Shipley’s weirs – a technical view

march 2012 019Yesterday I was back down at Shipley weir, immediately downstream of Baildon Bridge, to show around a colleague of mine at Manchester University, Andrea Bottacin Busolin. Andrea (male, pronounced the Italian way, because he’s Italian) is a civil engineer who very kindly took some time out to analyse some flow data for the River Aire (which was, in turn, kindly supplied by the Environment Agency). This investigation was in response to a question raised by Phillip Moncaster, of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club (just upstream of the bridge). Put simply, if this weir was taken out of the river, might this reduce flood risk to the club and other local homes and businesses? Phillip’s hypothesis (discussed in more detail in this previous blog post) was that taking the weir out might lower the flow level of the water going under Baildon Bridge — meaning that in high water conditions the bridge would not so quickly turn into a concrete dam across the river…

This always seemed a reasonable hypothesis, but we needed to look at what the technical evidence for it might or might not be. And in practice, it seems, the data does not support the hypothesis. The bridge is a problem, yes, but taking the weir out won’t really help. Here’s why…

First: If you click on this link, it should open up a summary graph of the technical data. Don’t ask me to explain what it all means, because I’m not an engineer, but basically this is a representation of the downhill flow of the River Aire – moving from left to right across the page. The section analysed here starts somewhere near Crossflatts, and stops somewhere downstream of Woodhouse Bridge. It shows “river bed elevation” (that is, the level of the river bed) in relation to the “water surface profile” (the level of the water in different flow conditions).

Now, you can clearly see where Andrea has marked Shipley weir (aka Baildon weir) on the summary graph. It shows up as a small spike in the downhill flow. And if you look just to the left of that marker, you see two other spikes… Together, these three little spikes, roughly in the middle of the graph, represent the three weirs in the Shipley area — Hirst weir, Saltaire weir, and then Shipley weir. Now, watch what happens to those three spikes in this animation of the flow data as the water gets higher and then lower again…

(OK, yes, I added a little free music to it via YouTube, to try and make it a bit more exciting.)

As you can see, as the water level gets higher, the weir spikes gradually cease to affect the surface level of the water. The water gets so high that the weirs basically disappear from view. And this happens fastest with Shipley weir — so fast, in fact, that the weir quite quickly ceases to make much difference to the flow level. Saltaire weir takes a bit longer to disappear below the waves — and interestingly it seems that Hirst weir continues to make a bit of a difference even in very high flows. This explains the roiling wave effect that eye-witnesses saw at Hirst weir during the height of the flooding.

Now, based on this same data, Andrea was also able to provide a hypothetical animation of what would happen to the flow if you were to take out Shipley weir. He simply removes that third spike from the graph, and then animates the same flow data. This is what you get (again with dubious musical accompaniment…): 
As you can see, the pattern is almost identical to that in the first animation… demonstrating that in practical terms, the presence of Shipley weir makes almost no difference at all to the behaviour of the river during high flows and flood conditions. It’s really only in low flows that the weir makes a marked difference to the river’s upstream and downstream levels.

Now, Andrea was the first to acknowledge that the accuracy of this judgement is dependent on the accuracy of the data that he was given. And the Environment Agency is in the process of updating its survey analysis of the Aire as we speak. But there’s no particular reason to doubt his broad conclusions. I invited him down to Shipley yesterday simply so that he could see the weir itself, in situ (rather than as an abstract set of data) and so that he could meet Phillip. We had a good chat, which concluded aptly with Phillip’s wry observation that: “I guess we need to think of something else then.”

From Shipley weir, Andrea and I walked upstream to Saltaire weir, and he was intrigued to notice the amount of “lateral vegetation” along the river banks — by which he means the trees and shrubs that grow right out into the river. This factor, he noted, will provide some resistance to the water flow which is difficult to represent in the simple graphs. It will be interesting to see if the EA’s new data set starts to take this kind of close-up detail into account, although – again – it probably won’t affect the broad conclusions about the weir.

Probably the more significant finding from Andrea’s analysis is just how much of a role Hirst weir continues to play in relative flow levels, even in high water. This is relevant to the continuing debate about whether the Rowing Club’s repair of that weir has adequately addressed the downstream flood risk issues associated with it.


Just for the record, here is Andrea’s slightly more technical summary of what his analysis shows:

“The graph summarises the results from the simulation of a 10 year flood under two different scenarios, with and without weir. I have also included a plot of the upstream flow hydrograph (discharge versus time) representing the boundary condition at the upstream section. You can see that the water surface elevation just upstream of the weir is different for the base flow at the beginning of the simulation, but the difference disappears as the flow discharge increases. The maximum water surface level for the simulated flood event is virtually the same for both scenarios. This means that the weir has no significant effect on the water level during high flows. However, the local flow contraction induced by the weir produces higher flow velocities just above the weir and higher turbulence intensity downstream of it, thereby increasing the risk of local erosion. This may not represent a significantly higher threat if the river bed and banks are sufficiently stable.”

Balsam-bashing, art-making, football-playing HCRRG!

Tis the season to be bashing. Or so I’m told. To be specific, that’s bashing Himalayan balsam – the invasive plant species that spreads like wildfire along riverbanks and tends to grow high and smother other vegetation as it goes… As this helpful guide from the Canal and River Trust explains, you have to do what you can to root it out annually, before the plant’s seed pods develop and further spread themselves along our waterways.


Here’s one bit of balsam, with those pretty purple flowers, located right on the banks of the Aire along the ‘Higher Coach Road’ stretch west of Saltaire. (That’s the Graincliffe aqueduct, carrying Shipley’s water supply across, er, water, in the background.) This particular piece of balsam is no longer in situ, because I pulled it up myself — working alongside Ruth Bartlett of HCRRG (Higher Coach Road Residents Group) one night last week. Ruth had taken it upon herself to organise and advertise nightly balsam- bashing sessions (just one of a number of community initiatives she has been involved with getting started), and every evening from 8 she was joined by different assortments of friends and community members to work along this stretch of the river.

There’s something peculiarly satisfying about pulling up balsam. And actually pulling it up, rather than ‘bashing’, slashing, or strimming is really the best way to deal with it when it is mixed in among native plant species — as it certainly is along the Aire. At this point in the year it has grown to the point where the balsam’s stalks are easily identifiable and very graspable – resembling some sort of cross between rhubarb and celery — so you just grab it as close to the roots as you can and yank it out of the ground (while trying not to get stung by nearby nettles or spiked by thorns). It comes up really easily, although as Ruth pointed out, that’s partly because the roots have already partially disintegrated the soil they’re growing in (another reason why this is really bad to have along riverbanks, because it contributes to erosion). And then you just leave the stuff to rot down, safely neutralised…


Ruth’s balsam bashing initiative is just one of the recent activities undertaken along the riverbank and flood plain by HCRRG. Though still quite a new group (which, I’m proud to say, the Multi-Story Water project had a hand in getting going), they’re learning fast. Actually this balsam bashing has been a good example of ‘learning’. Ruth initially advertised on Facebook for volunteers to help clear both the balsam and some of the nettles by the riverbank — her thinking being that clearing some nettles would help us get closer to the balsam! But she immediately got a number of replies urging that the nettles be left alone, both for ecological reasons (they’re really an important part of the native riverbank ecosystem) and for community safety reasons — i.e. they help to keep local children away from the riverbank when they’re playing unsupervised (since the bank is slippy and steep in places, and prone to erosion – as noted above). Ruth duly amended her posts.

IMG_1248The wider flood plain area along the HCR estate continues to be a point of discussion and some contention this summer, with the Council mowers again refraining from cutting the grass on a regular basis. The evolving controversy between those residents who wanted a closely-cropped lawn and those who liked the wildlife opportunities created by the longer grass (e.g. watching birds dive-bombing for insects) was the subject of a number of posts on this blog last year — and the focus of our community-focused ‘Meadow Meander’ event. This year, as you can see from the image above, the grass hasn’t grown nearly as high as last year — another consequence of the flooding at Christmas and the fact that the ground remained completely waterlogged until well into the spring. But as a result of the discussions last year, HCRRG was able to establish a direct line of communication with the local parks manager who is responsible for the mowing on this stretch (John Dembycki [sp.?], based up at Northcliffe Park). And one consequence of this is that the estate now has its own football field!

IMG_1246This shot is looking back towards Roberts Park and Saltaire (see mill and church in background). Older residents recall that this relatively flat end of the field was used for local football matches in years gone by, but the ground had long since become too bumpy and boggy for that. But this year the mowers have made a point of cutting the grass at regular intervals on this patch, so that the ground was flattened and prepared for the installation of the goalposts that went in just a couple of weeks ago, along with the chalk perimeter lines. Local kids are, needless to say, already making good use of the pitch. This area of the field is immediately downhill of the area where children often tend to gather anyway, so it’s worked really well.

And so too has the recent introduction of weekly art-making workshops for the children, run by Spongetree’s Nicola Murray — pictured below with the enthusiastic Oliver…


Nicola lives down Green Lane, within walking distance of the estate, so it’s been simple for her to get along on a Wednesday afternoon in the after-school hours to work with kids on various arts and crafts activities — including here making fish sculptures from willow sticks and ribbon (all very appropriate to the riverside environment). Involving Spongetree in this way was again an initiative of HCRRG — with local kids often literally asking Ruth and others for “stuff to do” — and Multi-Story Water has been involved in supporting this activity too. We initially asked parents to sign their kids up to an organised series of workshops, but this seems to have been off-puttingly formal for most, so we abandoned that approach and decided to pursue the idea more organically… with Nicola simply rocking up each week and involving whichever children turned up in the activities on offer (and yes, she is thoroughly DBS-checked). That approach has proved popular, with numbers of kids in attendance growing steadily over the first few weeks. We’re planning to continue this part-way into the summer holidays, and see what the kids can create. They are also starting to articulate their own requests for things to do — den-making is the next big thing for them, it seems, although that might require a little more in the way of resources. Let’s see what evolves…


Looking for common ground

Last week I was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club for an intriguing meeting between two very different men. Here they are below – on the left, the club’s secretary Phillip Moncaster, and on the right, Jonathan Moxon, a senior flood risk manager at the Environment Agency. They seemed to get on pretty well.


I’ve got to know both these men quite well over the last couple of years, but they had never met each other before this meeting. So you can imagine how weird it was when I saw them juxtaposed on television in January, in BBC’s Yorkshire’s Inside Out documentary about the Boxing Day flooding, with Jonathan saying that he was “disappointed” to hear how frustrated Phillip was with the Environment Agency…

Actually, describing Phillip as being “frustrated” by the EA would be the understatement of the year. His anger with them began back in November and December, before the floods even hit, for reasons documented on this previous blog post. Then come December 26th, both the Woodbottom club and Phillip’s own house were six feet underwater (he lives just upstream on Aire Close, right next to the river). He received a phone call from the EA flood service at around midnight on Christmas Day, advising him that the river was swollen but that it was thought to have peaked. It was on this basis that he decided further action was unnecessary that night — and yet the next morning he had to wade out of his house because the river had come up hugely overnight and was still rising…

From Phillip’s point of view, insult was then added to injury when some people from the EA finally showed up during the days after the flood, and wanted to ask him questions about what had happened, rather than offering any assistance with cleaning up the sewage-covered mess that the house and club had been reduced to. That conversation turned into the EA people having strips torn off them by Phillip, with some pretty colourful language being used (another understatement). Since then, he has made his views pretty vocally heard on TV — not just in the clip pasted in above, but on a couple of other programmes too, including Look North. 

So what was the point of Jonathan coming down to meet Phillip? I must admit that I did worry, in advance, that it might turn into another uneasy confrontation – because god knows he has plenty to feel aggrieved about. (The club is only just properly back on its feet — although they reopened with a makeshift bar by the end of January, it took until last month to complete the replastering and refurbishing.) But my sense was that Phillip and Jonathan would get on OK if they sat down and talked it through — because communication is the only way to improve things, right?

Jonathan acknowledged that Phillip had had plenty of cause to be stressed and angry after Christmas. He pointed out, though, that the reality for the EA was that they simply didn’t have the staff or resources to cope with the demands placed on them right across the North of England following the Boxing Day deluge (and it doesn’t help that they suffered major staff cuts during the post-2010 government austerity drive). So the two people that had visited Phillip weren’t even from the Yorkshire area – they were simply colleagues who’d come up from down South to try to help the over-stretched Leeds office. They didn’t have the resources or kit to do anything more than gather information and try to see what help people needed.

As for the poor information that Phillip had been given on the telephone on Christmas night, Jonathan was clear that he shouldn’t have been told what he was told about the river having peaked. Yet the reality is that people under pressure in rapidly changing circumstances will sometimes make errors of judgement when trying to interpret the information they’re receiving. And again, limited resources are part of the problem here — insofar that the Agency can’t always get all the information that would be useful to make the best judgements, because they can’t be everywhere at once.

It was at some point in the middle of this conversation that Jonathan mentioned that a particular problem the EA faces in Bradford is that they have no volunteer Flood Wardens (whereas they have plenty, for example, in the Calder valley). Flood Wardens are just members of the community who volunteer to keep an eye out on what the river is doing, and report concerns directly to EA officers so that they have the most detailed information possible. I decided to jump right in and ask directly whether Jonathan was saying, “would Phillip be willing to act as a Flood warden?” And given Phillip’s widely broadcast grievances with the EA, my expectation was that he would laugh this idea off – as if he was simply being asked to work for free, or something.

But much to my surprise, before Jonathan even had a chance to answer my question, Phillip had answered it for me. Yes, he said, he would be happy to do that — because he does it anyway. By which he meant that, for years, he has been on the phone to the EA, to Bradford Council, and whoever else he could get hold of, trying to report his concerns with the river — and for years he’s been getting the runaround from call centre operators, passed from pillar to post. So when Jonathan explained that Flood wardens get to use a different phone number, which gets them direct access to flood risk officers and a proper, two-way conversation about what’s going on — well, that’s exactly what Phillip has wanted — to be able to talk to someone who is actually listening and can say more than just “let me take down your number.” (I mean, when Jonathan put it like that, my thought was, why would you not want to have that access, and that kind of response, if you care about the river? As Phillip so obviously does. … The irony is, I guess, that the EA doesn’t have enough resources to properly advertise the Flood warden scheme…?)


After we’d spoken for about an hour in the club, Phillip took us outside and across the river — across Baildon Bridge — to get a better look at the key problem. The club is directly upstream of the bridge. And in flood conditions, the bridge turns into a dam — backing the water up and sending it all the way out across the cricket pitch towards Green Lane. This is partly because of that thick, low, concrete-sided wall, and partly because even the space underneath the bridge can get dammed up very quickly with dead trees and other debris being swept downstream. Phillip pointed out one submerged tree, under the bridge, that has literally been there for months.

On the other side of Baildon Bridge, this is the view downstream towards Shipley weir…



Phillip has long felt that, if the weir could be taken out, this might reduce the height of the water going under the bridge, and mean that it doesn’t get dammed up so quickly — thereby potentially reducing flood risk. His concerns on this point were first documented quite a while ago on this blog. Since it seemed a reasonable argument, I have — for quite a while now — been trying to find out if there is any scientific validity for Phillip’s theory, and in fact it was Jonathan who kindly arranged last year for the EA’s flow data for this stretch of the Aire to be released to the University of Manchester (where I work) for analysis. Just a month or two ago, a civil engineer colleague finally found the time to look at this data for me. The conclusion he came to was that, while the weir does appear to make a difference to the levels of the river in low flow conditions, in high flow the weir makes very little difference to the water level because it basically disappears under the deluge. So this initial assessment appeared disappointing, from Phillip’s point of view.

But… (and here’s the intriguing part) … Jonathan himself is not all that persuaded by this engineering analysis. And the reason is not because he thinks my colleague at Manchester got anything wrong, but simply that the data the EA was able to provide to him in the first place may not have been as detailed or up-to-date as it could be. And crucially, the modelling won’t have accounted sufficiently for effects on the bridge… To Jonathan, the real issue here is what happens to the bridge in high water, more than what happens to the weir. What if, he asks, there turns out to be a case for the bridge itself to be raised or replaced? I should stress that this was purely speculative on Jonathan’s part, but the point he was making is that we might need to look seriously at all the possible options — even the ones that at first glance seem wildly ambitious and expensive — if we’re going to think seriously about future-proofing.

And here’s the twist. The Boxing Day flooding, while devastating for many including Phillip, has also created a new sense of urgency in government circles, and thus a willingness to look at new options. Jonathan’s approach is to try to use that “fair wind” to push for better data and better answers … and so just a few weeks ago, for example, he was able to order an up-to-date survey of river conditions in the Shipley area. And he was able to do this using a small slice of the government funding allocated to the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme — on the grounds that, since Bradford is upstream of Leeds, anything that can be usefully done to better control high water upstream could have valuable knock-on benefits downstream.

From Jonathan’s point of view, the active concern shown by citizens like Phillip is exactly the kind of involvement that should be being better utilised and responded to by the EA and other responsible agencies. In the immortal words of the just-fired Chancellor George Osborne, “we’re all in this together” — and so it’s the job of agencies to listen to and work with communities, to find solutions that work for all of us, rather than just imposing “expert” solutions without consultation.

A case in point? Take another look at that picture above… Actually I’ll paste it in again…


See that new breezeblock wall that’s been built onto the old stone wall on the right here? It’s not a thing of beauty, and Phillip was skeptical about whether the site owner had permission to build it — he knew there had been some exchanges of letters about it. Jonathan’s attitude, though, was intriguing. The EA has some concerns about this new bit of wall, he told us, and would not normally sign off on something like this without further investigation (which may yet happen… does raising the wall level here negatively impact on flood risk downstream, for instance?). Yet in the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods, there is also an awareness that people want to take fresh precautions against future risk, and that the EA shouldn’t simply be in the business of frustrating people from trying to protect their businesses or homes. So there needs to be a degree of leeway with the regulations, and perhaps a degree of improvisational “make it up as we go” when dealing with individual cases of concerned citizens wanting to take action. Because that is going to be the only way to build trust and understanding, as opposed to tying people up in infuriating amounts of red tape.

I must admit, I left that meeting feeling quietly inspired. Here were two men, Phillip and Jonathan, who had every reason to be wary of each other, every reason to keep  their defences up. Yet after a “full and frank discussion” (as the politicians say), there really did seem to be a sense of goodwill on both sides and a concern to keep in touch and keep each other informed. With so much sound and fury and mistrust going on in wider political life at the moment, it was refreshing to be part of a discussion that seemed constructive and tentatively optimistic.

A huge thankyou to both Phillip and Jonathan for taking the time out of their busy days to meet up.

The Bradford Underground…?

Yesterday I was with some of the Friends of Bradford’s Becks, representing the Beck in the city centre as part of the, er, Ilkley Literature Festival’s contribution to this weekend’s Bradford Festival. Thanks to Geoff Roberts for this group photo of the contributors…


This was a poetry event, presented in Waterstone’s (in Bradford’s historic Wool Exchange), and hosted by FoBB chairman Barney Lerner (second on left). This year FoBB has published a book of poems about Bradford Beck, by a range of local poets, and has even recorded a CD of many of them being read. It’s all part of an ongoing attempt to raise awareness of the Beck, to speak of it in language even when it can’t be seen with the eyes…


It should be noted, though, that Eddie Lawler and I were cheating slightly, by (1) presenting song and narrative rather than poetry as such… (though nobody seemed to mind!), and (2) by offering “The Ballad of Little Beck” rather than a meditation on Bradford Beck itself. Eddie’s song written was for Salt’s Waters (a double act we have twice presented at Saltaire Festival), and features my narrative interjections about the ruined Milner Field House. (Soon to be part of a new downloadable audio tour available at

Still, in an effort to direct our attentions back to the city’s main watercourse, Eddie and I headed outside following the poetry presentation (as heard by a small but appreciative audience). We set out to hunt down the trail of plaques that have recently been installed by FoBB to trace the underground route of Bradford Beck through city centre. This one below, located on Bank Street, is typical: it bears the FoBB logo and the name of a supporting sponsor (Feature Radiators) in opposite corners, with a striking visual in the centre. Each plaque has a slightly different choice of wording – this one speaks of the beck “whispering in the dark … waiting for a rebirth” — perhaps a return to daylight; a “resurrection from this rat-ridden cave”, as Eddie’s song Bradford Beck so memorably puts it…


The map below tracks the 15 plaque positions — and Eddie, his wife Olga and I tracked them backwards from number 15 (near the end of Canal Road) towards the first one by the Odeon cinema — which is built directly over the top of the Beck. We discovered, however, that only plaques 8 through 15 have so far been installed. We hunted high and low for the others, but they’re not in place yet.


Hopefully the others will be in place by September, when FoBB is planning a number of activities for World Rivers Day. Among them will be guided tours of the plaques route — and Eddie and I were scouting them out with a view to planning such a tour.


As this picture shows, the plaques can be unobtrusive — barely noticeable even, unless you’re looking for them — but that is part of their charm I think. They’re subtle reminders of the presence of something that is literally invisible… buried 2 or 3 metres beneath our feet. A tour will, I think, have to play with that question of the visible or invisible, absent or present… We will also be hoping, frankly, for better weather in September than we’ve had this weekend. Water is a wonderful thing, but when it’s drizzling out of the sky, it doesn’t half put a dampener on “festival” spirits…



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.

Director Simon Brewis has written this great blog post about the process of working on this new piece. Check it out.

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.