attention to the house has been all about the “margins”… Costs have been cut at every opportunity, especially on the finish, so that Margaret has had to vociferously complain about idiocies such as an ugly gas heating pipe being run along her living room wall above the skirting board. (If you know how beautifully she has always kept her home, you know just how much of an insult this is.) The final straw, though, was when she discovered that her living room window blind — one of those nice, wooden-slatted ones that cost well over £100 — had mysteriously lost its draw-string and so been rendered useless. A workman eventually admitted to having cut it off so he could use it as a plumb-line. This completely unnecessary bit of criminal damage resulted in Accent having to pay out for a brand new blind. As Margaret remarks, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” It’s all about the margins…

If you leave Margaret’s house, at the bottom of Lower Holme, and walk the short path down to the river, this is what you’ll come to…

IMG_0912The brand new flood wall on the right, installed just last year before the Wickes opened, was overtopped on Boxing Day. The debris still caught in the trees (and this photo shows just one sample of a problem all along this stretch) indicates just how high the water came, but also just how long it’s now been left unattended to… This is the stretch of river that became nationally visible at Christmas, when the TV news played cameraphone footage of a caravan being smashed into the footbridge at the bottom of Lower Holme. But most of the rest of the time, this is a pretty neglected stretch of river. Out of sight of the general public, out of mind of the authorities… It’ll take a volunteer effort, in all probability, before this lot is cleared.

Floods, it turns out, can make you cynical.


How is this a Strategy, exactly?

So yesterday I popped into Kirkgate Centre in Shipley, where a drop-in consultation session was being held by the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council (CBMDC – or “Bradford Council” to most of us) on its new Local Flood Risk Management Strategy. To read the document in question, click here


These are some of the lovely people gathered at the consultation to chat with people popping in — Vicki and Karen from Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support in the foreground, as well as reps from Bradford Council and the Environment Agency. When I popped in shortly after the session started, though (it ran from 2.30 to 6.30), there was a bit of a shortage of public being consulted. Maybe it picked up later on.

The personal advice and support being offered, on the day, seemed to me to be rather at odds with the very impersonal, rather unhelpful contents of the actual strategy document. I’ve read through it all now and I’m actually struggling to know what the strategy is, to be honest. And I don’t think this is just me being dense.

Let’s break it down. The document, nicely illustrated by pictures of floods, is in 9 sections, plus appendices. These 9 are:

1. Introduction. Which tells us that there have been floods and will be more floods and that this is natural, as well as caused by climate change (which is caused by us). It also tells us that Bradford Council is designated by law as the Lead Local Flood Authority for the district (and lists the laws in question). So. No strategy yet then.

2. CBMDC Powers and Duties. A list of statutory duties for Bradford Council. Still no strategy.

3. Risk Management Authorities. A list of authorities with a remit on flooding in the area — mostly Bradford Council, plus ‘strategic oversight’ from the Environment Agency (which, confusingly, is placed at the top of the diagram above CBMDC, as if they have ultimate responsibility, even though CBMDC is the “Lead Local Flood Authority”… Is someone passing the buck here…?). Btw, still no strategy…

4. Spatial Extent of Strategy. Which means, “here is a map of Bradford District”. The River Aire is named, as is the River Wharfe at the northern edge of the district. Mysteriously, no sign of Bradford Beck or any other river in Bradford itself… And still no sign of a strategy.

5. Sources of Flooding. A list of ways to get flooded and things in the district that are likely to flood. Thanks for that.

6. Historic Flooding within Bradford District. Tells us about flooding that has happened before. Mostly since 2000. Which, again – thanks for that – but this is not a future strategy.

7. Climate Change and Flood Risk. One paragraph on climate change being risky. “It is imperative,” it says here, “that plans and schemes are developed to better manage and adapt to any increased risk of local flooding.” Good. Where are they?

8. Objectives and Measures for Managing Local Flood Risk. This seems to be the bit that comes closest to any kind of strategy objectives. But everything here is couched in maddening generalisations which don’t appear to add up to very much of anything…

CBMDC wants to “improve understanding of flood risk”, we are told. It wants to “communicate flood risk to partners and stakeholders” (although many of the people at risk already know they are at risk, given that we just had Bradford’s worst flooding in living memory). CBMDC also wants to conduct “targeted maintenance”, but it doesn’t say where this maintenance should take place, and you would have hoped that they were doing targeted maintenance anyway..?

The crux of the matter is that they want to “reduce the impact of flooding”, “ensure appropriate development in Bradford District” (e.g. not building on flood plains), and “improve flood response and post flood recovery”. All of these are admirable goals, but they are just that — broad goals. There is absolutely no detail in this so-called “strategy” about how any of these generalised ambitions might be developed or pursued in future, in relation to specific locations or communities in the district.

9. Funding for Strategic Measures. A list of funding sources for when things need to be done, even though we have no idea what things might need to be done from this document.

So to sum up… there is no strategy here. There are lists of basic facts and existing circumstances, and there are some vague generalisations about intentions that could have been written any time in the last 20 years. None of which gives this reader any confidence at all that Bradford has anything resembling a plan to tackle flooding.

In my day job, at present, I am marking a lot of student essays. If I were grading this strategy document, it would get a very poor grade. Somewhere in the low 2.2 zone, perhaps, or maybe even third class. There’s a recitation of some basic facts, suggesting (as I often say to students in this area) “a very limited amount of research”. There’s also “a serious lack of critical thinking” in response to the facts gathered.

Go back. Revise. Resubmit.



HCR Dragons take on Bradford!

I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t been keeping the blog up to date much, but it would be remiss not to give a (belated) salute to all the good folk who participated in the Lord Mayor of Bradford’s annual Dragon Boat races last Saturday, May 7th. (apparently the biggest such mayor’s race in the country) The event took place on the River Aire beside Roberts Park, on the stretch of the river coming down from Hirst Mill. Here you can see some of the action on the riverbank in the park (looking across to the Boathouse and Salts Mill…).IMG_0880

This year, for the first time, there was a “home team” fielded by residents on the Higher Coach Road estate — which part of the course passes beside on its way to the park. The appearance of the “HCR Dragons” was thanks to the dogged determination of resident Ruth Bartlett (aka Eliza Ronksley), who persuaded the race organisers that there should be a place for a community group boat alongside all the boats from local businesses and others who had the money to pay the sizeable up front entry fee. She worked out a special arrangement that can hopefully set a precedent in future. IMG_0879

Here’s Ruth plotting race strategy with the HCR Dragons’ secret weapon, Mark Edwards — who like a few others in the boat is a “friend” to the HCR residents rather than actual resident himself. Mark lives up on Hirst Mill Crescent, and is a rowing coach with the Bradford Rowing Club. So he knows a few things about boat races, though he’s more used to travelling backwards than forwards… Note the team’s choice of colourful headgear to mark them out from the rest of the crowd…

IMG_0883And here they are getting ready to race! Love that headgear…


The race is on, coming round the bend by the cricket pavilion!

IMG_0885Here come those Dragons!


Nearly there!


The team gets its breath back after the mad paddling! There’s Ruth in the red life jacket, perhaps wondering why she started all this! But well done the Dragons.

IMG_0888For a team of almost complete novices, most of whom had never got in a boat like this before the day of the races, they did really well! The final scoreboard puts them 16th out of 45, a very respectable showing! And more to the point, everyone had fun…

IMG_0889Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be there on the day myself — a shame because I was hoping to do a bit of paddling myself. But it sounds like everyone had a blast. The photos above were all taken by John Milner and posted to the HCR Residents’ Group Facebook page — I hope he doesn’t mind me pirating them for this post. Well done everyone and onwards to next year! And hats off – especially – to Eliza Ronksley.




“Working with nature” on Higher Coach Road

This was the scene in Roberts Park, yesterday, as members of the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group contributed to Saltaire’s World Heritage Weekend with a demonstration of the traditional skill of wood turning…


That’s Craig at the pole lathe, which is powered entirely by manpower (he’s working a pedal that pulls down a carefully sprung wood branch — in shot here — to turn the pole back and forth rapidly. Behind Craig is Stewart (HCRRG’s Chairman) who spent the afternoon at the “bodger’s bench” (see below), rough-cutting sections of wood for Craig to work on the lathe. That rather refined looking chair leg had started out earlier as a rough lump of wood retrieved from leftover timbers. (Also in shot above is Rob Martin, of Saltaire Stories — one of the organisers of World Heritage Weekend.)

IMG_0815Here Stewart and Craig are observed by Paul (Kirkgate Centre) and Steve (also from the residents group). Located alongside the Canal and River Trust’s display of dummy mooring posts (for practising roping off), the wood-turning demo attracted a steady stream of interested passers-by during the afternoon.

Untitled from Steve Bottoms on Vimeo.

IMG_0833The idea here was to showcase an older piece of local “heritage” than is normally on display at the Heritage Weekend (which is, quite rightly, dominated by Saltaire’s Victorian-era legacy). As Stewart says, skills of this sort would have been used in the Aire valley for many centuries, as people worked with the available resources — wood, water, and so forth. Complementing the craft display, local storyteller Irene Lofthouse (on the left below) presented some traditional myths and legends for an audience of intrigued children – and some of their parents – while musician Eddie Lawler and I worked up verses to a song that only had a chorus (“Welcome to Our Airedale Home”) by asking passers-by for ideas.

Irene Lofthouse, Pat Gledhill, Lyze Dudley

Irene Lofthouse, Pat Gledhill, Lyze Dudley

As you can see from Irene’s face, we also had face painters on hand for the kids – specialising in designs on the theme of woodland and water… Steph and Lu, friends of HCRRG’s Facebook page convenor Ruth, have just started up in the face-painting business, and they certainly had plenty of custom yesterday!


Meanwhile, some of the children from the Higher Coach Road estate were also represented by a display of anti-litter posters they had designed for a competition arranged by Ruth. Since the posters featured both artwork and words, they were judged by Irene (a published poet) and Saltaire artist David Starley, who was also on hand. Amelia’s entry, below, was my personal favourite…


Later in the afternoon, when we had packed up in the park, I took a stroll west along the flood plain area next to the park — and adjacent to the Higher Coach Road estate — where some intriguing changes have been taking place lately.

At the behest of the HCR Residents Group, horticulture students from Shipley College (course leader, John Baker) came in to work on an overgrown mass of riverside willow – near the footbridge – that had been left to its own devices for years. Under the supervision of Samantha Yates, the students neatly coppiced sections of the undergrowth, and cut and cleared others.


There’s quite a lot of wood debris to be cleared away, but John Dembecki (Bradford Council parks service) has apparently promised that it will be gone by next week. In the meantime, it sits on the grass as evidence of just how much work needed to be done here!


Intriguingly, though, this is not just a story of overgrown willow being cut back. With advice from Graham, of Hirst Wood Regeneration Group, members of HCRRG have taken saplings from amongst the cleared wood, and planted them in the flood plain area itself, in a series of neatly grouped areas…



Admittedly, these newly planted trees don’t look like much just yet, but they will — because it’s clear that a good many of them have “taken” in the soft ground, and are already starting to bud.


The idea here is not only to add a new visual feature to the grassy flood plain, but to bring a little further assistance to the ground’s water retention. Until very recently, the muddy area you see in the picture above was still a giant puddle, retaining water that had built up during the exceptionally wet weather of November and December (the puddle was there before the Boxing Day flood, and long-outlasted it!). But tree roots will help to soak up some of the moisture, and hopefully to further stabilise the ground.


Yet another “new” feature along this riverside stretch is the “host of golden daffodils” that have sprung up this spring, along the banks of the Aire itself. These were not planted by HCRRG, but appear to have grown up from dormant bulbs that must have been in the ground for years. The reason they have come up now appears to be that the Boxing Day flood swept away a large amount of dead brushwood from the riverbank, leaving the ground clear for new growth.

I joked to Pam Ruppe (HCRRG’s treasurer – pictured below in the park) that nature seemed to be lending a hand with the work that the group has been doing recently. “Well,” she responded, “you could say that we’re working with nature.” And indeed you could — whether it be coppicing, willow-planting or Craig and Stewart’s “sustainable” woodworking, this does seem to be the theme to a lot in a lot of the group’s activities. Although less than a year old, Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group has already established a clear sense of purpose and identity.


After the Flood: Domestic Damage

A house stripped bare.

No flooring, no plaster. A house stripped bare – with a dehumidifier as the only furniture.

For me, our “After the Flood” event at Kirkgate Centre last Sunday was something of an eye-opener. As will be clear from my other blog posts on this site, my conversations with people in the Shipley area since the Boxing Day floods have often been about the clear-up effort or about local features in need of repair following flood damage, such as Hirst weir. Up until last Sunday, the contact I’ve had with people directly impacted in their homes by the flooding had been limited to people who were nonetheless still living in their homes. People like Lynda, at Lower Holme, whose basement had been flooded by groundwater — with the result that she lost electricity and gas supplies for a week. Or people like Phillip (featured in this previous blog), who moved back into his home in Aire Close before the end of January, despite having had five or six feet of water in his living room.

It occurs to me now that because Phillip is a builder by trade, he planned to oversee repairs to his downstairs while living upstairs — but of course not everyone has such a relevant skill set, or can deal as stoically with the emotional impact of living in such conditions. The meeting on Sunday was attended by a number of people who have been living in temporary accommodation since Christmas, and who still don’t know when they will be able to move back home. People like Margaret (an old friend of the Multi-Story Water project), who lives adjacent to Lynda on Lower Holme, but whose living room and kitchen floors collapsed in the flooding. Her housing association put her in the Ibis hotel, at Shipley Wharf, where she has been since December — in a standard no-frills room, without a kitchen, having to eat all her meals out. She has just been told that work on repairing her home will finally begin in April, but she has been offered no explanation for the 3 month delay. Perhaps the property was simply too damp until now to do any meaningful work.

That’s certainly the case for Graham and Ann — who live right on the river in Lower Baildon — and had over five feet of water in their living room on Boxing Day. They are hoping to be told in the next few days that the walls of their house are now dry enough that work can begin on rebuilding and replastering. They were kind enough to invite me, yesterday, to see the state of their house before work begins. The entire downstairs has literally had to be stripped back to the brickwork, with the removal of stud walls turning the house into a series of spaces between brick columns. The dehumidifiers are still going full tilt.


Seeing the state of this house made me realise just how long and difficult a road to recovery it can be for those affected by flooding. We all hear about the immediate impact of floods when they hit — it’s all over the news and the pictures are everywhere — but the story never stays in the public eye for long. The news cycle moves on, and so it’s easy to assume that the story is over. But it really isn’t, if it’s happening to you.


This is Graham, indicating the height the water came up to in his living room. And yes, he is managing to smile about it. I’ve been so impressed by his and Ann’s positivity in the face of such a complete devastation of their home. He also pointed out how the French windows are full of water and will also need replacing…


… and how they are taking extra precautions to keep the front door secured, given that empty houses can be a target for unwanted intruders…


Outside, work on putting things to rights has not even begun. Graham pointed out how the decking outside his back door, and the hot-tub that used to sit next to it, were both picked up and then unceremoniously dumped again by the flood water…



And this is all that’s left of the decking area that overlooked the river itself… (Graham pointed out the decking section itself, caught up against a tree 100 yards downstream)


It’s clearly going to take quite a long time before Graham and Ann are going to have anything that resembles a home again, and they are understandably concerned about the threat of something like this happening again in future. All they can really do — whether they want to live here or look to sell — is to look to make the house as resilient and flood proof as possible. And that isn’t going to be cheap.

If the continuing difficulties of affected households are not being reported on, another location that I visited yesterday has been particularly far out of the public eye. Branksome Drive is a quiet, residential road that had not even been on my radar as somewhere that been affected by the floods, until some of those affected came to the meeting on Sunday. Indeed, not even Paul Barrett — Kirkgate Centre’s community development manager — was aware of the problems there. Branksome Drive is at the extreme west end of Shipley ward, out past Nab Wood cemetery, and as such is quite isolated from, and invisible to, other local people. But if you look on this bit of Google maps, you can see how the end of Branksome Drive sits worryingly close to the Aire at the bottom of the long S-shape bend that takes the river up towards Dowley Gap (when it then turns eastward and adopts a relatively straight line of flow through the rest of the Saltaire and Shipley area).


Bottom of Branksome Drive, looking back from dead end

Curious to get a bit more of a sense of the location, I went down to Branksome Drive yesterday. From a junction with the main Bingley Road, it winds steeply downhill before curling around to arrive at a dead end. As you can see from the photograph above, one side of the street (to the right) is built up at a higher level than the other. It’s this left side, the more northerly side, that was hit worst by the flooding — according to Luke, a builder I spoke to, who was repairing this wall that separates the last house on the Drive from the neighbouring field. The floodwater, he said, came up as high as the top of the hedging.


Luke confirmed that the damage to this wall was done by the river on Boxing Day. The water, he explained had just come sweeping over the brow of the hill in the adjacent field. You can imagine this from the picture below, where the row of hedging marks the normal line of the riverbank….


As Luke noted, these 1930s houses (also hit in the floods of 2000, apparently) were built on what is basically exposed flood plain. They probably shouldn’t have been built at all, although saying that is of little comfort to the homeowners, obviously. The residents of fourteen or fifteen houses along the northerly side of the street are literally still mopping up from the Boxing Day deluge. Among the telltale signs were this Dyson van, with cable running into one of the houses (presumably for dehumidifying purposes)…


… There were also a number of camper vans sitting on driveways as temporary accommodation…


… as well as skips full of discarded furnishings outside other homes…


…and even abandoned white goods left outside another property…

IMG_0654At the point where the street bends onto this last, vulnerable stretch of houses, there’s a public footpath that leads off down to the river itself, so I opted to take this route back towards Shipley.


The water level yesterday was reassuringly low, but I imagine that during the flooding, it must have reached right up to the gravestones at this bottom corner of Nab Wood cemetery…


Working my way downstream from here (going up north, on the map) I soon came to the Dowley Gap sewage works — viewed here from the Seven Arches aqueduct that brings the canal across the river at this point.


Looking at the level of the river here, and the level of the settling tanks, you realise that on Boxing Day the water must have just swept over this lot, taking a lot of the sewage downstream with it. Just one of the reasons why the water ending up in homes downstream was so foully contaminated. (This set of assumptions, on my part, was confirmed last night by a conversation with Jim Walker, who used to work as “sludge manager” for Yorkshire Water, and knows the Dowley Gap site well.)

Incidentally, crossing over to the northern side of the canal, so as to get to the towpath that would take me towards Saltaire, I spotted this mink darting under the bridge. Entirely another kind of unwanted invasive…



‘After the Flood’ event: immediate responses

I’m pleased to report that our “After the Flood” event, hosted at Kirkgate Centre yesterday afternoon (Sunday 20th March), was well attended and very thought provoking.  The detailed and sometimes difficult conversation included the sharing of some harrowing stories, and the asking — and to some extent the answering — of some tricky questions. Among those in attendance were several people who were flooded out of their homes at Christmas and have still not been able to return home. There were also representatives from various community organisations, from the recently-formed Yorkshire Volunteer Flood Support Group, from the Environment Agency, and from Bradford Council, as well as other local people who came to listen and share their perspectives. A really big thanks to everyone who attended: we hope you found it worthwhile.


I was asked to say a little about the event on BCB radio this afternoon, and I’ll be blogging about it in more detail soon, but for today I just want to share the following exchange of emails, that give a good sense of some of the key points arising from the conversation. (Please note that the following emails were all widely copied to numerous recipients, so I’m not breaking any confidences in sharing them.)

The first is from Councillor Kevin Warnes (Green Party; represents Shipley ward on Bradford Council), writing to Kersten England, the Chief Executive of Bradford Council — at 9pm last night.

I hope you are well.
I am writing to let you have some feedback from a very interesting post-floods event that I attended in Shipley this afternoon. It was a ‘community conversation’ organised by an academic and community activist, Steve Bottoms, and hosted by the ever-excellent Kirkgate Community Centre. A range of people were there, including local community groups, residents, families affected directly by the flooding, representatives from the Environment Agency, several members of the brilliant Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group (YVFSG), Cllr Joe Ashton from Baildon Parish Council, and a senior drainage council officer (Kirsty Breaks, who was very helpful in providing as much feedback as she could to the meeting, and I am grateful for her time). I am copying as many people as possible into this email as I promised them all that I would pass feedback from the meeting back to you as our Chief Exec.
I am also, by the way, keenly aware that there will be a lot of Council activity in relation to the floods that I am dimly aware of, at best, and so much of what follows may well be in hand. So my apologies in advance if I am telling you things that you already know! And, of course, I am acting purely in my capacity as a ward councillor and not in any sense as a spokesperson for the individuals and groups that participated in the event.
I have two urgent matters to alert you about that came my way via YVSFG, plus (thirdly) a request re floods cleanup, and some general feedback.
The first matter is the future of the furnishings container currently managed by YVSFG and located in the Ian Clough car park in Baildon. I understand that the 40ft container is being used to store furnishings that have been donated to help flood victims as they relocate back into their homes or to new homes, or is temporarily storing furnishings left by flood victims while they sort themselves out. The group has two problems. First, the owner of the container has asked for it to be returned. Second, I understand that the group have been asked to vacate the car parking area anyway, apparently in order to create more space for the farmers market. So, I would be very grateful if the Council could please help the group to find a suitable space to store these furnishings for the near future. They are doing fantastic work and have helped at least twenty families already and all they are asking for is some support from the Council to provide them with some space to operate from.
The second matter relates to increasing public awareness of the group’s excellent work. They would welcome support from the Council in terms of publicising their services and the help that they are able to give to families in the area who have been flooded out of their homes (for example, helping them to engage with local schools, perhaps via the Schools Forum). Anything the Council can do in this regard would be appreciated. The key contact that I have for the group is their Coordinator, Vicki Gilbert, whom I am copying into this email, and I would be very grateful if the Council could contact Vicki directly to ensure that the group gets the help they need and deserve.
I must mention in passing that Vicki went out of her way to praise the fantastic help that her group has received from Sue Smith, of Asset Management, who has helped the group in their dealings with local businesses affected by the flooding. [Sue, thank you very much]
The third matter is a plea for more council support for the volunteer cleanups that are being organised locally in Shipley. Pauline Bradley-Sharp, representing the excellent Hirst Wood Regeneration Group of residents who have done so much for the area over many years, specifically asked if the Council could provide additional support for the cleanups that are continuing on a regular basis. If she could please be contacted as a matter of urgency, I would be most grateful.
I was surprised to learn that the Environment Agency does not apparently have any Flood Wardens currently anywhere in Bradford District. My feeling is that this is an area where the Council could assist proactively, perhaps by alerting local community groups via area offices (it would seem sensible to draw on these groups in the first instance, at least). After all, we rolled out the ‘snow wardens’ several years ago after those two successive cold winters and could surely liaise with the EA to help them do likewise. This could be a big step forward, a very visible and tangible ‘win’, as one problem that was cited today was that some residents received flood warnings whereas others did not, and a network of floods wardens would be a way of ensuring better grassroots communication in times of emergency.
More generally, there was a mix of positive feedback for the Council, but also some sharp criticism. Critical contributions to the conversation voiced concern about insufficient procactivity on the part of the Council, about insufficiently clear communication and about a degree of confusion at times as to ‘who was responsible for what’ when contacting the Council. There was also a wish for greater (or more visible) high-level Council engagement with floods policy.
I am sure that there was much that the Council got right and is getting right, and of course the flooding events themselves were incredibly challenging in many ways. In my own comments, as well, I stressed that the Council’s organisational capacity has been affected by the huge cuts in central government funding since 2010.
Having said that, though, I feel that the Council would be well-advised to review how it communicates with residents and local community groups about how it is dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. I cited, for example, the inexplicable delays that I have experienced as a ward councillor in extracting timely and detailed information about the future of the Baildon Recreation Centre (for which we still have no projected re-opening date, leaving residents uncertain and frustrated about its future).
I’ll leave it here for now, Kersten, and look forward to hearing from you and/or colleagues regarding the urgent matters raised above. And I apologise again in advance for the likelihood that I am relaying information to you that you are possibly already aware of. I mention all of this not to criticise, but purely to help achieve better outcomes in future.
If you would like more detailed information about the participants beyond the email addresses that I am copying into this email, I am sure that Steve (Bottoms) would be more than happy to oblige and liaise as needed.
Very best wishes,
Cllr Kevin Warnes
Green, Shipley Ward
City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
Ms. England replied as follows, first thing this morning: 
Hi Cllr Warnes
Thanks for raising these issues which we will review and address first thing this coming week. I have copied Steve Hartley and some of his senior staff into this email – between them they have responsibility for the relevant services and can respond.
 We are conscious of the huge effort made by volunteers to support flood affected households and communities and happy to help raise the profile of such work and provide other forms of support. And I am sure we can find alternative means of enabling the group to store equipment etc.
On the wider points you raise about the lack of proactively, slow response of the council during the flooding and lack of support for community efforts
1) we have done an initial review of our actions over Xmas. Some immediate changes have been made which we hope would tackle some of those issues in the event of a recurrence.
2) we are considering introducing flood wardens and community based equipment for use in emergency. We would be happy to work with the flood group – and others to develop the proposals.
Hope this helps by way of initial response – Steve will be in touch early next week with a fuller response
Best wishes
Subsequent to this, Paul Barrett — community development manager at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre (our hosts yesterday) — followed up with observations of his own, copied to all who had received the messages above.
Hi Kersten

It was interesting to read your response and I think some of the issues raised both at the meeting and more widely since Boxing Day are very pertinent.

The most prominent concerns focus on perceived failings by statutory agencies to undertake planning to alleviate flood risks, to have effective contingency planning for emergencies, and to respond effectively to the situation as it unfolded. These criticisms may not be entirely fair or warranted, but are worth highlighting all the same. They include concerns about:

• confused, uncoordinated or non-existent communication both between agencies and between agencies and community organisations and residents
• a perceived lack of initiative and a lack of the necessary “can do” attitude required in these situations
• contradictory and inaccurate information from staff about the roles and responsibilities of different agencies, and a tendency to “pass the buck”
• issues/concerns/etc raised by residents not being passed on to other relevant departments or agencies
• not getting back to people about any actions/outcomes
• not effectively coordinating efforts to mitigate the effects of flooding
• no local contact/coordination point
• little support, acknowledgement or encouragement for local community responses, especially in terms of offering equipment or expertise and advice (this is particularly sad as much of the clean up effort has taken place on public land).
• poor responses to ‘early warning’ reports by local residents of incidents in the days and weeks leading up to the flood – in particular about the build up of debris under Baildon Bridge

Obviously people are frustrated and living with the ongoing uncertainty and stress of homelessness, financial and emotional losses, a huge cleanup task, loss of local facilities, etc, so these concerns must be accepted in that context.Given that much of the relevant local knowledge, expertise and experience lies outside of the council – with local citizens, neighbourhoods, community organisations and bodies such as the Environment Agency – and the council has such limited resources, this seems an ideal opportunity for a very inclusive co-design/co-production process.

For example, warden schemes are a popular response by statutory bodies to perceived risks, as they follow a traditional institutional role-based model. A co-designed solution might produce something better suited to and more reflective of community self-management. In Shipley’s case, we have had just three major floods since 1947, so a warden scheme might not represent the best use of people’s time or be a particularly cost effective and may prove hard to sustain during the long “dry” spells. An alternative might be more focussed on embedding better flood awareness within pre-existing and self-sustaining community groups and local citizens while building more effective relationships between them and key agencies.

Whilst we would not dream of taking credit for the amazing community response, I do believe such a community development approach proved its value during the Boxing Day floods, with local neighbourhoods instantly responding to an emergency without any prompting and with little support or coordination from statutory agencies. In anticipation of flooding, we have actively worked with local riverside communities for a number of years, initially with BMDC community development funding and more recently as a community partner in a national Connecting Communities “Hydrocitizens” project. This project – led locally by Steve Bottoms and called Multi-Story Water – focuses on building local knowledge, capacity and resilience in these neighbourhoods based around whatever priorities they currently identify as important. This ensures they have the capacity – the confidence, experience, support and networks – to respond effectively to whatever emergency, crisis or need might emerge, whether that be flooding, pollution, environmental custodianship, or anything else, when it matters most.

Crucially, Multi-Story Water has also been collaborating with agencies to see how inter-agency working and community engagement can be improved. This has focused on encouraging new forms of governance based around de-institutionalised relationships, and recognising and engaging with the expertise in communities. This benefits communities as it avoids many of the perceptions, frustrations and issues highlighted above, and benefits agencies as it draws in high value, low cost support around common purpose and harnesses the considerable expertise, capacity and willingness of communities to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.

Ironically, we’ve received feedback from within the council that some officers are pointing to the tremendous community response as evidence that community development is in fact an unnecessary waste of money as communities “do it anyway”. This displays a worrying lack of awareness about our community development work despite numerous meetings with officers, regular monitoring reports and the council funding some of this work itself!

I would like to reiterate Kevin’s total admiration of the incredible work done by so many people in the Aire Valley over the past few months. This includes really astonishing work by Hirstwood Regen, the Higher Coach Road Residents group, the Debris Removal Initiative, Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group, the Salvation Army, Friends of Bradford Beck and many others. It is very inspiring and very humbling.
Best wishes
Paul Barrett
Kirkgate Centre Development Manager
I should say that Paul articulates a lot of my own initial feelings about the meeting, especially in those closing comments. We hope to follow up in various ways with some of the people we heard from yesterday. Anyway, more on this soon.


Flood (mis)management? (some thoughts for George Osborne)

Tomorrow afternoon, from 2.30pm at Kirkgate Centre in Shipley, the Multi-Story Water project is hosting After the Flood – a community conversation event to discuss what happened in the Shipley area on and after Boxing Day… Please do come along and share your thoughts. We want to hear from as many people as possible!


Chancellor George Osborne in Leeds on Friday

Our event marks World Water Day (actually Tuesday 22nd), but it also comes just days after Chancellor George Osborne‘s budget statement — in which he announced £700 million, nationwide, for new flood defence and resilience schemes. This is to be paid for, according to this government website, by 0.5% being added to insurance tax… a cost which insurers will apparently pass on to households, and yet — it says — the average household will only be £1 worse off per year… Since there are clearly not 700 million households in the UK, I’m not quite sure how this adds up. But anyway, the point is that this money will include around £150 million for Yorkshire — to be spent mainly in York, Leeds, and the Calder Valley.

This is good news, but there’s also a sense of “too little too late”, when one considers that it was Osborne who slashed planned spending on flood defences when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, as part of his austerity drive. Moreover, according to this Yorkshire Post article – the estimated cost of necessary flood defence work in Yorkshire is currently estimated at around £180m, so there’s still a shortfall.

And of course there is no money for Bradford… Those in this area who were flooded at Christmas can feel justifiably aggrieved at this omission. But when there is not enough money to go around… or rather, when not enough money is being offered (because this government has an ideological commitment to budget surplus by 2020 — something that no serious economist thinks is even necessary!), then the available cash is always going to be targeted at areas perceived to be in the most need — and that basically means “where the most people are”. In fact DEFRA (government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has a system of cost-benefit analysis that is applied to any proposed flood defence scheme, and which calculates population numbers benefited in relation to amount of money spent. That approach will always skew things heavily towards major urban centres, and so it’s no surprise that Osborne (who, tellingly, visited Leeds the day after the budget announcement!) is promising to support “Phase 2″ and even “Phase 3″ of the planned Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme. Phase 1 has been being built since last year — affecting mainly the city centre. You can see a big crane right now down at the Royal Armouries, working on a new weir construction as part of this…


… but the irony is that “Phase 2″ (i.e. further upstream in the Kirkstall area, for instance, which was hit badly at Christmas) was always supposed to be covered by the earlier scheme anyway — the one that was scrapped in 2010.

The funding for work in Calderdale does not quite stack up in relation to the cost-benefit analyses — I’ve been told — because the population figures in places like Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd are not nearly as high/dense as in a city like Leeds. But given that Calderdale has been repeatedly hit by severe flooding in both 2012 and 2015 — causing total misery for local people and some very dramatic pictures on the national news — it’s perhaps not that surprising that a PR-conscious government would decide that something visible needs to be done.


Hebden Bridge in full flood at Christmas

Unfortunately, it would seem, Shipley figures pretty far down on the priority scale, since (a) the numbers of people living directly in the flood-risk areas is relatively low, and (b) the national media coverage has been relatively minimal (apart from that caravan spectacularly hitting the footbridge at Dockfields/Lower Holme… that got a lot of airplay!).

This means that in Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, Apperley Bridge, it is really the “lead local flood authority” — ie. Bradford Council — that needs to step up and be seen to take action. And the Cameron/Osborne government has of course massively slashed Bradford’s working budget over the last few years… greatly limiting what can be spent by the city. But now there is a row brewing about the Council’s lack of a coherent flood defence strategy. According to this T&A article, the opposition Tory group is gunning for the council’s Labour leader, and she is trying to deflect blame for the lack of planning to the council’s officers rather than its councillors. But officers take their lead from politicians, so that’s a pretty poor excuse. And certainly, from what I’ve been hearing in various different contexts lately, Bradford Council has simply not been stepping up to play its part in the flood recovery effort. (Although it must be said that a lot of individual officers and councillors are doing their very best to do a good job and facilitate local people’s efforts, despite the lack of a joined-up strategy.)

Amidst all this doom and gloom, though, I was heartened this week to be sent the link to this short film — which is centrally concerned with the work that Chris Utley — who grew up in the Dockfields area of Shipley — has been doing in his current job down in Stroud, in Gloucestershire. (You can watch either the 3-minute “taster version, here…)

(Or there’s the full, 20-minute version here:)

As the film shows, there are novel experiments happening in locations like Stroud, to diminish flood risk by slowing and spreading the flow of water in what they call “upper catchment areas” (upstream), using comparatively natural methods. This works out much more economically than building big engineering structures downstream in the towns and cities affected (though that may be necessary too). What George Osborne needs to do, perhaps, is look less for the eye-catching, cash-splashing headline, than for innovative solutions like this one — which if applied more widely could make a big difference.

Conversations this week with people at the Environment Agency and the Aire Rivers Trust have brought my attention to the fact that much work is being quietly done to try to encourage landowners in the upper catchment of the Aire valley to embrace these more “natural” flood defence schemes. Notice, though, in Chris Utley’s video, how the big landowner they’re dealing with in Stroud is the National Trust — a charitable organisation that owns massive amounts of land and tries to be pro-active with new land management initiatives. When land is owned by a much more diverse patchwork of farmers and landowners — as in the upper Aire — there is a lot more work to be done bringing lots of different people onside. Let’s hope this proves successful, as it could make a big difference for people further downstream — in Bradford and Leeds alike.

The difficulty is, of course, that landowners don’t necessarily want water being retained in their own land, rather than draining off downhill. Historically, drainage ditches have been dug in upper catchment areas precisely to make land more farmable by removing water from it. And this brings to mind, also, one further story that caught my eye this week — one involving none other than American mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump. 


Trump is currently being sued by a town in Westchester County, New York state, for illegally and intentionally (they claim) altering the drainage system on his golf course so that water would drain off it quicker. This was designed to fill up the ponds on the course, to make them more aesthetically pleasing for golders, but has had the side-effect (so the town claims) of increasing their own degree of town centre flood risk. They were hit by flooding in 2011, but are suing now… which means that either (a) it took them a while to figure it out, (b) it takes a long time to get anything done legally in the United States, or (c) someone is out to raise negative publicity about Donald Trump. Or (d) all of the above. Who knows. We can rest assured, though, that Donald Trump’s house will never flood.

Update: according to this BBC news report (25 March), the sums needed by local government to pay for the flood repair and defence work now needed are considerably higher than anything being offered by government.


“It was a beautiful day…”

We’re two months on from the post-Christmas flood, and in 3 weeks time (20th March) the Multi-Story Water team will be hosting a special event called After the Flood at Kirkgate Centre, Shipley… a community conversation to discuss what happened on Boxing Day and what has happened since in terms of the very positive public response. Official details are in the previous post to this one… But this blog reflects a little on the theme of after the flood, by presenting some images taken on the day after Boxing Day – December 27th….

IMG_4531The pictures here were all taken by Martin Spiers, who lives on Bowland Avenue – on the Higher Coach Road estate – and are shared with his permission. The shot above shows the riverside trees along that stretch, suddenly standing in the middle of a much wider river. And the shot below looks back to the row of houses where Martin lives…

IMG_4492As in the shot of the trees, the blue sky, sunshine and reflections in the now-calm water make for quite a beautiful picture. Discussions about the flood have – quite rightly, focused on the miserable conditions in the days and weeks leading up to it – but it is worth remembering, too, that on December 27th the weather was stunning. I’m reminded of a lyric in U2′s song “Beautiful Day” (with its glancing reference to the story of Noah’s Ark): “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth / After the flood, all the colours came out…”


(This shot is the reverse view to the one above, looking east towards Saltaire….)

Let’s not underestimate just how much difficulty the flood caused for some. But it is worth remembering, too, how “the colours came out” — not just literally but metaphorically, as local people showed their best colours, and voluntary flood support groups spontaneously organised themselves through social media, both in Shipley/Baildon and just upstream in Bingley…


This was the view downstream in Saltaire, looking out over the Roberts Park cricket pitch. Rather wonderfully, there was even a strategically placed sign, stating the obvious… But I choose to read this is as further evidence of that general urge people had to help and inform each other…


Below is another, oddly romantic view across the cricket pitch, this time taken from the other side of the river, looking over towards Half Moon Cafe (which the day before had been several feet under).




Further along on the south side of the river, heading back west, the Salts Sports cricket pitch was also still under water on December 27th…


… But notice the debris that had collected on the railings to the right of the picture above… Martin also snapped the fantastic picture below, of one particular railing where the an almost human figure seems to have been created by the flood. Let’s call it Denis… (the Water-man)

IMG_4543Maybe the flood has made us all water-people. If you believe the scientific predictions for climate change, this kind of thing is going to happen more frequently in future. The question is how we respond… And in many ways the public response since the flood has been amazing — in the way people have volunteered not just to help the people worst affected by the flooding, but to pitched in with clean-ups of the debris left by the water. Can this kind of energy and enthusiasm be sustained in positive ways into the future?

“It was a beautiful day… Don’t let it get away…”