Celebrating Dockfields…

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The Dockfields area is at the cross-roads of Shipley’s history …

It’s here that docks, factories and homes sprang up around the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool and Bradford canals

here that an ancient right of way across the River Aire (now Dock Lane footbridge) has long provided access between Shipley and Baildon…

and here that people have lived, worked and played, with industry all around, for generations…

The Multi-Story Water arts project, working with Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre, is planning a festive celebration of Dockfields – of its communities, its history, and its future – for 2017.

This includes Amber Wharf, across the canal, and Lower Holme, across the river, as well as Dockfield Road, Dockfield Terrace, etc…

But what kind of event should this be?

We’d love to collect your ideas, and your memories of the area…

… and we’d love your involvement in making something happen!

To get the conversation going, we’re making a short play about the area, for performance in your very own living room! (it’s just two actors…)

If you’d like the play to visit you (in Jan or Feb), just let us know!

Please conact Lyze for more info on 07713 357706

Or: lyze@kirkgatecentre.org.uk

Canal Child

The recent celebrations for the bicentenary of the opening of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal were marked by all sorts of activities up and down the canal’s 126 mile length. Pasted in below is a charming document of one of these initiatives — a musical collaboration between “the bard of Saltaire” Eddie Lawler (also a good friend of, and collaborator with, the Multi-Water Story project) and the children of Saltaire Primary School. The film speaks for itself really, so I need say no more… Enjoy!

The Trouble with Baildon Bridge (views from downstream…)

So this blog is in two parts. The first is a close-up, the second takes a wider angle, but hopefully it connects up. Bear with me as I tell the story, because it has a few twists and turns…  And to begin with, there’s also a

Prologue

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This is Councillor Judith Blake, the current leader of Leeds City Council. This week she said something very interesting indeed, from a Shipley point of view. Councillor Blake was speaking at a special networking event about future flood planning and resilience in the Aire valley, hosted this week at Open Source Arts – an unassuming enterprise unit on Kirkstall Road in Leeds. Open Source was itself flooded at Christmas, but thanks to the tireless efforts of leaseholder Phil Marken, it also became a focal point for the community relief effort and, later, volunteer river clean-up activities. It was thus a rather symbolic (as well as practical) venue for the networking meeting – which was attended by (among others) the key flood risk and drainage officers for both Leeds and Bradford. The goal is greater future co-operation along the Aire Valley catchment… But more of that in a minute. First let me jump us back to Bradford and introduce somebody else…

Part One: Northway

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This is Brian Tuxford. He runs Northway Vehicle Sales Ltd., the van hire place on Otley Road, right next to Shipley’s Baildon Bridge. I met Brian the other week, following an introduction via our mutual friend Stewart Gledhill, and he toured me round the Northway compound and gave me the lowdown on just how badly impacted the company was by last December’s flooding. Northway lost no less than 37 vehicles to the flood water – cars and vans – one of them swept as far downstream as Denso Marston’s nature reserve, at Charlestown. Even those vehicles that Brian and his colleagues managed to save in time — by parking them around the corner up Dockfield Road — were stripped of exterior fittings that night by light-fingered visitors, who took advantage of the absence of the usual CCTV cover. Insult to injury.

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The bottom yard at Northway Vehicle Sales, just downhill from Otley Road

There was also the small matter of Northway’s workshop/garage (pictured above) having a massive hole driven straight through it by the force of the flood water — the end panels blown off. The whole thing has had to be taken down, repaired and re-erected.

Boxing Day flood was a bit of a “perfect storm” from Brian’s point of view. Normally, 80 to 90 percent of Northway’s fleet is out on hire at any given time, but over the Christmas period they’re called back to home base. So they were sitting right in harm’s way. On a normal working day, moreover, Brian would be at work at 7am, and would have been in exactly the right place to see the danger to his fleet and take swift action… Instead, he was staying over for Christmas in Huddersfield and only realised what was happening, by around 9am when the water hit, from the CCTV link on his phone. (In her talk, Councillor Blake spoke of how lucky Leeds was that the flood came at Christmas — with the city centre workforce not present, not travelling in or out… But Brian’s story is the opposite.)

The dark line across the lower part of the roofing here, well above head height, is the high watermark from the Boxing Day flood...

The dark line across the lower part of the roofing of Northway’s workshop, well above head height, is the high watermark from the Boxing Day flood…

In the aftermath of the flood, Brian had to lay off Northway’s mechanic, who had no work because there were almost no vehicles left to service. And of course Brian couldn’t pay him, either, because there was no income from hires. It took six months for a new fleet of vehicles to be delivered (after the insurance claims, and the long lead time for ordering new high-end vehicles). In the mean-time, the loss of operating revenue pushed the company to the limit — Brian and his partner nearly had to close up. And they know they’re taking a big risk reopening, because if another flood happens, there’s nothing to stop the whole scenario repeating itself…

Media coverage of flood victims typically tends to focus on people whose homes have been hit. This is understandable, given that we can all identify with the horror of having our personal sanctuaries being swamped by filthy water. We hear a lot less about the impact of flooding on small businesses like Brian’s, and the assumption can often be, well, business is business, right? They’ll claim on the insurance and get on with it. It’s not as bad as having your home invaded. And yet, as Brian grimly observes, his entire livelihood is tied up with this business. Fifteen years of hard slog, building it up from scratch on this site by the river. And much as he might want to move the business, since the flood, he can’t readily relocate to another site. The Baildon Bridge location is key, both because of the region-specific terms of his franchise agreement, and because many of his core customers need Northway exactly where it is (Saltaire Brewery, for example, just up Dockfield Road). And yet, Brian acknowledges, if they get hit by another flood, that’ll be it. Game over.

This year, post-flood, Northway’s insurance premiums have literally doubled. That too is putting the future of the business in serious jeopardy.

Now, you might be wondering what all this has to do with the Leeds flood planning meeting I mentioned in my “prologue”. Well, Brian’s business is specifically threatened by the way that flood water hits his riverside location. As he observes, on Boxing Day the river channel itself never threatened the van hire site. The water that was coming under Baildon Bridge flowed right on past. No, the water that hit Northway was water that had re-routed itself around the bridge…. In high water conditions, the low-lying bridge structure becomes something of a dam, and the river instead heads right out across Woodbottom cricket pitch as far as Green Lane, and then surges across the industrial/retail area east of the bridge, on its way back to the main channel. This happened not just last December but also in 2000 and in 1947. And Northway is right smack bang in the path of the water. The space between the buildings, Brian notes, became like a kind of surging plughole…

All of this raises the question… could floodwater, in future, somehow be persuaded to stay in its channel? If something could be done to re-engineer the bridge, maybe, so it’s less of an obstruction…? And if some walls could be constructed upstream to protect the Woodbottom area…? Might the river just surge right on by instead of going all over everywhere? Possibly. In which case, Brian’s livelihood would be safe. Or at least, safer.

But… there are some issues here. One is, obviously, the cost of such a defence scheme. Given the relatively small number of homes and businesses that are directly in harm’s way in this area, it’s unlikely that a “cost-benefit analysis” by government would find the spend worthwhile. (And who are any of us to argue with that, if we don’t want our taxes to go up to pay for equally worthy flood schemes on this sort of scale all over the country…?) But the other key point here, which I hadn’t fully appreciated until the Leeds meeting this week, is that – strictly from a Leeds point of view – it would be just fine if Bradford has quite poor flood defences. If water ends up sitting around on the Baildon flood plain for days, during a flood incident, well that’s just fine from a Leeds point of view. Leeds doesn’t really need high water flowing straight on through Bradford, staying in the Aire’s main channel, because then — well — it all ends up in Leeds…

Part 2: Scheming for Alleviation 

This was all brought home to me as I stood chatting, during the lunch break, to Andy Judson – who is the project director for BAM Nuttall Ltd on the current, £46m Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS). The FAS has involved building a bunch of new flood walls in Leeds city centre over the last year or so, and BAM are now in the process of constructing high-tech collapsible weirs at Crown Point and Knostrop. Mr. Judson is a very approachable, very interesting man, who is – understandably – hoping that BAM Nuttall will get another big slice of contract work on “FAS2”, the mooted second stage of the Leeds scheme for which the government offered around £60m in the wake of the Boxing Day devastation. This scheme is intended to do something to better defend Aire valley areas of Leeds like Kirkstall, which was badly hit at Christmas, but for which nothing was provided in FAS1 (which is very much focused on the city centre).

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Mr. Judson and I found ourselves standing in front of this big poster about Bradford’s current flood risk planning. In the top right hand corner (see below) there’s an aerial shot of the flooding around Baildon Bridge at Christmas…. which is how we came to end up talking about it. Andy pointed out what I’ve just said about how flooding in this area, and many others upstream of Leeds, might be viewed “from a Leeds point of view”…

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Now, Mr. Judson’s job is to undertake the contracting work that is handed to him by major clients such as Leeds City Council and the Environment Agency. On a day to day basis, it’s not his responsibility to worry about Bradford. But this is why the networking event this week was so important. Because to give them their credit, LCC and the EA have decided to try to approach FAS2 differently to FAS1. The initial scheme has been dominated by the technical and engineering interests: a scheme was devised and proposed (by the engineering company Arup), funded (via the council, the EA, and central government), contracted out (to BAM and others) – but all in such a way that very few non-technical folk had anything much to say about it. A problem is identified (flood risk in Leeds city centre), a practical solution is proposed (build new walls, devise new weirs), and the construction juggernaut rolls into gear…

Yet the very fact of FAS2 being given a wider brief — to think “beyond” the city centre — has prompted some important reflections on exactly what the problem is that needs to be fixed by the new scheme. How far upstream – or indeed downstream – do we want to try to flood-defend? Putting the problem really crudely… Phil Marken’s Open Source Arts space on Kirkstall Road perhaps deserves better protection, but so too does Brian Tuxford’s van hire place — which is threatened by the exact same river. Viewed on a river catchment basis, the arbitrary distinctions between what is Leeds and what is Bradford are largely irrelevant – because the River Aire has no respect for political boundaries. In planning for FAS2, then, a “catchment-wide approach” is being adopted — and this includes an innovative attempt to involve as many relevant partners as possible, in order to better answer the flood defence questions (or even to establish what the questions are that need answering).

Andy Judson (BAM), Una McMahon (Environment Agency), Tony Poole (Bradford Council), and an unidentified fourth person, hard at work in a discussion group at Open Source Arts

Andy Judson (BAM), Una McMahon (Environment Agency), Tony Poole (Bradford Council), and an unidentified fourth person, hard at work in a discussion group at Open Source Arts

The workshop at Open Source Arts thus included representatives not only from the EA, the LCC, Arup, BAM, etc., but also senior planners from Bradford Council, and indeed counterparts from as far upstream as Craven (the district that includes Skipton and Malham). But the workshop also included community activists like Phil Marken and Vicki Gilbert (until lately of Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group), as well as representatives from voluntary watchdogs like Aire Rivers Trust, social enterprises like Canal Connections, and even university researchers like me. Don’t ask me how the full list of invitees was arrived at – no doubt some significant people were inadvertently left out, as is the way with these things. But the point is that there was a genuine effort here to get people out of their regular boxes and comfort zones — and talking to other people with other perspectives and approaches to the flood problem. Andy Judson and I started speculating, for example, about how a natural flood storage scheme somewhere upstream of both Leeds and Bradford might provide the relief that both cities need… Exactly where or how that might happen is of course anybody’s guess (we were just talking…) but the point is that – just by having all these people in the same room – the debate had already moved well beyond the boundaries of Leeds itself. We can reasonably hope that there is going to be some serious partnership thinking going on in the coming months, which might – just might – benefit Brian Tuxford as well as Phil Marken. And, of course, many others like them.

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The loft level at Open Source Arts — including aerial harness and “Resilience” working group…

And this brings me back to Councillor Blake. Because at the heart of her opening pep talk to those assembled at Open Source (alongside her own personal, heartfelt reflections on the devastation of the city last Christmas) was the suggestion that community involvement has to be fundamental to the development of FAS2 and any associated initiatives. That was her word. Fundamental. This was a gauntlet, of sorts, thrown down for those present. Because flood risk managers, civil engineers and building contractors are not necessarily the kind of people best equipped or most inclined to engage with or listen to communities. But Councillor Blake was saying it unambiguously: other people need to be consulted. That’s the people of Leeds, yes, but also the people of Bradford, of Skipton, you name it… That’s the only way we’re going to arrive at the best possible solution for the greatest number.

And maybe, in the process, we’ll end up not just with more concrete walls, but better, safer, happier, greener places to live in…?

“You may say I’m a dreamer… But I’m not the only one.”

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There’s Yorkshire Life in Salt’s Waters…

It’s almost the end of October, so this is a bit slow off the mark, but I’m belatedly proud to say that the Multi-Story Water project was featured in a two-page colour spread in this month’s edition of Yorkshire Life magazine.

IMG_1993There’s a nice overview of the project here, but the piece is specifically supposed to be flagging the launch of our downloadable audio guide, Salt’s Waters, which you can find in various digital formats at this web address. You can pick up a printed leaflet with map from Salts Mill (second floor, leaflet stand by window), from Saltaire Visitor Information Centre, or from Kirkgate Centre in Shipley (or you can print your own off via the website). Frankly we haven’t done enough of a job of advertising this sound project on this blog — but Yorkshire Life can explain a little more for you…Larger versions of the text on these pages are pasted in below.

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Salt’s Waters is intended as an alternative heritage guide to the Saltaire area — which gets visitors out beyond the immediate confines of the mill village, and exploring the area to the Northwest via river, canal, tributary becks and numerous other water features. The circular tour takes you from the bottom of Victoria Road, up to the ruins of Titus Salt Junior’s ill-fated Milner Field mansion, and back to Saltaire via Dowley Gap. Along the way there’s narration, voices from the archive, sound effects, and original music by Eddie Lawler — including “The Ballad of Little Beck”, written especially for this Salt’s Waters (Little Beck is the stream dammed as a boating lake at Milner Field).

The guide is also intended to tell some of the less well-known “heritage” stories of the area. For example, on Track 4, as walkers head west from Roberts Park through the Higher Coach Road estate, the story turns to the building of the estate in the 1950s — showing how significant this area too is, in its own right, and how connected it is to the Saltaire story. This is a connection Multi-Story Water first explored in our “Green Route” performance tour back in 2012, so it’s nice to get it on the “permanent record”, so to speak…

You can of course choose to listen to the audio simply as a podcast, without doing the walk, but Salt’s Waters is very much designed to be experienced in situ — with your eyes providing the “live movie” to accompany the soundtrack… Do give it a try some autumn weekend, and let us know what you make of it… Thanks!

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There’s also a side-bar that they’ve added about our short film Wading to Shipley, which has been available online for 3 years now (see under the “Films” tab above), but which the writer for Yorkshire Life seems to have taken a shine to…

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Rain on the Parade: Canal Bicentenary

Yesterday, Sunday 16th October, the Shipley area had a big occasion — the Bicentenary celebrations for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The canal was finally completed through to Liverpool in October 1816. But it’s worth remembering that its construction period dated all the way back to the early 1770s – when it was begun with cuts linking Skipton, Bingley, Shipley and Bradford… This area is key to the history of Britain’s longest singe canal.

IMG_1840To commemmorate the bicentenary, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Society’s historic cargo boat, the Kennet is making a journey along the entire 126 miles of the canal. Having started off from Leeds on Saturday, it was coming through the Bradford area on Sunday.

Act 1: Shipley (or, The Silence…)

Getting off the train at Shipley station, in  a light drizzle, I headed past the Fox and across the main Leeds Road towards the little alley through to Gallows Bridge. Crossing the bridge to get down to the canal towpath, I then walked the short distance from there up to Shipley Wharf, expecting to see some signs of local celebrations. But the place was completely deserted.

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Apparently, news of the bicentenary had not, er, floated any boats in Shipley — despite the town owing much of its history to the canal. To be fair, walking from Gallows Bridge I did pass a few stray people standing around under umbrellas, who might possibly have been waiting gamely for the Kennet…

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… But it wasn’t until getting to the bridge under Salts Mill Road that I found the first clear sign of celebrations… a rosetted Rob Martin (former chair of Saltaire Village Society) waiting with his smartphone… His mission was to call the bell ringers in Saltaire Church as soon as he caught sight of the Kennet coming west…

Rob was sheltering sensibly from the drizzle, which was getting steadily heavier. He and I had a wee chat about what was happening in Saltaire. “You’ll find them under the bridge.” He said. “You won’t be able to get past.”

Act 2: Saltaire (or, Waiting for the Bells…)

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He wasn’t kidding about finding people under the bridge. This was the huddle beneath Victoria Road as I  came past Salts Mill. Didn;t look like many people from a distance, but it turns out there was a whole world under there! Hall Royds brass band were pom-pom-pomming away to try to keep everyone’s spirits up…

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And then past the bridge, lots of anoraked people were waiting on the towpath under rain gazebos (good bit of planning there by somebody!).

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I tucked in and stood around chatting. The general point of agreement was that everyone was patiently waiting for something to happen, but nobody was really sure what it would be or when. It all seemed classically English, somebody pointed out. Standing around in the rain for no apparent reason, but merrily cracking jokes about our own foolishness…

With no sign of the Kennet, still — and not even the church bells to herald its arrival — I decided to nose around the temporary signage that had been posted on the towpath, sandwich-board style, to mark the occasion… This was my favourite bit…

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As this colourful diagram-map confirms, we were standing alongside one of the oldest stretches of the canal (which of course predates Saltaire itself — it’s a key reason why Titus put the village here). Although apparently a stretch at the other end was also completed around the same time. It was a bit disappointing, though, that the signage (which seemed to be generic to the whole canal) didn’t do anything further to highlight the specific local history and significance of the waterway…

But never mind that — someone had convinced the Lord Mayor of Bradford that this anniversary was locally significant, and he here was now, complete with Bradford-crested brolly…

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And where the Lord Mayor goes, cameras also go. Just along the towpath I found a soggy-looking camera crew from BBC Yorkshire. They were there for Look North, they told me. Saltaire was clearly the scenic choice for telly…

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After much damp waiting from all concerned, the bells finally sprang into life and – shortly afterward – the Kennet hoved into view, heading slowly west… They looked at first as if they were going to try and moor in front of the brass band, just past the bridge…

IMG_1865… But then they seemed to decide that there were too many people huddled in there and it would be better to head a bit further along to a more open bit of towpath… Which is understandable but rather ironic given that the huddle was there to greet the boat…

IMG_1872So here’s the scenic shot, complete with Kennet, Salts Mill, and lots of brollies…

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The Kennet was decked out in bunting celebrating the “uniting” of Yorkshire and Lancashire through the completion of the canal. Red roses on yellow, and white roses on blue. And rather wonderfully, there was a big red and white rosette (a giant version of the ones that volunteer stewards like Rob were wearing) carefully sequestered in its own waterproof plastic bag…

The boat crew got off and the official ceremony got underway. Rather disappointingly, though, the ceremonials seemed to consist entirely of a photo op for the Lord Mayor. He duly posed for various shots with other someones, and with the costumed lady bargee to advertise the Canal Society’s Navigator beer… although to be fair I’m not sure the Mayor was quite sure what this bit was about…

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Anyway, the pictures were taken, the camera crew packed up, and everyone sort of drifted off. No speeches. No celebratory brass band serenade for the boat and the Mayor. Just a sort of general uncertainty as to what was happening. As I say, it all felt rather endearingly English…

Act 3: Hirst Lock (or, Something Lasting)

Drifting away from the general shuffling at Saltaire, I continued walking west, up to Hirst Lock. Here, I came across a lasting piece of signage marking the bicentenary…

IMG_1887This rather elegant noticeboard (helping to mask the eyesore view of the neglected old garden centre greenhouses beyond) has historical information about the canal’s significance in the area, and recommendations for walking routes. It’s a nice addition to the visitor offer in the Saltaire area, but it’s the work not of Bradford Council or UNESCO — but of that fantastic group of neighbourhood volunteers, the Hirst Wood Regeneration Group.
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Here on the lockable ‘news’ panel on the new noticeboard is news that HWRG have won, just this last week, a national award from Biffa — the waste disposal company — whose sponsorship enabled the construction of Hirst Wood’s new Nature Reserve (which opened last year on the other side of the canal). Well done indeed!

This year, HWRG have been continuing to maintain and develop the nature reserve, while also taking very seriously their “adoption” of a stretch of the canal — from Dowley Gap aqueduct, through Hirst Wood itself, Hirst Lock, and down towards Saltaire as far as the sports club. This adoption is apparent not only in the new signage and walk routes, but in strategically placed benches at intervals along the towpath, carved with the HWRG initials.

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These benches are a really welcome addition for walkers, enabling them to sit down and take in the surroundings for a bit. This sterling work by HWRG seemed somewhat overlooked, though, by the official celebrations. The Kennet duly arrived at Hirst Lock…

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…and then motored on straight past, with a few merry waves to the bystanders…

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Yet with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, Hirst Lock would have been a much better place to have the official brass-band welcome and Mayoral moment — not only to acknowledge the new HWRG contributions to the canalside, but because there’s so much more space for onlookers! Instead of being crowded in a huddle on the towpath under the bridge, people could have spread out and appreciated the occasion a bit more. And the act of the boat going through the lock is also much more visually engaging for spectators than what had happened at Saltaire… But what do I know?

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As the Kennet disappeared off towards Bingley, the sun finally started to appear through the clouds, and Eddie Lawler rounded things up with a rendition of his beautiful new song, “Canal Child” — written specifically to mark the occasion (“I’m a canal child, born on a boat, brought up to keep the whole family afloat, for one hundred and twenty six miles…). The lyric celebrates the children who worked the canals back in the 19th Century, and the original idea was that Saltaire Primary School would sing the song with Eddie — there’s a verse or two specially written for them to sing chorally. In the event, though, not enough of the children’s parents were able to commit the time on a Sunday to bringing their kids and picking them up again, so (rather disappointingly) this plan had to be shelved. The song will instead be recorded with the kids this week, at school, as a video document instead.

Still, Eddie performed the song beautifully on his own, and against the appropriate backdrop of HWRG’s other new piece of canalside signage — a colourful mural also created with Saltaire Primary School children, under the supervision of Sharon Snaylam. It shows Bingley Five Rise to the left, Hirst Lock to the right, and canal boats in between. It’s a lovely, vivid piece of work in bold colours, which would not (at least in my view) be out of place in a modern art gallery. And it’s also fully waterproofed! 

IMG_1928As onlookers began finally to disperse, a group of the Hirst Wood Regen volunteers lined up for a celebratory group photo in front of the mural. Third from the left is the HWRG’s dynamic secretary, Pauline Bradley-Sharp — and third from the right, local Green councillor Kevin Warnes, who actively supports the group. I’m afraid I don’t know the other folk here, but nonetheless, I salute you all! Fantastic work making the canal and its surroundings seem loved and cared for. 

The Kennet will continue its journey across the Pennines all week, arriving in Liverpool next weekend. No doubt there will be more celebrations in other locations along the way. For me, though, this was a day that highlighted the value of hard work and longer-term thinking over empty ceremony. And the importance of carrying an umbrella.

 

 

“Week of Action” at Saltaire WI

This Thursday, I dusted off my one-man show Too Much of Water for the first time since Saltaire Festival last month, and presented it at St. Peter’s Church for the October meeting of the Saltaire Women’s Institute (WI)…. It was a very thoughtful, attentive crowd.

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I’d been invited by Ruth Simpson, who is the “Climate Ambassador” for this WI branch — a title which she herself finds rather falsely grand, but which indicates the organisation’s commitment to working environmentally, and to do what it can to mitigate climate change. Ruth gave a short but moving talk at the beginning of the meeting, to provide context for my performance — explaining that this is the Climate Coalition‘s “Week of Action” on climate change. Apparently, the coalition — in which WI is an active partner nationally — used to be called “Stop Climate Chaos” (in fact it still has that name in Scotland and Wales) but was rebranded to de-emphasise the “fear factor” implicit in the word chaos. Instead of playing on fear, the policy now is to emphasise the need for collective action on behalf of the things people love. Ruth spoke about how her own sense of engagement with these issues is motivated by a concern for things she cares about personally — the local, natural environment being prominent among them.

This is where Too Much of Water seemed to fit in well, because the performance — in telling the story of how the Boxing Day floods affected a range of people locally in the Shipley area — emphasises the kind of simple, personal, domestic details that tend to get overlooked in mainstream media coverage of flooding. It also concludes with some verbatim comments from my interviewees detailing their own conversations about how the climate seems to have changed over the years (less snow in winter, more rain, less distinct seasons, etc.). There was audible agreement from the audience on these points during the performance — and afterwards I was told by several people that, although they wouldn’t consider themselves “eco-warriors”, the piece had really made them think about how local, personal experiences connect with the big picture of the need for action on what is happening globally with our climate. This was pleasing to hear, because Too Much of Water was written with these concerns very much in mind, but — because it was originally a festival piece for the park — I also didn’t want to bang people over the head with a “message”. I guess the aim is to gently invite people to think further, for themselves, about these issues.

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Among the other people present on the evening were Elaine Gilligan, from Friends of the Earth, who briefly spoke to underline some of the points made by Ruth and myself, and engaged in conversation with members during the informal exchanges over refreshments that followed. I hadn’t met Elaine before, but we had a good chat ourselves, and she was very complimentary about the performance (always nice to hear!).

A number of WI members introduced themselves to me, including one young woman whose name I didn’t get, but who apparently reads this blog regularly! So hello, if you’re reading this — do make yourself known by leaving a comment below, if you like! And sorry I got distracted away from speaking to you properly.

I was distracted, I think, by Stewart and Pat Gledhill, of Higher Coach Road, who had been kindly and quietly helping to pack up my stuff, post-performance. Stewart made the wonderful little card models of local landmarks that form an important part of the performance, and since he and Pat had been unable to see the piece at the Festival (they were away in Scotland that weekend), I had invited them along to see it this evening.  I was very pleased to find that they liked the piece a lot! Stewart also took the pics included in this blog. Thanks Stewart and Pat, for everything!

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Too Much of Water will appear again on December 6th, at Armley Mills Museum in Leeds, and December 7th, at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, University of Manchester. I also have gigs for it in Exeter and Cambridge in November, so the Shipley/Saltaire story is travelling afar… If you’re interested in bringing it back closer to home, just drop me a line (stephen.bottoms@manchester.ac.uk).

After the Bradford flood: who scrutinises the scrutinisers?

Just before I get to Bradford… a wee nod to the fact that, this last Wednesday, September 28th, I was busy in Leeds with a fine group of actors, remounting the promenade performance After the Flood. An attempt to reflect on the impact of the Boxing Day floods in the city, from a number of different angles — including the ‘expert’ view on how to mitigate future flood risk — this piece was originally created for the Leeds Waterfront Festival in June (Multi-Story Water in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre). This week’s one-day-only revival enabled us to show the piece to some important people, and to get it documented for a film version we’re planning. For more info and images, look under the ‘Performances’ tab above…

Kat Martin as "Poppy", a Kirkstall flood victim

Kat Martin as “Poppy”, a Kirkstall flood victim

The following day, 29th September, Bradford Council published its “Flooding Scrutiny Review“ – a “Report of the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee” (henceforth, COSC) into how the council and its officers had responded to the Boxing Day floods in Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, and other affected areas of the Bradford district.

Or at least, I think it was the following day… The document is dated, on its cover page, “Wednesday 29th September 2016″, but since the 29th was actually a Thursday it’s difficult to know what exactly we’re talking about here. And the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was reporting on the Scrutiny Review a full week earlier, on September 22nd.

Unfortunately, this glaring, front-page error is far from being the only mistake in a poorly proof-read document that is littered with typos. The Committee’s apparent lack of scrutiny and due care with respect to the publication of its own report seems sadly symptomatic of their general approach to the overall task. That’s a pretty strong claim on my part, but let me break it down: 

1. “In-depth review”. 

The report tells us that, at a Council meeting on Tuesday 19th January (and yes, that actually was a Tuesday), the COSC should “undertake an in-depth Scrutiny Review into the effectiveness of Bradford Council and its partners in dealing with the floods…” Well, if this review is in-depth, I hate to think what “light touch” looks like. The entire report, once you remove front matter and appendices, is less than 10 pages long (in not-very-dense type, with lots of spaces). We quickly learn that the Committee’s “scrutiny” actually consisted of three “listening” exercises:

i. Looking at responses to an on-line survey, which was open to the public between April and July, and produced “75 responses”. This figure is also broken down into the areas that the responses were received from (15 from Bingley, 11 from Shipley, and so on), but the total of these figures only adds up to 62, so who knows where the other 13 went… (again, poor proofing…).

ii. Attending two information-gathering sessions, held on 21 and 26 July in Shipley Library and Saltaire’s Victoria Hall, respectively. (So, nothing in Bingley, Keighley, etc.) The latter was held at 2pm on a Thursday, automatically excluding anyone who has to work for a living.

iii. Attending one further information-gathering session, held on 25 August, this time with the Council’s relevant flood management officers and “external officers” (presumably people from the Environment Agency, etc). 

What the Scrutiny report does is simply present a blow-by-blow account of what people said to COSC members in each of these three contexts. Nowhere in the report is there any actual analysis — or, dare we say, scrutiny? — of what was being said to them, by whom. The process seems simply to have been “you tell us something, we’ll write it down, and then we can say we’ve scrutinised the situation.” One is obliged to ask what, if anything, COSC was doing on this report between January and July, since everything in the document appears to have simply been collated in July and August.

The document ends with half a page of “Concluding Remarks” and one page of “Recommendations” — although these are mostly just broad aspirations. Since there has been little to no real, informed analysis of the situation, these brief recommendations can give little indication as to how the suggestions involved should actually be achieved.

2. The Council doing itself a disservice… 

Quite the strangest thing about this report is that it seems simply to assume that the Council’s reaction to the floods was inadequate. One of the “key findings” is that “it was clear from the [online survey] responses that the only assistance that residents felt they had received was from Flood Support Groups…”  Now, it is certainly a very good thing that the amazing work done by voluntary groups in Bingley, Shipley and elsewhere is given due recognition in this report, but the implication of this wording is that flood victims universally felt they had received no support from the Council. And I can confidently say that this is simply not true. 

Many of the the people I have spoken to personally this year, as part of my research into the Shipley area flooding, have volunteered the opinion (without my even asking them) that the Council was actually very helpful to them — whether it was in terms of, for example…

- the provision of skips in which to dispose of flood-damaged goods

- the £500 council tax rebates that they received, often very quickly, directly into bank accounts, to help with short-term repairs and clean-up

- the later offer of £5,000 flood resilience grants to help with flood-proofing at-risk properties against future incidents

- the efforts made to clean out blocked gullies, etc., to ensure better surface drainage in flood-risk areas

I’ve had all this reported to me by affected residents. And in point of fact, all of these forms of support (and more) are acknowledged in the report’s section on information gathered from Council officers. But the Councillors on the committee appear to have made the assumption that the officers weren’t doing a good enough job, because they had been told people felt unsupported.

And yet… it doesn’t take a genius to see that if you hold an online survey of responses to the Council’s handling of the flood, the chances are that the people responding to such a survey will be — almost by definition — the people who have felt let down. And many of them no doubt had a right to feel let down. But that doesn’t mean that everybody felt let down. It’s simply that people without complaints don’t tend to fill in reports of this sort (or, indeed, to attend public meetings on a weekday…). Had the members of COSC actually made the effort to go out and speak to people where they live (as I have, and as have council officers and EA officers, in fact – because I’ve seen them doing it) they would have gathered a more balanced picture.

3. Communication, communication, communication…  

The most persistent strain throughout the report is the belief that communication with the general public, from the Council and EA point of view, needs to be improved. “Marketing and communications are a key area for improvement”; “Bradford Council and its partners needed to be more pro-active [in communicating] key information”; “For communication to be effective…”; etc. Indeed, one of the final recommendations is that “Council staff involved in emergency planning receive training on communicating key flooding messages…”

This really is the pot calling kettle black, given that the report itself exhibits a very poor model of communication — both in the efforts that COSC actually made to communicate with the public during the review (an on-line survey and two public meetings is surely the bare minimum required), and in the slapdash way it then communicates its alleged findings. Indeed, one of those findings is so badly written that it is literally incomprehensible:

Members were also concerned about the confusion surrounding the use of flood resilience grants, as well as half of the properties affected by the floods had actually received flood resilience grants and that that had of the properties that had been flooded had actually applied for flood resilience grants.” (p.11)

We are given no information as to what “the confusion” around these grants might have consisted of, but we are certainly left confused by the sentence.

Embarrassingly, the poor writing even extends to the Committee’s recommendation to an external partner, the Environment Agency:

Recommendation 6: This Committee recommends that the Environment Agency ensures that all residents and businesses that have been affected by the flood are on the flood alert system and that flood alert messages should be circulated much early.” [sic] (p.13)

Leaving aside that typo, this statement exposes just how little the Committee has actually comprehended about the tricky realities of flood risk communications. Reacting to complaints from members of the public who wished that they had received automated flood alert calls sooner, COSC simply passes this on as a recommendation. But I have spoken to residents who knowingly chose not to react to the phone calls they did receive — partly because of the “cry wolf” problem that occurs when you have received a call, in the past, that proved to be a false alarm. The fact is that, even with the best scientific tools available, rainfall remains an inherently unpredictable phenomenon (you never know exactly where or when a cloud will decide to burst…), and so flood risk predictions necessarily have an element of educated guesswork about them. If calls were to go out earlier, there would be less accurate data involved, and thus more guessing…  Calls would thus run the risk of being more inaccurate, and this would further increase the likelihood that people will ignore them when there is a real problem coming. This is fairly simple stuff to understand (I am not a scientist, by any stretch), but the Committee doesn’t even seem to have considered it.

Incidentally, that other point about residents being put on the flood alert system is again indicative of COSC’s ignorance of the facts it purports to be investigating. Several times the report refers to people needing to be registered onto the call system, but no mention is made of the fact that such automatic opt-in (i.e. you have to choose to opt out, not opt in, if you live in a flood zone) has been government policy since the Pitt Report of 2008. Where people did not receive these calls — on Branksome Drive, for example, in Shipley — it is because of an Environment Agency oversight in application of the system (for which they have already apologised). So this recommendation is, in short, a bit like telling your grandmother to suck eggs.

4. Who needs experts? 

For me, these last points about how poorly informed some of the report’s findings and recommendations are, seems indicative of a general lack of interest or trust in what the “experts” on the issue of flooding might have to say. The experts are, in this instance, the flood officers for Council and EA — i.e. the people who spend their professional lives dealing with the complexity of these issues of when and how to alert those at risk. Yet their comments are treated in this report as being of considerably less significance than the comments of the general public in the first two (all too sketchy) “listening” exercises.

I am not, of course, saying that the public’s concerns should not be treated seriously — they absolutely should. But the public is not the place to look for technical solutions. Right at the top of its “key findings” chapter, the Committee reports having been “made aware of various issues and concerns. Some of these focused specifically on flood prevention by looking into river dredging…” (p.6). It’s not surprising that dredging should be the first thing mentioned here, because it’s the go-to solution for anyone who has read a tabloid newspaper. In fact, the obviousness of this solution has become an article of faith for some, as is evidenced in the comments feed underneath the T&A article on the report: “Yes dredge the rivers to lower the water level, its so simple, why can’t the Councillors see that?” Yet anybody who has spent any time looking at the dredging question (and I am certainly no “expert” on this) knows that it is very far from being “so simple”: it’s expensive, rarely cost-effective, it can increase flood risk downstream of the dredged area; it is damaging to the ecosystem, etc. etc. But why listen to all that complicated stuff when the “solution” is so much simpler? As Michael Gove announced before the Brexit referendum, “people in this country have had enough of experts“.

Unfortunately, this line seems to sum up the approach of Bradford Council’s scrutiny report on the Boxing Day floods. Why get into any detail with our scrutinising? That would require us to actually learn something! We’ll just listen to what people say to us, in a small, arbitrarily selected set of listening contexts, and then write down a summary of what they said. Then we’ll write down some things we think might be a good idea, based on not having thought about any of this for very long. And we’ll call these recommendations. These recommendations might well suggest things to be done that have, in fact, been being done for years anyway (e.g. leafleting homes about flood risk). But who cares, as long as we can claim to have scrutinised something and given our own council officers a gentle kicking in the process, to keep them in their place. I mean, nobody’s going to read this report anyway, so we don’t even need to proof read it, right?

The depressing thing about all this is that it seems, basically, to represent politics as usual. And judging from the T&A article on the report, that’s also what we’ve had in the response to it. The Committee is Labour-dominated, so the leader of the council’s Conservative group says that the report doesn’t go far enough – “he said the council needed to prioritise flood prevention work far more.” And of course he would say that, because it’s his job to oppose Labour. Never mind that it was a Conservative government that cancelled flood prevention schemes up and down the country as part of its austerity drive… when there’s a political football to kick, just kick it.

When you have politics as usual, you have politicians sounding off at each other. What you don’t have, it would seem, is them actually thinking carefully about what a river is, what a flood is, or what the best-informed responses to an incident like this might be.

So much for scrutiny.

 

Beck memories on World Rivers’ Day

This Sunday, September 25th, was World Rivers’ Day. Not to be daunted by the fact that Bradford’s river is largely invisible — culverted underground through the city centre ever since the later nineteenth century — the Friends of Bradford’s Becks (FoBB) organised a special celebration in City Park to mark the occasion. It’s time that modest Bradford Beck (formerly mucky Bradford Beck) takes its place alongside the cherished rivers of the world! I was there to represent Multi-Story Water on one of the many stalls that FoBB had arranged around the edge of the Mirror Pool…

Steve and Eddie

Here I am at our “songs and stories” stall with my good friend Eddie Lawler, who performed, among other compositions, his song “Bradford Beck” — which calls for the river to be “resurrected from its rat-ridden cave”, and “to be a treasure, be a pleasure….” The song dates back almost 15 years now, to a time when very few people were even talking about the Beck, but it has now become kind of a signature tune for FoBB. (Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Geoff Roberts, of Aire Rivers Trust — thanks Geoff!)

rose starting walk

The central action of the day was at the FoBB stall itself, which served a number of purposes including being the starting point for a well-attended walking tour — presented by Rose Reeve and Pauline Ford — of the 15 plaques that FoBB has had installed in pavement sites over recent months, to mark the underground course of the Beck through the city centre. (See this previous blog post.) Along the way, walkers also encountered this little spot, just a block away from the City Park area…

bottoms and beck

Yes, it’s an open manhole cover! The only way to check out the Beck in the city centre… Still, the city seems serious about treating its watery heart a bit more thoughtfully in future, and the presence of the Lord Mayor of Bradford at the Rivers Day event was one sign of this. Here he pictured is with the Lady Mayoress and, to the right, Barney Lerner — Chair of FoBB and the main co-ordinator of the day’s events. Barney, who lives safely uphill from the local rivers in Baildon, recently retired from Sheffield University and is really dedicating his retirement to pushing for further progress for the Beck. (Go Barney!)

Mayor and Barney

The Lord Mayor’s speech, at the FoBB tent, concluded with him awarding a prize to artist Alex Pavey

Lord Mayor shakey Blakey

winning sculpture design

Alex is the designer of the winning entry in a FoBB-run competition to design a “listening sculpture” for the Beck — the sketch for which is pictured here to the right (and is part-hidden by her body in the photo above!). The competition organisers came up with a shortlist of the best entries, which were then put to a public, online vote — which Alex won. The challenge now will be the realise the sculpture in reality — completion is scheduled for some time next year. There will be various engagement activities around the building/opening of the sculpture, which Multi-Story Water will hopefully involved with. Our involvement might even lead on directly from what I was up to with Eddie…

I’ve been doing quite a bit of story-telling lately (see, for example, my last blog post on the Too Much of Water performance for Saltaire Festival), and as a contrast — on this occasion — I was story gathering… with a view to possibly using some of what came up in future presentations. Using a map of the Bradford Beck system that was kindly provided to me a while ago by Bradford Council, I was inviting people to locate themselves on the map, sticking on different coloured dots to represent different things…

Steve pointing

So a red dot was “where I live” (or used to live), a yellow dot was “where I work” (or used to), a green dot signified environmental improvements, a blue dot was for places associated with happy memories, and finally a purple dot was for problem spots or issues. I snapped the shot below relatively early in proceedings and we’d accumulated a good deal more dots by the end of the afternoon!

IMG_1718The map served as a real drawer for passers-by, many of whom were fascinated to see the city like this — with the river system (and possible flood risk areas) highlighted as central and prominent, rather than merely forgotten underground. Visitors to the stall with longer memories told me about their recollections of the 1968 flood, for example, when the city centre was partially underwater and the subway passages underneath main roads were completely impassable. Another visitor, remembering even further back, recalled the flooding in 1947, when she was a child. Her recollection was that a stretch of the Beck to the west of the city centre was not, at that time, culverted underground as it is now (so the culverting does not all date back to the 19th Century!). A brother and sister, both now in early middle age, recalled growing up in the vicinity of Bradford University and how, as kids, they would enter the Westbrook culvert and explore it with candles lighting their way… Since that time, the beck has been fenced over in the University area — perhaps partly to discourage such explorations — but also contributing further to the general sense of the river as something dangerous, poisonous, hostile, rather than something to be embraced. These now-grown-up childhood explorers clearly recalled their adventures with real affection and nostalgia… In today’s world, perhaps, we’ve taken the obsession with health-and-safety a little too far, at the expense of natural curiosity?

fishing demo

Fortunately, a number of the other events and presentations at this World Rivers Day celebration provided interactive opportunities for curiosity and exploring new things… The Wild Trout Trust, for example, laid on a fly fishing demonstration in the Mirror Pool (or, at least, the small part of it that wasn’t drained on this occasion…). I don’t think anyone caught anything (!) but kids of all ages seemed to be having fun learning how to use that rod… Meanwhile, JBA Trust were on hand with their water flume demonstration (below), to show passers-by how water flow works, and how it is affected by installing different constructs that modify flow patterns (weirs, tunnels, etc.). On one level, this is quite technical, but its also a really accessible demonstration that people find genuinely intriguing…

JBA demo

Another interactive demonstration model was provided by the Environment Agency, on the stall next door to ours. This one has a miniature landscape in it, with a river channel, and you can use dripping trays to demonstrate the effects of rainfall on the landscape, where the water runs off to, and so on. The rainfall is heavier or lighter depending on how big the sponges in your trays are… Great fun. This model is populated, rather mysteriously, by Marvel superhero figures (I spotted Iron Man and Wolverine, for starters)

EA Rachel

In the foreground of the shot here, you can see photographs of the 1968 Bradford flood also on display… At our story/memory stall, though, there was also much discussion of the more recent floods in Shipley, Bingley and the wider Aire valley, and about the possibility of future events of this sort. Indeed, it wasn’t just memories that passers-by were sharing, but some very current concerns about recently-announced Bradford Council plans for building new houses — on green spaces to the west of the city centre, not far from the Beck and its tributaries. Were these flood plain areas, people wanted to know? Was there any joined-up thinking going on? In light of Bradford Council’s quite critical “scrutiny report” on its own handling of floods last Christmas – published just this week — there are clearly still some questions to be addressed… But that’s a topic for another blog.

A big round of applause, then, to Barney Lerner and all at FoBB, the Aire Rivers Trust, and other contributing organisations, for creating a memorable day in City Park. Let’s hope that progress on the Beck’s future can “kick on” from here…

Mirror pool and catchment poster

 

 

Flood memories at Saltaire Festival

Saltaire Festival 015

If you’re at Saltaire Festival this weekend, do check out The Power of Water — an exhibition specially created for the festival, and on show in an amazing attic level gallery at Salts Mill, which isn’t normally open to the public. The show’s title is intended to link together two significant historical landmarks — this year’s bicentenary celebrations for the completion of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, and the major floods that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. The exhibition’s main emphasis is on photographs of the floods — mostly selected from entries sent in by local residents, accompanied by some professional material alongside them. These are given wider context and resonance by the carefully chosen quotes on banners like the ones shown above.

Saltaire Festival 014

The striking thing about the way that the exhibition has been hung is that the photographs are unframed… They’re simply affixed to a wooden runner down the length of the roof space. Presumably this simple, lo-fi approach reflects the limited funds available for the exhibition (Saltaire Festival is run entirely by volunteers, and it receives only very limited funding from external sources). But for me there’s also something really apt about this method of staging. Given that the homes of many of these affected by the floods had to be stripped back to bare brick (see for instance this previous blog post), the distressed, unplastered walls of the mill provide a really poignant backdrop for the pictures. The photos almost give the impression of having been salvaged from somewhere and put on display as forensic evidence… which, in a sense, they are.

IMG_1659Down at Roberts Park, there’s another blue banner advertising what’s on… I’m rather chuffed about the prominent place here for Too Much of Water, a one-man, half-hour storytelling performance written and performed by yours truly. The piece, which I presented in the park last weekend, is based on interviews with some of those in the Shipley area affected by the Boxing Day floods. It provided some further reflections on the overwhelming “power of water”, while also seeking to entertain a festival audience…. Not an easy balance to strike!

IMG_1628This is me in Roberts Park last Saturday, mid-performance — as snapped by Barney Lerner. All the pics in this blog were taken by audience members and posted to social media, where I grabbed them from. As you can see from this image, the audience consisted of both adults and children (there were a lot more adults standing behind the seated kids), and I’m personally really pleased that the show seemed to hold the attention of both older and younger spectators.

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Irene Lofthouse: “A sensitive, thought-provoking piece that highlighted the tragedy of people’s experiences, but rippled with light humorous touches. The use of simple props (loved the Xmas jumper) and dolls made it accessible to all ages – and children at the performance I attended were as interested as the adults. Barbie and the Bard illustrating local people’s trauma was inspired.”

IMG_1630To capture a sense of what happened up and down Shipley ward — between Branksome Drive in the west and Lower Holme to the east — I used a bolt of blue cloth to stand in as the river (as seen here in close-up shots by Vanessa Hawkin), and miniature wooden figures to represent some of my interviewees. The resemblances weren’t great, because the figures were store-bought and I just had to arbitrarily assign identities! Much more recognisable were the landmark buildings represented by card models made by my good friend Stewart Gledhill (thanks Stewart!), the chairman of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group (HCRRG).

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IMG_1637In this shot above, that’s Baildon Bridge and Woodbottom club to the left (east), then the four houses of Aire Close, then New Mill, the Boathouse Inn and Roberts Park’s Half Moon Cafe and cricket pavilion, then Hirst Mill at the far end (a bit too close to Saltaire because [a] none of this was to scale, and [b] I messed up my placements a bit in this particular run of the show…

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Graham P. Glover: “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw there was going to be a theatrical/comedic event at the Saltaire Festival around the Boxing Day floods which touched so many people’s lives in this area. However I found the event very thought-provoking and poignant. Steve’s use of models and the fabric for the flowing and ever expanding river that day worked brilliantly. A very entertaining show with some audience participation – the Christmas jumper and waterproof trousers were just the ideal costume too.”  (I was sweating like a pig in those, truth be told, especially the Sunday…)

IMG_1638This picture from one of the performances on Sunday (as snapped by Nicola Murray). I’d had to reposition myself because the sun was so bright. On the Saturday I had my mini-Aire directly parallel with the real thing (and the real Boathouse behind me), but on Sunday the sun was burning right above the Boathouse and would have blinded people, so I shifted round so my back was to the path to the footbridge. Anyway, I’m just glad that — title or no title — we were not affected by rain.

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IMG_1643Audience responses on both days were really positive, and I even had a few people asking where they could send donations to flood relief charities. (I recommend Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support.) Some of my interviewees also turned out to see the show, and it was really great to see them — weird as it must have been for them to hear their personal stories recounted in this way. A huge thanks to all of them.

Thanks too to those people who have been interviewed by me this year, about the floods, but didn’t make it into the show at all. I had way too much material, and had to make some tough decisions about what to include and not. But who knows, maybe some of the other material will find its way into another show…

Thanks to everyone who came. It was great to see you all.