Postcards from South Africa: Leandra

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Pretoria — once the capital of apartheid. The Multi-Story Water project has taken me to many, varied places over the last few years — mostly without needing to leave Shipley — but this week it’s brought me all the way to South Africa. I’ve been invited, as an observer, to join an expedition run by a related research project (“Patterns of Resilience”), which has also been looking at the relationship between water and community — only this time in a town threatened by drought, rather than flood. Strange as it might sound, I want to suggest in this blog that, in addition to the glaring differences between these research contexts, there are also some odd similarities…

The location for this research has been Leandra, a township in the Govan Mbeki region (a couple of hours from Pretoria and Johannesburg). As you drive into town, passing this welcome sign, you come immediately to another hoarding warning residents and visitors to save water.

What if … this was the last drop?” is a question that, thankfully, I’ve never had to ask myself living in the UK. But it’s a very real issue in Leandra: we arrived on a cloudy day which briefly turned rainy (complete with thunder and lightning), but in 2015-16 they had a significant drought period that impacted severely on the community.

“Water is life – sanitation is dignity”, reads the small print on the poster. But life and dignity are impacted by more than just water shortage when water is short here. This is a predominantly rural area, whose residents traditionally survived through subsistence farming. Nowadays, what with industrialisation and globalisation, the farms have become big commercial enterprises – with giant maize silos like the ones you see here. In drought conditions, workers on the farms and at the silos simply get laid off because there is not enough work for them to do. And that leaves them unable to buy the food supplies that they would once have grown for themselves…

The research in Leandra has established that, although the recent drought was less severe in strictly physical terms (i.e. low rainfall) than some previous recorded droughts, the community experienced it as more acute than in the past. That is, they have in some ways become less resilient as a consequence of this greater dependence on a buying economy. In the past, families knew how to save emergency supplies of maize from their subsistence farming, for use in times of scarcity. The stored maize might have tasted sour, one man told me, but at least it was edible. But when you’ve become accustomed to simply buying in bulk from your local Spar, then when it’s gone, it’s gone…

Let’s get back to that question of water and dignity, though. Because on the face of it, there isn’t much dignity to be had in Leandra. The vast majority of residents live in homes like this… if they’re lucky…… or like this, if they’re not so lucky…

In South Africa, they call it “informal housing”. Shacks built of corrugated metal — or anything else lying to hand — get put up without consent or planning permission on land that has simply been appropriated by people too poor to aspire to anything else. Such homes, as you would expect, do not have proper plumbing or sewerage, of the sort we simply take for granted in the UK. Most people have to walk to get water, and the distances they walk get exponentially longer in times of drought. Little wonder, then, that people here are regularly lectured about saving water by the authorities — via billboard messaging of the sort pictured above, as well as by lessons in school, and so forth.

Those same authorities, however, seem unwilling or unable to do anything to address the enormous infrastructural difficulties facing communities like this. It’s not just that better facilities are greatly needed: according to residents, even the existing water supply infrastructure is riddled with problems. Old supply pipes get broken or burst, and water is simply lost… In fact, one of the key points to come out of the research here is the awareness that residents do not always know very clearly whether water shortages are the result of actual drought or of these failures in infrastructure…

An added issue here is that people are dependent on piped or stored supplies, in a way that — again — wasn’t necessarily the case in the past. An older resident I spoke to recalled a drought back in the late 1970s which was made worse by a plague of locusts attacking crops. Even then, though, the water deprivation was not as severe as in the recent drought, because people could still find water in ground-springs in certain places. Those springs, he said, simply don’t exist any more.

I’m no expert on groundwater, but I can’t help wondering whether this experience of springs drying up is another consequence of the area being subjected to more industrialised farming. (It’s well established that the water table will drop if land is mined more intensively for water supplies.) Whatever — it’s clear for anyone to see that the ground here is extremely dry, even in a relatively drought-free year like 2017. I put my size 11 feet in the photo above to highlight the scale of the cracks in the landscape. And this is land that should be relatively wet, since it lies close by to the one small stream we found on our reccy of the area…
A closer look at the stream itself provides further evidence of why only the most desperate of drinkers would consider taking water from this “natural” source rather than from a piped supply.

Yes, that green is the actual colour of the water — I dread to think what’s been emptied into it (perhaps from the silos you can see upstream…?). What with the concrete culvert you can also see here, supporting the main road, I was put in mind of Bradford Beck, and all the stories that used to be told about how filthy and toxic it once was….

It’s not just the flowing water that’s polluted, either… Just look at this drainage channel, with the line of rubbish that’s been carried along it, and remains even when there’s no water…

Almost everywhere you go in Leandra, there is litter like this. I guess when the environment is already poor — in every sense of the word — there’s not much incentive to keep it clean. Apparently such littering is a problem all over South Africa, but nobody really knows what to do about it — and in the great scheme of the problems here, it probably doesn’t rank that high on the priority list.

But here is the thing…

The people here do not mirror the landscape and the housing conditions. All the stereotypical expectations you might have about “what poverty looks like” are thrown out of the window when you meet the young people from this community, who have grown up in this environment. Most of them live in “informal housing”, with large families, crammed several to a room, and in normal times (never mind drought) they expect to eat only one meal a day. But they are all immaculately turned out, and indeed very fashion-conscious!

This is a “selfie” of me with Thato — one of the young people from Leandra who has been particularly involved with the “Patterns of Resilience” project. We’re comparing our Converse Chuck Taylor’s, but beyond that, she’s actually much more stylishly dressed than I would know how to be! (And check out the Chanel logo on the person next to her…) I’m told Thato is also a talented artist in her own right — an amazing drummer and percussionist — and while I didn’t get to see her perform, the project event we attended at the local community centre did conclude with an extraordinary demonstration of collective, local talent by the Umdzabu Cultural Group — some of them pictured here in their more traditional performing costumes…

In this picture, these performers look like what they are — kids! — but in performance they were nothing short of awe-inspiring. On the small stage of the community centre, they presented a sequence of drumming, dancing and choral singing — and every possible combination of the three — which ran for over 15 minutes without a pause. Every time a particular sequence finished (a pounding high-kick routine replaced by a quiet, reflective song, for example) they moved from one phase into the other with such tightness and precision that there wasn’t even time for applause. And the sound of the pounding drums and thumping feet was almost overwhelming in that small hall. I was, as you can probably tell, blown away by the whole thing!

Now, you might think that I’ve got a bit off the topic of drought here, but far from it. In fact one of the key findings of the research here has been establishing the importance to the community of what they call “positive distractions” in times of hardship. Distractions including singing and dancing, the playing of collective games, and so forth. As one young person summed it up to me: “when children are playing happily, they forget to eat.” True enough — and in times of drought, that means that they forget (at least temporarily) that they can’t eat. I struggled at first to see the significance of simply being “distracted” from the elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s obvious: the mental and emotional effects of hunger and thirst can impact on people just as can the physical, but if you can find collective ways to keep your spirits up and avoid sliding into depression or despair, you are — quite simply — going to survive longer.

The “Patterns of Resilience” project — run by the remarkable Angie Hart, from the University of Brighton, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Pretoria and elsewhere — has focused specifically on engaging 43 young people from Leandra as “co-researchers” in learning about resilience to drought. They were even paid something to take part (an ethical way for the research team to put some of their funding into the community itself, while also valuing the young people as co-workers, not just volunteers). The research has included arts-based activities that have helped the young people to process and reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and coping strategies during the recent drought of 2015-16. It has also involved training them up as interviewers, to go and talk to elders within the community, such as grandparents, about their memories of drought over the longer term. Through this process, the young people have learned valuable things about themselves and their community, as well as providing the university researchers with important insights (some of which I’ve already mentioned in this blog).

I will admit to being sceptical, at first, about the real commitment of some of these young people to the project. And indeed, I did get a sense that some of the (perhaps less engaged) participants interpreted these activities as another version of the familiar encouragement, from the powers that be, that they need to “save water” – through rainwater harvesting, etc. (Let’s not pretend that universities do not have “power” in a situation like this.) But the more I talked to Thato and her peers — some of whom also came here to Pretoria this week for a two-day “think tank” event — the more clear it became to me that the real value of this project has simply been in asking the young people what they thought. 

Over and over again, I heard this from them: that nobody has ever been interested in their ideas before, let alone people from overseas (and “England” is a kind of fantasy land to these young people). The very fact of being consulted, they said, and of being asked to think actively about how drought impacts on themselves and their community — rather than simply having “messaging” about behaviour change foisted on them — has changed their own sense of perspective, and enhanced their own sense of value in themselves. That is not nothing. It might not give them any more food or water, but it might — again — help make them more resilient, or even – more activist

I said at the start of this blog that I saw similarities between Shipley and Leandra. Obviously, these are not nearly as pronounced as the huge differences. But I’ve seen here — in a more concentrated, life-and-death way — some of the same patterns we identified during our Multi-Story Water research. To put it bluntly:

  1. The authorities perceive a problem that needs addressing… whether of flood risk or, in this case, potential water shortages.
  2. The authorities try to provide “messages” to local communities about what actions they need to take to protect themselves (in the form of pamphlets, posters, or whatever).
  3. On the end of such one-way messaging, residents sometimes feel more “talked at” than engaged with. There’s even a sense, sometimes, that they feel condescended to… They’ve perhaps been stereotyped as “hard-to-reach communities” (a euphemism for being deprived or marginalised in some way), but nobody has really tried very hard to reach them.
  4. Meanwhile, there’s also a justifiable sense among residents that the authorities are not always doing all the things that they could be doing to address the problems – at an infrastructural level. In South Africa, where there is a widespread problem with political corruption, the lack of practical solutions is especially endemic.
  5. Creative research projects that try to create a more two-way dynamic with local residents, and seek to value their insights and expertise on what it means to live in a particular place, can help to provide fresh insights and change perceptions a little on all sides… What they can’t do, however, is fix the problem…

The problems in Leandra are, quite clearly, massive and intractable. I couldn’t live there, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to. But the people who do live there, for all the life-and-death difficulties they face, have developed very real forms of personal and collective resilience that need to be valued, honoured, and paid attention to.

 

Continuing to reflect on water stories…

Although the funded period of our Multi-Story Water research is now officially over, we’ve been busy in September with a number of “legacy” activities – relating particularly to our work around flood narratives. This three-part blog looks at some of these activities, under the headings (1) Reviving, (2) Recycling, and (3) Reflecting…

1. Reviving

At the start of the month, I presented Too Much of Water, my one-man storytelling show about the impact of the 2015 Boxing Day floods in Shipley, at the 7th International Conference on Flood Management (icfm7). This was held at Leeds University, and having been asked by the conference organisers to present the piece as part of their “cultural programme” (alongside all the more technical conference talk), I liaised with my former colleagues at the University’s Workshop Theatre to present the piece there (many thanks, especially, to technical director Lee Dalley).

This was the first of several new engagements for TMoW this autumn, so I took the opportunity to do a slight “upgrade” on the show. Despite having been very well received in previous performances, I have always felt there was something slightly missing: the piece focuses on the stories of six families whose homes were affected by the flood, but until now did not acknowledge the impact on any local businesses — which, in its own way, can be just as devastating. So I’ve now worked in a seventh storyline, that of Brian Tuxford of Northway Vehicle Sales – the van hire business next to Baildon Bridge. I told a little of Brian’s story in this blog last autumn, having met him after the first version of Too Much of Water premiered at Saltaire Festival. It felt important to include his story, and the show now feels more “resolved” to me as a result.

After the Workshop Theatre performance, we held a Q&A session about issues arising, to which I’d invited two excellent guest speakers – Jonathan Moxon, who is Leeds City Council’s chief flood officer (formerly of the Environment Agency, he has featured on this blog before) and Rosa Foster, who lives in Shipley, and is the Environment Agency’s lead FCRM officer for the Upper Aire Catchment (i.e. Leeds and everything up… FCRM = Flood and Coastal Risk Management – though there’s not much coastline on the Upper Aire!). The Q&A was videotaped and I’m delighted to be able to show it off above – it makes for an interesting discussion. (Though it’s a little difficult to hear the audience questions on the recording, due to the mic direction, the answers should hopefully clarify…).

2. Recycling

Our connections with colleagues such as Jonathan and Rosa has led our Multi-Story Water project to quite an active involvement with telling the story of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (this despite the fact that our project was centered in Shipley/Bradford! The Aire keeps flowing regardless of local government jurisdiction…). At the Leeds Waterfront Festival in 2016, in collaboration with Common Chorus Theatre, we presented After the Flood – a promenade performance that attempted to provide audiences with an engaging sense of some of the issues involved in planning for flood alleviation – and this included a brief synopsis of the “FAS” scheme (its brand new, collapsible weirs represented on this occasion by a [comically crap] demo involving a clipboard and a balloon…). A year on, at the 2017 Waterfront Festival, we worked more directly with the FAS scheme and its main engineering contractors, BAM Nuttall, to present Weir Science – an entertaining, in-depth look at the new weir construction at Crown Point. On this occasion, we collaborated with Phil Marken’s Open Source Arts – an important hub for the voluntary flood response in the Kirkstall area.

The FAS partners (including the EA, City Council, BAM) were hugely pleased with the extent to which we engaged festival-goers with the weir scheme – so much so that they’ve installed Jon Dorsett’s improvised mural, created over the course of the festival weekend in June – in their site offices! (I snapped this picture mid-September)

So, bouncing off the success of that event, we’ve been invited to get involved with the “consultation” phase for FAS2…. i.e the second stage of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, which will look beyond the city centre to help protect upstream neighbourhoods such as Kirkstall, Horsforth, Rodley…  The broad outline of plans for this scheme has now been unveiled, though many of the details are still being determined, and the FAS team are interested to gather public responses about how planned alterations to the river landscape might also benefit local communities’ experience of the river. A series of consultation events, in the form of pop-up information stalls in public places, has been planned for October – starting this Monday 2nd in Horsforth (see this link for full list of dates and venues) – and a team from Multi-Story Water will be present at each location. This time, we’re working in collaboration with both Common Chorus Theatre and Open Source Arts…

In this photograph, taken during rehearsals at Open Source last Wednesday, you can see Phil Marken on the left and Common Chorus director Simon Brewis on the right (with performer Alice Boulton-Breeze in the middle). That doll’s house will be familiar to anyone who saw After the Flood, and that’s because – on this occasion – we’ve taken the decision to carefully recycle and redeploy key aspects of previous performances, rather than trying to devise anything completely new. Reusing certain props will save us a bit in financial terms – because, after all, this is a public consultation, not a “show” with a production budget… More importantly, the consultation context is also distinct from the festival contexts we’ve previously worked in, and that’s affected our planning here…

There’s a serious point to the FAS team wanting to share their thinking about the new scheme – and to seek feedback – and we can’t upstage or disrupt that with anything too “showy”. So we’ve come up, instead, with a sort of “modular” presentation – composed of different props, arranged on a display stall, that all offer different talking points. The strategy will be to draw people into conversation around whatever catches their eye from our display. (The doll’s house and other components have been carefully integrated design-wise by Simon’s colleague Ellie Harrison.) We’ll then to seek their responses to the various ideas we’re opening up for discussion. We’re not thinking of this as a “performance”, as such, but as a series of unique, person-to-person conversations – led by Alice and fellow presenter Jaye Kearney — which use props and images as a stimulus for discussion. The conversations might roam between the different “modular” elements, or not, as the mood dictates … they can be as long or as short as suits the individual passer-by. The main thing will be to whet people’s interest, and thus – perhaps — encourage them to engage in conversations with the FAS team themselves (who can then offer more involved, technical detail if people want it). Some respondents would engage with them anyway, of course, but the thinking is this creative engagement approach might help to “soften the landing” for people more wary of uniformed officials… (even if the uniforms are just FAS-branded T-shirts).

We’re also hoping that our conversations will also generate some interesting feedback “data” for the FAS team. In particular, it’s hoped that a hand-drawn map of the Aire between Apperley Bridge and Leeds city centre – which we’ve commissioned from Jon Dorsett, who also did the Weir Science mural pictured above – will provide a usefully interactive way to visualise the proposed FAS2 innovations, and to encourage public responses…

Anyway, one way or another, we shall see how this works out. Further blogging to follow!

3.Reflecting

And finally… it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Multi-Story Water project was discussed across Yorkshire’s airwaves last weekend (Saturday 23rd or Sunday 24th September, depending on your area). I was interviewed on the Paul Hudson Weather Show, which is syndicated across all the BBC North local radio stations – in Leeds, York, Sheffield, Lincolnshire… The whole programme is available for a month on the BBC iPlayer – with my bit starting almost exactly 30 minutes into the hour-long show. But I’ve also pirated the sound from the relevant section and uploaded here as a permanent record…

The interview experience was slightly odd. It involved very quickly spewing out ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and which really needed more detailed treatment. But of course, this was a local radio show and nobody wanted to listen to me banging on at length when there was an old Peter Cetera track called “The Glory of Love” to get to…

I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, and I’m genuinely grateful to Paul Hudson’s producer, Trisha Cooper, for inviting me onto the show and giving me the unexpected opportunity to discuss our research project. This came about because, after having me briefly trail the Weir Science performances on Johnny Ianson’s Radio Leeds breakfast show back in June, Trisha decided that listeners might be interested to hear more about the wider project that this had been part of.  Although it’s quite difficult to try to sum up several years’ work in five minutes flat… And I did, apparently, gab on a bit too long, which explains the oddly compressed editing toward the end of my segment of this pre-recorded show (the last bit, which refers to the other matters discussed in this blog post, doesn’t make much sense as a result).

Anyway… if you have read this post as far as this, you apparently don’t mind me gabbing on a bit… So thanks for indulging me, and enjoy the broadcast!

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 3: Shared responsibility?)

Note: this is the final part of a 3-part blog reflecting on a meeting at the headquarters of Incommunities, Bradford’s main social housing provider, last Friday (11th August). The context is outlined at the beginning of Part 1

Paul Barrett, Ruth Bartlett and Jenni Mynard, at the Fisherman’s Inn last Thursday, before our meeting with Incommunities on Friday

3. Shared Responsibility?

As discussed in Part 2 of this blog,  both Incommunities and their tenants face significant challenges in the form of housing stock that is (to fudge our language) less than ideally fit for purpose. It’s difficult to know what can be done about some of these issues without a change of policy at government level, leading to significant investment in new buildings.

Leaving aside these bigger questions, though, my next question is whether — within the parameters of what a housing association can control, and is responsible for —  more might be done to mitigate the daily problems faced by tenants? Or put another way: if tenants are to be made responsible for their “lifestyle choices” (see Part 2 discussion), who is holding Incommunities to account for its management choices? Because it seems clear that their existing procedures have not always served tenants’ needs as well as might reasonably be expected.

Chapter and Verse

Take, for example, the specifics of Jenni Mynard’s case. Some of this is touched on in our film, High Rise Damp, but in preparation for Friday’s meeting, Jenni provided me with a stack of letters and documents that she’s kept as evidence since 2012, and it was newly depressing to see this all set out in black and white. Jenni has given me permission to summarise the key points briefly. I’ll mention no other names, but all of this can be backed up with documentary evidence:

  1. Jenni’s GP wrote on her behalf in 2010, noting her son’s coughing (since diagnosed as asthma), and asking that reasonable steps be taken to improve the family’s housing conditions given her reports of damp and mould.
  2. Having received no response from Incommunities (hereafter, IC), Jenni asked her GP to write again in 2012. She also went to her local councillor and parish priest, both of whom intervened on her behalf.
  3. These interventions led to a meeting with IC complaints’ staff at Jenni’s flat, during which a long list of necessary repairs and improvements to the flat’s fabric were discussed, all of which Jenni minuted herself. (These were all within the realms of the kind of maintenance that a tenant should reasonably expect of a landlord.) However, during this meeting, Jenni’s priest was “astonished” (his word) by the fact that the IC staff members had brought no clipboard, notebook, or any other means to record the outcomes of the meeting. His impression was that it was not being taken seriously.
  4. Following this meeting, there were sporadic visits to the flat from various workmen during the summer of 2012, often without appointment and completely unannounced. They made good some of the necessary repairs, but many of the other ‘agreed’ matters were left unaddressed. Moreover, some of the repairs that were carried out were done poorly and inadequately: e.g. poorly-installed damp-proofing; ill-fitting floor tiles that lifted when trodden on; a new window that leaked rain. Jenni found that her attempts to contact IC staff about these issues resulted in her calls not being returned.
  5. In the spring of 2013, with IC still unresponsive, Jenni tried contacting her MP, Philip Davies, about the condition of the flat. He wrote to Geraldine Howley, as IC’s Chief Executive, and this led to another meeting at the flat — this time with a member of their staff who did take careful notes about the long list of matters that needed addressing (including, for e.g., replacement of the leaking window installed only the previous year!). He shared this action list with Jenni via email, then went on holiday. And then nothing happened.
  6. In desperation, later that summer, Jenni wrote again to Philip Davies, who wrote again to IC, and finally some action was taken about the most pressing matter — the mould on the wall of her son’s bedroom. (Note: on the other side of this wall is a ventilation shaft serving the whole building – the temperature of which is beyond the control of this family’s “lifestyle choices”!). Thermal boarding was installed over the existing wall (as seen in our film), and new damp-proofing was added. Promises were made that IC staff would revisit with a damp-meter, in future months, to check on whether the damp had returned. But nobody ever came.
  7. The workmen who came in 2012 and 2013 did not provide any redecoration to parts of the flat where they had done work. For a patch of wall where they had plastered over wallpaper, the family was provided with a tin of paint and left to get on with it (ie painting over wallpaper).
  8. After all this, Jenni more or less gave up hope of getting anything further done. Last year, when I made our short film about her case, she described movingly on camera how she had simply felt beaten into submission.
  9. This year, after copies of the film and my blog link were sent to IC, Jenni finally received a visit during which a fresh damp inspection was carried out, and some further remedial work was undertaken (e.g. use of mould-resistant paint in the cupboard shown in our film). The family was then advised to follow the “lifestyle” advice discussed in Part 2 of this blog…

Jenni is grateful for this recent work, but points out that, whenever damp inspections have been carried out, it has been in the summer months – when condensation is much less of a problem than in the cold winter months. One assurance that Geraldine offered during our meeting was that a fresh inspection will be organised for the winter.

So progress is being made, and indeed Geraldine and Adrienne were keen to impress on us that there have been recent improvements to Incommunities’ service strategies which they expect will bear fruit in future months and years. They pointed to the recent Fun Day at Crosley Wood (discussed in a previous blog) as evidence of this refreshed approach. Hopefully, then, things are indeed on the up.

But we’re talking here about raising the bar from a position only inches above the floor… A tenant should not need to enlist the support of a councillor, a priest, an MP, and a university professor in order to prompt a landlord into action! The documents Jenni has kept suggest, at the very least, significant dysfunction in the procedures for logging work needed and then ensuring that it is adequately carried out. One can’t help wondering just how many residents, with less dogged determination than Jenni, have simply given up hope of trying to get things improved…

Language matters

During our meeting on Friday, Paul Barrett and I asked whether — perhaps — part of the problem here lies with Incommunities’ insistence on referring to its tenants not as tenants but as “customers“. Doesn’t such language run the risk of entrenching a culture in which the relationship between housing association and tenant is simply one of financial transaction — of paying rent in exchange for a roof over your head? Given that most social housing residents have little choice about which roof they are paying for, the consumer metaphor breaks down pretty quickly.

Put it this way: if I’ve bought something from a shop that doesn’t work properly, I will take it back and request a refund or replacement. The shop will comply, in the interests of ensuring that I return to their store next time, rather than choosing a competitor: that’s good customer service. But if something in a flat at Crosley Wood doesn’t work properly, the tenant can’t go anywhere else (unless they have the financial wherewithal to move into private rented accommodation). So there is no obvious incentive for Incommunities to do anything about the problem very quickly… other than the general moral incentive of wanting to do the right thing. Back in the days of council housing, the council was answerable to its voters, many of whom would be living in council houses. But today, housing associations are accountable only to their regulator — the same regulator that demands all costs to be passed directly to the tenant, thereby inflating the price of some flats above their market value… (see Part 2)  For all these reasons, the “customer” label seems less than apt for social housing tenants.

[In response to the paragraph above, Adrienne Reid comments in email: “Housing association customers have access to a three stage internal complaints process, the last stage of which is a customer (tenant) panel. After this they can progress to the independent housing association ombudsman as a right. Additionally, councillors still send in enquiries. All of these mechanisms are free.” I’ve no doubt this is all true, but this internal complaints process seems less than transparent to “customers”: having trawled Incommunities’ website for  mention of it, I’ve found only an inward-facing policy document and a generic online form that invites “compliments, comments and complaints“.]

The use of the term “customer” also seems to individualise tenants as consumers, and so militate against any sense that Crosley Wood is a community — where landlord and residents need to try to work together collaboratively to improve the social dynamics for everyone. During our meeting, I pointed out that Yorkshire Water, in part responding to a challenge from one of my colleagues on the HydroCitizenship research project, has begun actively using the term citizens in preference to customers — in recognition of their desire for a more productive, two-way relationship. For example, rather than simply selling units of water to us as customers, Yorkshire Water wants us to participate actively in mutually beneficial behaviour: see, for example, one pilot project that has involved Bradford ‘citizens’ collecting used cooking fat in plastic tubs for YW to use as bio-fuel. (This ensures that the fat is not poured down kitchen sinks — thereby clogging up drains and exacerbating flood risk…)

Presented with these various points, Geraldine and Adrienne nonetheless defended the use of the term “customers” on the grounds that it is used to denote all the people that Incommunities deal with: the term extends beyond just their tenants. Moreover, they suggested, some have seen the “tenant/landlord” relationship as stigmatising and/or hierarchical, whereas the term “customers” implies a need to provide “service”. It’s an interesting argument, but not one I’m personally persuaded by. As we’ve seen above in Jenni’s case, “customer service” at Crosley Wood has at times been abominable. And as the tenant of a private landlord myself (those words are in my contract), I have never felt stigmatised…

Oppositional dynamics?

Where stigma lies, I think, is in the attitudes and assumptions that are often held about social housing tenants (attitudes that have often been exacerbated by the popular media and by political rhetoric about “skivers versus strivers”, etc.). And indeed, there’s no point denying that an estate like Crosley Wood does house a number of tenants whose disadvantaged lives have led to mental health issues, or substance abuse problems, or who have been guilty of anti-social behaviour, and so on. I can imagine that working for Incommunities must sometimes be very difficult, if you’re dealing with people with complex needs, or when you get a faceful of grief from someone who is angry about their living conditions, or about the neighbours who have been put in next door to them, or a hundred other things. It might be very easy, after you’ve been in a few such confrontational situations, to start imagining that every tenant is a “problem case” of some sort. Even when they are not. And thus a vicious circle keeps turning — because if staff become habitually defensive or confrontational, this will naturally exacerbate the frustration of tenants.

There was a telling moment, during our meeting on Friday, when this “oppositional” dynamic came into focus quite sharply. Incommunities recently held a “fire safety surgery” at Crosley Wood, which was intended (in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire in London) to try to reassure and inform residents about their own situation. Anticipating that there would be lots of demand for discussion, Incommunities sent a sizeable team of seven or eight staff members to this event — only to discover that they outnumbered the residents who attended. But as Jenni explained, the large turn-out was perceived by residents as Incommunities coming in mob-handed. She felt that this had prompted a some people to stay away from the meeting — perhaps feeling that they would simply be fobbed off with pat explanations. That kind of distrust and suspicion is perhaps understandable given the track record of poor service that many residents have experienced. And yet it’s equally easy to see why, from an Incommunities point of view, this low turn-out might be perceived as a show of apathy towards a constructive attempt at dialogue… And so the cycle of misunderstanding continues.

Community “resilience”?

Similar problems were apparent at another recent meeting was hosted by Incommunities at Crosley Wood, during which an attempt was made to formalise the residents’ use of the portacabin community centre next to Peel House. The locks on the cabin had been changed in advance of the meeting, and residents were then invited to a meeting to discuss constituting a new committee with keyholders (and a chairman, secretary, treasurer…). These moves were intended to be consistent with the housing association’s recent attempts to improve neighbourhood relations, by creating more of a sense of structure and legitimacy for the use of this shared space. But from the residents’ point of view, they had just been locked out of the one shared space they had on the estate, which had been in use for sharing group meals etc. Being asked back in again on new terms was inevitably read, by some, as passive-aggressive…

Paul Barrett, from Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre, was in attendance at the portacabin meeting, and he pointed out during our meeting with Geraldine and Adrienne that — from his point of view as a community development specialist — the move towards a constituted residents’ committee was premature. It also imposed an undue burden of responsibility on those few residents who had turned up to the meeting, and were thus placed in keyholder roles. Adrienne responded by acknowledging that Incommunities are a housing provider, not community development experts, and that mistakes might have been made here. She then explained that Incommunities is currently developing a “partnership network” scheme, whereby community centres such as Kirkgate Centre will be approached to help advise on community development strategies, and to develop better collaborative working — towards new initiatives that might enhance community and individual “resilience” in the face of often difficult circumstances.

All of that sounds positive, and I hope that Adrienne’s conversation with Paul, especially, will develop further. But I’m also hesitant about that word “resilience“. Maybe I shouldn’t get stuck on words, but I’m an academic after all — and there’s a whole critical literature about the risks of the term resilience being used as a means to further privatise social problems. Too often, when this word is invoked, the unspoken subtext reads something like this: “it is in no way our responsibility to try to address or rectify manifest social inequalities and injustices, it is simply the individual’s responsibility to make themselves more resilient to their crap circumstances”. Similarly, the danger with a “partnership network” of the sort Adrienne described might simply be that the housing association further absolves itself of responsibility for its tenants’ well-being by sub-contracting the question out to community centres…

I should stress that I do not think that this is what Adrienne intends by this initiative. My impression was that she was listening carefully to what Paul, in particular, had to say, and that she was genuinely interested to further the conversation beyond this particular meeting. Perhaps there are, indeed, ways to share complementary knowledge bases, and to open up dialogues that can overcome ingrained, oppositional suspiciousness of the sort I described above. In short, perhaps there are ways for us all to take shared responsibility for improving the situation, rather than simply passing the buck or blaming other people.

Shared responsibility is important, after all. To take an example from another set of issues that I’ve tackled elsewhere on this blog — flood risk management — the fact is that individual house-holders at flood risk do need to improve their personal resilience to such threats. There’s no point in expecting the government, or anybody else, to march in and make all the necessary alterations to your home that would minimise the danger of flood damage (how many of us would want the government marching in?!), so you have to take some responsibility yourself. To do your part. (And in Jenni, we see someone more than willing to do her part: she lives eight floors up, well out of reach of the River Aire, but at the start of our film, she describes her own response to the 2015 Boxing Day flood, on behalf of other people…) But such individual citizens’ responses need to be mirrored and complemented by the responses taken by statutory and voluntary organisations — be they local councils, housing associations, community centres, or whomever. We all of us need to listen, and learn, and gain new perspectives on the issues at hand.

To conclude, then: at the risk of over-stating my problem with that word “customers”, I would suggest that the marketisation of social housing has had negative impacts on residents and providers alike, by imposing an artificial dynamic of supply and demand… But this housing provider is called Incommunities, not Insupermarkets, and it seems to me that listening, learning and working together is surely the only way in which to improve community relations, and with them, the relationships between landlords and residents.

*

My thanks, again, to Geraldine Howley and Adrienne Reid for taking the time to speak with us in such a full and constructive way. Responsibility for any inaccuracies or misunderstandings in these blog texts is entirely my own.

 

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 2: Brutalism)

Note: this is the second part of a 3-part blog reflecting on a meeting at the headquarters of Incommunities, Bradford’s main social housing provider, last Friday. The context is outlined at the beginning of Part 1

Part 2: Architectural problems and their costs … (or, living with “Brutalism”)

My discussion of fire safety issues in Part 1 of this blog concludes by highlighting a slight risk of disconnect between policy-making at management level (even sound, evidence-informed policies such as ‘Stay Put’) and the personal experience of tenants. In what follows, I want to suggest that such risks seem all the more pronounced when it comes to day-to-day living in tower blocks like those at Crosley Wood.

At our meeting last Friday, Chief Executive Geraldine Howley and Assistant Chief Exec Adrienne Reid acknowledged that Incommunities are fully aware that such blocks offer less-than-ideal housing conditions. If the opportunity arose for large-scale social housing developments today, they stressed, we would not be building tower blocks. While they were diplomatic enough not to say this, the hard political reality is that for decades now, successive governments have under-invested in social housing. Since 2010, Conservative-led governments have presided over a particularly steep decline in such new investment, even as the “right to buy” policy initiated by Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s continues to reduce the existing social housing stock, by moving homes into the private sector. The inevitable result of such policies (seen by some as “managed decline”) is that, in many instances, people are being housed in buildings that are, in effect, “past their use-by date”. By transferring operational responsibility for these remaining social properties onto housing associations such as Incommunities (who are not directly answerable to voters, and who are required to balance their own books – by hook or by crook), the state has effectively absolved itself of responsibility for the escalating costs of maintaining our declining housing stock.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, concrete high-rise blocks were seen as the way of the future. With old, insanitary, “back to back” housing being demolished in many parts of the country, high-rises were built in the belief that they provided an affordable, hard-wearing alternative. When Bingley Council built the Crosley Wood estate in the late 1960s, the term brutalism — used to describe such blocky, concrete structures — was still seen by many as a positive term (originating from art brut — French for “raw art”). Unfortunately, such structures have often turned out to be just plain brutal on their occupants…

Passing on the costs

High-rise blocks are, Geraldine pointed out, expensive both to maintain and to live in. For example, by comparison with low-rise accommodation, there will be a lift and a deep stairwell to maintain, as well as all the associated common areas (landings etc). And apparently, the rules governing housing associations — as laid down by the regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency — specify that the added costs associated with particular properties have to be passed on directly to the people living in them, in the form of supplementary charges on your rent. So even if it wanted to, Incommunities could not choose to distribute such costs evenly across its whole housing stock: it has to be those in the high-rise who pay!

In practice, this means that some Incommunities tenants are literally paying more in rent and charges than they would be for a comparably sized flat in the private rented sector. (And note that it’s the Chief Executive who is volunteering this information! She has a problem with the regulations too…) For tenants reliant on housing benefit, the added costs of living in a high-rise are effectively just being passed back to the state (and the taxpayer…) through the welfare system. But for those who are trying their level best to work for a living, the impact can be brutal. As Jenni volunteers in our film High Rise Damp, she would like to be able to move out to (cheaper!) private accommodation, but good references from Incommunities have been a problem because she is in rent arrears… And those debts have been caused not just by the passed-on charges but by the condition of the family’s flat! When her son Dylan was sick with asthma, Jenni had to take time off work unpaid… running up debts to Incommunities even though the asthma was probably related to damp on the walls in their flat…  A vicious circle if ever there was one.

Heating and condensation

Damp and condensation are themselves a major issue with high-rise blocks. Jenni’s family had a particular issue caused by a ventilation shaft running through their flat (see film), but more generally dampness is a hazard of living in concrete boxes! As discussed in Part 1 of this blog, high-rise flats are often built as collections of sealed concrete boxes in order to minimise fire risk, but concrete is well known to be a very poor insulator…. it does not retain heat well, so concrete flats are costly to keep warm. The problem of heat loss explains the use of external insulation cladding on high rises, which at Grenfell tower turned out to be so murderously flammable. (Again: Bradford blocks do not have that type of cladding.) But according to Adrienne, a recent analysis of another Incommunities tower block revealed that the removal of exterior cladding would result in residents having to spend an additional £7 per week (£28 per month) to maintain appropriate background heating levels.

The term “background heat” is important here because residents in such flats are recommended to keep them heated pretty much constantly in cold weather. If you don’t, you run the risk of condensation on your walls — when warm, wet air from, say, cooking or laundry meets cold concrete… If not promptly wiped away and dried out, such condensation will eventually result in mould and mildew.

During our meeting, Geraldine mentioned that tower-block tenants are advised to keep their flats heated to 22 degrees Celsius in the winter months — a figure that I made a note of because it seemed strikingly high. (The World Health Organisation’s standard recommendation of 18 degrees. Most homes in the UK have thermostats set between 18 and 21.) However, Adrienne has since sent me the “chapter and verse” of what residents are told about this issue, which she points out does not mention a specific temperature recommendation. The guidance is worth quoting in detail, I think:

“Condensation occurs when there is excessive build up of moisture in the air. There is always moisture in the air, but people create additional moisture in their homes by: 1) cooking, or boiling water 2) taking baths or showers 3) using paraffin or bottled gas heaters 4) drying clothes indoors.”

It’s maybe worth interrupting here to note that, with the exception of (3), these are all things that any of us might want and need to do in our houses. And when you live in a high-rise flat without a balcony, you don’t have much choice other than to dry your clothes indoors! Officially, the advice for dealing with warm, moist air from laundry and cooking is to keep your flat “well ventilated” (i.e. windows left open… or, at best, the vents built into modern window frames should be left open). But allowing heat to escape through ventilation presumably adds further to your “background” heating costs…

“Lifestyle choices”

It does not help, then, that the official Incommunities position on condensation in flats is that it arises from “lifestyle choices” — rather than from flaws in the original building designs. That is, it’s your choice to generate warm air in a cold flat by air-drying clothes (or indeed using a tumble dryer), and your choice if you don’t ensure that your thermostat maintains a continuous background heat…

Such references to lifestyle choices sound to me suspiciously like blaming the victim. Is it a “lifestyle choice” to choose between constantly heating your flat and regularly feeding your children? Most social housing tenants are, after all, at the lower end of the income scale, and there is a significant — and, Adrienne acknowledged, growing — problem with fuel poverty in locations such as Crosley Wood. Those who can’t afford the heating bills are thus more likely to end up with condensation, dampness, mould and resultant health problems…

Responding to a draft of this blog, Adrienne acknowledged that “lifestyle choices” may indeed be an unfortunate use of language: “I think we could revisit this term”. At the same time, she sought to clarify that the term is used by Incommunities to distinguish “a problem of lack of ventilation/heat” from “a fault requiring a repair” (i.e. one which is Incommunities’ responsibility to fix). She further observes that, while “there are 189 flats in this area [Crosley Wood], last year we had 21 reports of damp, of which 3 needed some thermal boarding [as in Jenni’s case] and two where leaks form upstairs flats. The rest were condensation related. I think that this indicates that we are not dealing with an extensive building issue.”

This may indeed be the case, although Jenni — as a resident at Crosley Wood — points out that, in her experience, many of her neighbours do not even bother to report such issues, because they have so little faith that they will be addressed in a timely or constructive fashion … or perhaps because they will be told that they themselves are to blame? (For more on Jenni’s own experiences with having to battle an intransigent bureaucracy, see Part 3 of this blog!) People with low social capital and confidence may not always feel empowered to demand changes to substandard living conditions, so reporting statistics alone are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the extent of the problem here.

Returning to that term “lifestyle choices” — it’s surely a good thing if it might be revisited, but it also seems indicative of the general tendency to privatise problems that are generated by wider social and political circumstances. If a tenant has condensation problems, the blame is implicitly transferred to them as an individual. Incommunities, as a housing association which has to run as a self-sustaining business operation, cannot accept corporate liability for the problems generated by living in buildings that are “less than ideal”, because this would also make them liable for all kinds of additional costs, legal and otherwise. And those costs would themselves then have to be passed on to “the customer” — i.e. the tenant. Another kind of vicious circle.

The delicacy of this problem is reflected in my very use here of the term “less than ideal”. In my previous draft of this blog, I used the words “unfit for purpose” (which I have also heard expressed by several other independent observers who have looked at the condition of the Crosley Wood flats). In her email feedback, though, Adrienne contested this language, insisting that: “Unfitness and structural problems have a precise meaning in relation to housing. . . . this language is too loose in my opinion, I feel the more accurate point you make is that they are not ideal.” Maybe she has a point: I am not a housing expert and cannot claim to be familiar with the specific connotations of technical language. But I do know a bit about how English works, and I’m not sure there’s any precise difference between saying that something is “less than ideal” and saying that it’s “unfit for purpose”. The word “ideal” is defined as “satisfying one’s conception of what is perfect; most suitable” … so, by definition, less than ideal means that it’s less than fully suitable… it’s somewhat inappropriate… so it’s possibly unfit for purpose… In short, we are talking about shades and degrees of language here, not clear-cut distinctions. Perhaps the distinction in language here comes down simply to this: from an Incommunities point of view, “less than ideal” is language that can be lived with, whereas “unfit for purpose” would place the onus on them to change the situation. With potentially unaffordable consequences.

 

To conclude:  there are a number of brutal structural problems — in the sense of both architectural structures and socio-political ones — that put both Incommunities and their tenants in something of a bind. That being the case, though, my next question is whether anything can be done to mitigate these problems within the parameters of what a housing association can control, and is responsible for? That’s Part 3.

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 1: fire safety)

Incommunities on the canal

Crosley Wood flats by the canal

Note: the following has been edited since it was first posted in August, in order to allow for ‘right of reply’ from Incommunities. Social media notifications about the blog were not circulated until early September, after edits completed.

This last Friday, August 11th, we had the opportunity of a very interesting and informative meeting at the Shipley headquarters of Incommunities – Bradford’s main social housing provider. Their building sits right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, as indeed do the three tower blocks of the Crosley Wood estate, Bingley, which we were there to discuss.

“We” were myself (Steve Bottoms), Paul Barrett (community development director at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre), and Jenni Mynard – a resident at Crosley Wood who is the subject of our short film High Rise Damp, and of a blog post I wrote more recently, following the Grenfell tower disaster in London.

This meeting with the Chief Executive of Incommunities, Geraldine Howley, OBE, came about after I wrote to her – and to various members of the housing association’s board – with DVD copies of the film and a link to the blog. I am very grateful to Geraldine, and to her colleague Adrienne Reid (Assistant Chief Executive for Neighbourhood Services) for taking the time to speak with us, in the interests of building dialogue and understanding. Indeed, we were given considerably more than the hour initially timetabled, which was much appreciated.

I will confess to some disappointment on discovering that Geraldine (I hope it’s OK to use first names) had not actually watched our 15-minute film. That is, of course, perfectly reasonable, insofar that Chief Executives of large organisations are extremely busy people, who often need to work from summaries rather than first-hand sources. My disappointment lies simply in the fact that, while Geraldine had clearly been briefed on Jenni’s case (and had a number of documents about it in front of her), she had not taken the opportunity to consider Jenni’s story from her own point of view – as a tenant, as a parent, and as a citizen. That story is, I think, indicative of many people’s experiences, and it’s a perspective we don’t often hear. We had hoped that it might be heard at Incommunities.

That point aside, the meeting was productive and informative. I’m going to try to summarise what was discussed in three, inter-linked posts. This first one (below) looks specifically at the fire safety questions that have arisen for tower blocks, post-Grenfell.

Part 2 then takes a wider perspective on the architectural problems with “brutalist” concrete towers such as those at Crosley Wood, and indeed at the burden of costs that they impose on social tenants (we were alarmed to learn that these can be higher than in the private rented sector!).

Part 3 then looks at questions of shared responsibilityand the extent to which Incommunities can be seen to be working with social tenants to improve their living conditions (or not). Some significant terminology used by Incommunities, such as “customers” and “resilience”, also comes under examination.

Part 1. Fire safety

As noted above, our film with Jenni was not discussed at the meeting. However, it became clear that my previous blog post had caused some concern at Incommunities, not least because of my use of a photo of the burning Grenfell tower at the start of the blog, underneath the title “Life in a Bradford tower block”. (I promised to look at this again, but on reflection I’m going to leave it as is: I think it’s clear from the first paragraph that the image is of the London fire: there is no suggestion that one had taken place in Bradford.) There was also mention of inaccuracies in the blog, which I have promised to amend if they are pointed out to me. I am concerned to be as accurate as possible.

One important correction that was discussed during the meeting was the suggestion at the end of my blog (based on comments from Jenni), that the central fire alarm system in the Crosley Wood flats was disabled a few years ago — leaving residents to rely upon individual smoke alarms, and their own judgement about whether to call the fire brigade, rather than on any centralised response. However, Adrienne stressed that the central alarm system is, in fact, still operable. If it’s triggered, an autodialler calls Bradford Council’s Britannia House (Customer Services Centre), notifying them to call the Fire Brigade. Meanwhile, vents are automatically opened at the top of the buildings to help release smoke. It is only the sounders in the blocks themselves (e.g. the red bell in the picture below) that have been silenced, in order to avoid alarming residents into rushing for the stairwells…

This is in line with of the current Stay Put Policy for tower block fires, as agreed with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The idea is that it is generally safer for residents to stay put in their flats during a fire than to be seeking to escape down the single, narrow stairwells that exist in blocks like those at Crosley Wood — just as firemen might be seeking to come up. The rationale here is that these flats are all designed as self-contained concrete boxes (concrete walls, ceilings, floors). Concrete is of course fireproof, so provided that doors are kept properly closed, it’s reckoned that it should be a good hour before a fire can escape from the flat it starts in. Within that hour, the Stay Put Policy assumes, the fire service should have been able to respond and extinguish the fire.

This all makes a lot of sense, if other factors are properly taken into account. The reason that this policy did not work at Grenfell tower was allegedly (there is a formal enquiry looking into this) that the flammability of the exterior insulation cladding on that building had not been taken into account (there’s more on insulation in Part 2 of this blog). Incommunities checked very swiftly, post-Grenfell, that their Bradford blocks do not use the same cladding that had cost so many lives in London.

That does not mean, of course, that the buildings are therefore definitively safe. It’s worth asking, for example, how water can leak so easily between floors (as Jenni vividly describes in our film) if these are sealed concrete boxes? But the good news is that Incommunities have now commissioned fully independent fire safety assessors (from Savills) to conduct a review of all their properties. This process starts later this week — from August 18th. This is a major undertaking, given that Incommunities has over 1200 flats in 30 tower blocks around the city.

During our meeting, it was suggested that this independent assessment would be conducted on a block-by-block basis. This concerned us somewhat, since our own (admittedly cursory) examination of two different, neighbouring flats at Crosley Wood, accompanied by an off-duty fire officer, indicated that there may also be fire safety issues on a flat by flat basis. Harry Whittle – from the Incommunities Asset Management staff – has since clarified via email that “in fact individual flats will be surveyed”.

Commenting on an earlier draft of this blog, Mr. Whittle also comments that problems with individual flats of the sort mentioned below should normally be addressed through “reporting of repairs by the customer”. However, as discussed in Part 3, such reporting by tenants has not always been responded to in a timely fashion by Incommunities. And poor responsiveness can lead to a resigned, “why bother?” attitude among some. This is one example of the way that shared responsibility needs to be revisited and reassessed on all sides.

Some examples of specific problems we looked at in our limited sample of two flats were:

… this kitchen door, which is as closed in the picture on the left as it ever gets: it simply doesn’t fit the door-frame. As such, it compromises the principle that a kitchen (the most likely place for a fire to start) can be left to burn for around 20 minutes before it spreads to other parts of the flat (and beyond the flat after 60 minutes).  The tenant in question states that, in the twenty years she has lived in this flat, this door has never shut properly.

The same tenant does have a proper closing device on the front door of the flat… another important fire safety measure (below).

… but contrast that with the next picture, showing the inside of her neighbours’ front door. This one has no such closing device, and they don’t recall there ever being one in the 12 years they’ve lived there. Harry Whittle, however, notes that “when checking smoke alarms the engineers are checking front entrance door closers”, so it looks like this is an issue which will be directly addressed in the near future.

Notice in these pictures, also, the trunking adjacent to the ceiling, carrying various pieces of wiring. Because these flats have concrete ceilings and floors, wiring can’t be hidden within the walls as it would be in most homes, so has to be carried externally. That’s fine, from a safety point of view, if the trunking is metal (i.e. fireproof), but our fire officer pointed out several places in these flats where plastic trunking had been retrofit… as in the image below (where another wire has been casually taped to the trunking).

Apparently, such plastic trunking has proven very dangerous in fire situations, because it melts quickly in the heat, leaving wiring hanging down as a trip hazard for residents and firemen alike. Harry Whittle’s email response on this point notes that, “per IEE 17th edition regs 2015, plastic trunking can still be used.” If you check these regulations online, though, it’s clear that they have been introduced because several firefighters have lost their lives in recent years as a result of hanging wires. The regs specify that where “non-metallic trunking” is in use, “a suitable fire-resistant means of support/retention must be provided to prevent cables falling out in the event of fire” (my emphasis). In the picture above, there does not appear to be any such additional, metallic support… and indeed the plastic stuff is actively peeling off the wall at the corners (see “sounder” image, further above). Clearly this is an issue that will need to be looked at.

Our off-duty fireman also raised some concerns about this sort of metallic trunking, which carries wiring out of flats into the corridor to connect with the mains trunk to the left. Here, wiring has clearly been taken through the concrete wall, and our fireman speculated whether this might compromise the integrity of the flat’s “concrete box”. Harry Whittle’s response: “fire stopping works i.e. collars; intumescent putty are used to maintain this. However, again this is part of the Type 4 destructive survey.” This is the most rigorous type of fire risk assessment, apparently due to be carried out by Savills as part of the commissioned inspections.

So it does sound like a very thorough assessment is being undertaken – and that should be reassuring for residents. Before moving on, though, I want to gently query the disabling of the alarm sounders, as previously mentioned. Because while this makes good sense from an operational/managerial point of view (i.e. maximising the likelihood that people will “stay put” in event of fire; minimising the chances of panicked people running for the stairwells), it is rather less reassuring from the point of view of individual tenants, who are – in effect – being left under-informed about fires in their own blocks. This might help reduce risk, but it does not reduce anxiety: if you can see smoke billowing up from downstairs, for example, but no alarm is going off, what do you do – other than panic? Raise the alarm yourself? Our fire officer said that, yes, if in doubt, always ring 999. (And Harry Whittle concurs.) But this potentially means that lots of people could be bombarding the emergency switchboard with calls that would be unnecessary if residents were kept better informed about what was happening. by one wonders whether Incommunities could do a better job of letting tenants know what is

This brings us back to Jenni, and her experience of attempting to establish through the concierge service for her building (Peel House), whether anything was being done about recent fire scares. This concierge service, which Incommunities provides but which residents pay for through additional charges, has in Jenni’s experience proved less than informative. If they answer the phone at all (which, she says, the often don’t), they tend to be rude and unhelpful. Surely, though, if a (silent) alarm has been sounded centrally, the concierge service should be aware of this, and be able to reassure worried residents that appropriate action is being taken?

In our meeting at Incommunities, Jenni repeatedly expressed her frustration over what she perceives as the failure of the concierge to provide the service being charged for. After all, her 12 year old son, Dylan, can get extremely distressed at any hint of smoke or fire in the building … as well he might, given that he has seen fire engines outside Peel House on fairly regular occasions throughout his childhood — while looking down from eight floors up. If all she can do is dial 999 to report a suspected fire, that is not helping with his anxiety levels… Moreover, as she points out, sometimes it just does not seem appropriate to call 999! She gave the example of a recent incident in which she could hear a smoke alarm going off in a neighbour’s flat. Since this might have been triggered by something as trivial as burnt toast, she didn’t want to bother the emergency services, but as a concerned neighbour, Jenni asked the concierge to call the flat of the tenant in question, to check that they were OK. That’s the kind of basic gesture of concern and goodwill on which communities are founded. And yet the concierge simply said it was not their problem. If you’re concerned about your neighbour, that’s your business, not theirs…

So to summarise here… I don’t doubt that the Stay Put Policy is the correct one for Crosley Wood. But we need to think carefully about people as well as policies. It seems clear, based on conversations with Jenni and her neighbours, that there is a much better job of communication and support to be provided to tenants, so as to minimise the potential for confusion and anxiety in uncertain situations. After all, mutual support and communication are the means by which we start to live in communities — rather than as randomly isolated customers…

[Continue to Part 2]

Of photos, films and beer mats… (opening our closing)

“If you build it, they will come…” In the composite image above, we see different corners of Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre last Saturday night, as visitors peruse the walls at the opening of our exhibition, “Celebrating Shipley’s Waterways” (a phrase borrowed from the tagline to this website). It was a real delight to see so many familiar faces that evening, helping us celebrate the official end-point of Multi-Story Water’s project work in Shipley. That’s five years of work, on and off (in two stages: 2012-13, and 2014-17).

One way or another, many of those there on Saturday have been involved in the project in one way or another over that period, although it was also really nice to make some new acquaintances among people simply drawn by word of the evening’s events. This was especially rewarding given that — if I’m honest — I had worried that mounting a retrospective exhibition was slightly self-indulgent, and might be perceived as such! I was, however, talked into going along with it by these two wonderful women…

That’s Ruth Bartlett on the left, of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group, who has also been working in a part-time capacity this year to support other aspects of the MSW project. And on the right, my “research associate” for the last three years, Lyze Dudley. (And me looking like a loon in the middle.) If we’re looking pleased with ourselves in this selfie, it’s because we had just finished “hanging” the exhibition with about an hour to spare before our visitors began arriving. The whole thing was done somewhat “on the fly”, with a tiny budget, but thanks to Lyze’s efforts in particular (with her winding river of fabric round the building, and her carefully mounted A2 photographic prints as key visual features) it actually looks pretty decent. Just professional enough to look like a proper exhibition, but just “home made” enough to reflect the community centre setting and the simple, people-centred aesthetic of the project as a whole. (One whole room of the exhibition, in fact, is about our work in and with local waterside communities.)

Visitors for the evening first had the opportunity to view the exhibition and mingle a bit, and then we screened three short films to represent different aspects of the project: first, Floody (made this year with the Young Artists of Higher Coach Road, for Saltaire Arts Trail weekend), then Wading to Shipley (from way back in 2013, documenting a walk down Bradford Beck), and finally High Rise Damp (from 2016, our film about social housing conditions in Bingley, which has a particular resonance now, in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire last month). I had not, personally, had the opportunity to see this last one screened properly on a large screen before (although it has been screened on several occasions by Kirkgate Centre’s Paul Barrett), and it was particularly gratifying to see that it had a real impact on the audience, prompting much discussion in the interval that followed.

Then it was on to the live performances. I presented my one-man storytelling show about the Boxing Day flood, Too Much of Waterwhich was also very well received. (A friend who had seen it before made the astute point that its account of flood victims’ struggles with faceless bureaucracy resonated in fresh ways by following on from the difficulties described in High Rise Damp.) And then finally, after another short interval, we rounded things off with Salt’s Watersmy double-act with the Bard of Saltaire himself, Eddie Lawler, which we presented at Half Moon Cafe for the Saltaire Festivals of 2014 and 2015. Since then, it’s had outings further afield in Scotland and Manchester, and has been honed with the addition of projected images, so it was really nice to bring it back home to Shipley for this one last time… (I don’t have images of the live performances, but here is Eddie on the right, earlier in the evening, dwarfed by his fellow Friend of Bradford’s Becks, David Brazendale…)

So yeah, it turned out to be a real pleasure to present all this material – as a small, retrospective sample of what we’ve made over the last few years. And the warmth of the responses and feedback from those gathered was really gratifying. Moreover, as ever with this project, it’s the responses and the participation that are just as important as anything we might make… and on this occasion that point was represented beautifully through the medium of beer mats…

We’ve actually had these beer mats knocking around for a couple of years — with the MSW logo on the front, and this invitation to respond with words or pictures on the back. We’ve tried deploying them in a few different contexts but, frankly, without much useful take-up. Until this Saturday, I would have put this down as a failed experiment in data-gathering — somehow we’d never quite found the right context for them. But this evening, quite by accident, that context seems finally to have arisen, as this particularly engaged, responsive audience shared some intriguingly personal responses to the prompt “When I think of water…”

One striking factor in the responses is the way that water is associated by some respondents with occasions a long time ago, and far far away… As in the childhood memory, above, of a waterfall in Switzerland, or this recollection of the holy land…

Water is also associated in the responses with simple, everyday pleasures like drinking and bathing, although these are thrown into sharp perspective by the respondents:

The mat below refers not to past memories but to the fear of losing the (privileged!) life we have now, in an era of prospective water shortages thanks to climate change:

Finally, here’s a sentiment that I can personally identify with very strongly…

… In the years I’ve been working on this project, I’ve moved from Leeds to Manchester – where I’ve lived first in Sale, right next to the Bridgewater Canal, and now in Altrincham, where the house hugs the edge of a tiny stream with the delightful (twee?) name of Fairywell Brook. These choices on my part to live near water (and even, in the latter case, on a flood plain) have been deliberate, self-conscious choices arising from an intensifying sense of personal connectedness. Who knows, maybe this will turn out to be the most longest legacy of the whole project…

Thanks for coming, everyone. And for joining in the storytelling…

And so, the end is near…

This Saturday evening, we have a retrospective event for the Multi-Story Water project at Kirkgate Centre in Shipley. The funded period for the project officially ends this month, and although I’m sure it will have various kinds of after-life (not least this blog, which I expect to continue updating from time to time), we are presenting an exhibition to mark this end point.

For the launch evening on Saturday, we’ll also be remounting two well-received live performances — Too Much of Water and Salt’s Waters — and screening selected short films. We do hope you can join us. Please do RSVP Ruth if you’d like to come, so we can estimate numbers. (Like everything we do, it’s free of charge.)

Weir Science (Part 2): Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum. QED. These three letters are usually used when something has supposedly been proved – but the phrase literally means “that which has been (or is to be) demonstrated”. Well, at Leeds Waterfront Festival, last weekend but one, we set out to demonstrate (without ‘proving’) how the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme’s brand new weir at Crown Point operates. Through the medium of street performance. And therein lies a tale…

In the first part of this two-part blog, I looked at the FAS scheme itself, and took you, dear reader, on a backstage tour of the heavy engineering work still continuing at Crown Point — in the middle of the River Aire — to install the new weir. But why was I, a drama professor, given this access to the site? It all goes back to an unexpected conversation with BAM Nuttall’s FAS project director Andy Judson, over lunch at a networking event last November. On that occasion, I found myself describing to Andy our contribution to Leeds Waterfront Festival 2016, the promenade performance After the Flood  — during which plans for the new weir were demonstrated using a clipboard and a balloon… (as seen below, in a scene featuring Nick DeJong and Joe Large). It was shame, I said to Andy, that the moveable weir mechanism itself couldn’t be demonstrated to the public, because (a) it’s underwater and (b) it will only be operated in potential flood conditions. When I said that, though, you could sort of see a light bulb illuminating over Andy’s head. “Maybe we could demonstrate it,” he said, “by building a mock-up model at ground level during the festival…”

And here is the mock-up model, as exhibited the day before the Festival by BAM foreman Mark Pheasey (left) and two colleagues including stakeholder relations manager Jonathan Bulmer (right). The model was originally going to be much larger — on the same scale as the real thing, and using one of the actual air bladders that will go into the weir installation (as seen below – the black rubber bladders stacked next to the metal weir plates at the FAS compound to the east of the city centre…).

In the event, though, there were logistical problems with the full-scale plan, so Mark Pheasey dreamed up the scaled-down model using painted hardboard for the weir plate (which really does look like the real thing – as you can see) and some much smaller air bags, which didn’t have to support the weight of the River Aire! Actually I think this worked much better than the full-scale model might have, because the air-bags in the mock-up could inflate and deflate in seconds, raising and lowering the hardboard weir, whereas the big bladder would have taken at least half an hour to inflate fully. Much better for demonstration purposes!

So this is the model in situ at the weekend, on the left (weir plate up), being explained to two members of the public by one of the volunteering FAS staff (the people with white patches on their T-shirt sleeves). On the far right is Andy Judson himself, chatting to the Environment Agency’s Mark Garford and others. The FAS team were on hand all weekend, in different combinations, to chat to the public about the scheme from a more official, technical point of view — using the model as a point of focus.

It became clear that word of the model demonstration had spread to some pretty influential places. Above is Hilary BennLabour MP for Leeds Central, who seemed genuinely fascinated by the scheme when he turned up early on the Saturday morning. And on the Sunday, Richard Parry, the Chief Executive of the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways) also stopped by to see what we were doing (at which point I shamelessly asked for a picture with him…).

Despite this interest at policy level, though, the mock-up model and uniformed FAS team still looked — as they themselves put it to me — somewhat “dry” and “worky” for a festival weekend. Somehow the general public had to be engaged a little more eye-catchingly, and this is where Weir Science came in ….

… that’s the name we gave to the creative elements we built around the FAS model. “We” being Multi-Story Water and Open Source Arts, in Kirkstall, which is run by Phil Marken (one of the leading lights in Leeds’s voluntary flood response after the inundation of Boxing Day 2015). Phil himself wasn’t available at the weekend, but he had arranged for “graphic harvester” Jon Dorsett – above – to be on hand to gradually build up a visual record of the activities as they occurred, on four white boards that BAM staff had fastened to the open gate of their compound. The first thing Jon did was draw this appealing, cartoonish logo for us – to catch the eye of passers-by… (I love that he even hand-drew all the logos… a lovely counterbalance to the ‘official’ signage).

Phil had also consulted his address book of street performers and come up with one-man-band Jake Rodrigues, aka “Shabby Jake”, aka Professor Leaky-Faucet. This last was a new identity and ‘look’ that Jake created for us this weekend, inspired by the Weir Science title and by every mad scientist you’ve seen in books and movies… In fact Jake’s entire set was tweaked for context, as he engaged crowds in (seemingly) spontaneous renditions of “songs with weir in the title”… from Queen’s “Weir the Champions” to Vera Lynn’s “Weir Meet Again”, via the Pointer Sisters’ “Weir Are Family”, and many others. The results were hilarious, as were Jake’s various bits of improvised schtick about the weir model (“it’s a giant cheese toastie maker”) and explanations about the risks involved in flooding Leeds with custard…

In the picture above, taken on the Sunday, Jake is chatting with passers-by while accompanied by another of Phil’s recommendations — stilt-walker Nik, aka Das Isobar. The job of these two, whom I briefed carefully in advance, was to deliver a version of their usual act — wandering out and about in the immediate Leeds Dock area to attract attention — while also trying to encourage people towards the weir demonstration area. They did a tremendous job of this, by blending visual appeal with conversational wit. One of my favourite moments of the weekend was watching Nik, from the top of his stilts, chatting animatedly with a man from the Netherlands, who (craning up to look at him) was explaining in detail the history of his country’s reactions to the 1997 floods that engulfed about a third of their landscape… (Nik was only with us for the Sunday: on Saturday the same role was filled by an excellent contact juggler, Steve the Pirate, although I don’t have any good pics of him unfortunately.) Oh and also in the picture above, there’s the otter…

The otter costume belongs to the Environment Agency, apparently, and is often used at public engagement events. Here it is worn by Rosa Foster, one of the EA’s senior flood risk management officers, who found herself oscillating between waving goofily with the head on, and then lifting it up to explain details to passers-by… Rosa made the interesting point to me, though, that when she first put the costume on at the start of the day, people were waving at her, or posing for pictures with their kids, but weren’t readily being pulled in to talk about flood alleviation. After Jake and Nik started up, though, she found that the engagement process became much easier. Andy Judson made much the same point, telling me that the performers succeeded in creating a much “softer landing” for the FAS team’s more technical explanations … Once drawn in by the sense of fun, spectacle and banter, people were much more willing to express their curiosity about the weir itself… and some great conversations then followed. Throughout the weekend it became clear that the FAS team were having a great time chatting with people, since the level of interest was so much greater than they’re used to.

Here’s Professor Leaky-Faucet again (above), in the midst of the “pre-show” set that he delivered six times over the course of the weekend, before each of our Weir Science walking tours (starting at 12.30, 2.00 and 3.30 each day). On the occasion below, he was also accompanied by Nik — down off his stilts and doing his object manipulation routine. At one point this involved commandeering a child’s remote control joystick box, and appearing to use it to “drive” a wheelchair-user around in circles… this man played along gamely to hilarious effect (he was of course really operating his own chair!) .. thereby totally upstaging Jake!

Jake’s crowd-gathering set would end, each time, with him delivering his stompy, one-man-band version of the theme tune to the 1980s teen movie Weird Science — now renamed “Weir Science”…

… here are his lyrics, which stage manager Jenny and I (above) would point out with our fingers as he went… rather like the bouncing ball on karaoke lyrics…

As soon as Jake finished his song, I would then take over in my role as “Guy…from the Council” (complete with carefully selected hush puppies). Accompanied by “my glamorous assistant Jack” (“of all trades”) in head-to-toe BAM orange, we would then demonstrate the weir model before inviting people to come with us on a tour around the real thing… Jack (played by the aptly named Jack Waterman) would then read a mock safety briefing, during which people joining us were invited to put on hi-viz vests…

… and a surprising number of people proved willing to do just that (even though we made clear that the vests were optional – still it was a useful way for us to identify our audience on the move). Our first stopping point on the tour was a spot just by the river, where Jack would explain how the crane on Fearns Island had been erected – while also having a sly go at “men in suits and ties”, such as myself, who under-estimate the skills and expertise of construction workers such as himself…

My script for this was based on a gently satirical reading of the research interviews I’d done as preparation: the idea was to bring a human side to the story, to offset and balance out our more technical explanations.

And then it was off across Knights Way Bridge… stopping part-way across to get a good look at the weir itself — currently half-completed… Here we discussed what exactly a coffer dam is, and spoke in some detail about the scheme’s benefits for wildlife…

At one point, “Guy” even attempted to explain the possible reappearance of lamprey in the Aire by demonstrating with a visual aid …

After completing our crossing of the bridge, we stopped outside the Turlow Court apartment building — badly hit during the Boxing Day flood of 2015 — to reflect on some of the residents’ feelings about the flood alleviation scheme (which are generally very positive, despite the temporary inconveniences involved with the construction process).

Then, for our last stop, we brought the audience to a spot directly overlooking the new weir. This was within a fenced-off construction area, which had been specially tidied and made safe for us, for the weekend, by BAM staff.

Here, Jack and I shared various anecdotes, including the story of the moorhen who had made her nest against the upstream side of the part of the sheet piling used to construct the coffer dam for the first (now complete) section of the weir works… Since the nest could not be removed, either legally or morally, when they came to take the coffer dam down, the FAS team had to find a way of working around it — at some considerable cost and expenditure of time. And yet there are now moorhen chicks swimming happily around — who appeared right on cue for one of the Sunday performances, much to the delight of the audience! (I don’t have a picture of them, but here is a tern that stage manager Jenny spotted on the weir…)

Finally, to wrap up, my good friend Eddie Lawler would appear to sing his brand new song, written for the occasion, “The New Leeds Weir”. This had a great, catchy chorus involving making the imagined sounds of the weir moving (“Psst! Fsssh! Bub-bub-bubble! What’s going on at at the New Leeds Weir?”) which many audience members merrily joined in with. It was a lovely, relaxed way to conclude the presentation.

And then, before departing, many audience members wanted to stand around some more, look at the weir and the river, and ask further questions…

Back at the starting point, Jon gradually built up a visual representation of some of the feedback we received over the course of the weekend… Some of it related to people’s thoughts about the weir installation itself, and some of it was feedback on the way we’d presented and explained it to people. My favourite is: “Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed that!”

A huge thankyou to everyone who collaborated on putting this weekend together — to Andy, Jonathan, Mark and everyone at BAM… to Rosa, Mark Garford and others at the EA… to my “sidekick” Jack Waterman, to Phil Marken and Open Source arts, stage manager Jenny, street performers Nik and Steve, and of course two very different musicians who wrote original material for the occasion… Jake and Eddie… Thanks all!

By the end of the weekend, Jon had pretty much filled up that big expanse of whiteboard, and it was the last thing to get dismantled on the Sunday. I gather it might get preserved as a mural in a meeting room somewhere. So I made sure Jon signed it, bottom right corner. QED.

Weir Science (Part 1): Hold Back the River

This is me, taking a selfie, rocking head-to-toe orange. Something of a contrast to my usual look, but this is a blog post about contrasts. I’ll explain the new look shortly, but first…

The last couple of weeks have seen striking contrasts in weather patterns (climate change? wot climate change?). At the peak of a mini-heatwave that had us all sweating, June 21st was the hottest June day in the UK in 40 years. But only a week later, after several days of persistent rain, Bradford was once again facing flood warnings across the district — with water at perilously high levels in the Shipley area along both Bradford Beck and the main River Aire. Appropriate, then, that we also saw the publication this week of a long-awaited council report on Bradford’s preparedness for future flooding — which concludes that the serious budgetary cutbacks Bradford has experienced in recent years has left it vulnerable and exposed to “accelerating climate change risks”.

This report, from a committee chaired by Shipley’s own Green party councillor (and all-round lovely human) Kevin Warnes, is far better-informed than another report published last autumn by a different committee (which I critiqued in this previous blog post), and took advice from local figures who really do know what they’re talking about (such as the chairmen, respectively, of the Aire Rivers Trust and the Friends’ of Bradford’s Becks, Geoff Roberts and Barney Lerner). And while the report is frank about some of the council’s own failings, its key conclusion about insufficient funding points the finger (implicitly) right back at central government — since Bradford is among those councils who have been most disproportionately hit by austerity-era cutbacks (and faces another £32 million in cuts over the next couple of years). My last post on this blog was – in part – about the desperate under-funding of social housing in the area, but the shortage of adequate flood defences is symptomatic of related economic disparities…

Speaking of which… if we’re looking for contrasts, let’s head 12 miles downstream to Leeds, where a very expensive bit of flood engineering is still under construction…

This is the weir at Crown Point — aka Leeds Dam. The rather aesthetically appealing waterfall effect on the right of the picture (i.e. the north side of the river) is created by the brand-new, state-of-the-art weir installation that has replaced the old industrial weir (versions of which have held up water here for about 700 years). The idea with this new weir is that it gets lower – or even disappears completely – in high water conditions, thanks to the pressurised air bladders underneath it, which can simply be deflated to lower the level of the water on the upstream side. It’s the first time this technology has been used in the UK as a flood alleviation measure – and it’s being installed not just here at Crown Point but downstream (on an even larger scale) at Knostrop weir. These weirs, combined with the new flood walls running through the city centre, up as far as the railway station, comprise Phase 1 of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS).

This £47million scheme (underwritten by the City Council, with central government support) will soon be followed by the even more expensive Phase 2 – covering points east through Kirkstall to Horsforth – using money provided by then-Chancellor George Osborne in the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods of 2015. Bradford, by contrast, was offered nothing — and the big difference of course is that money follows money. Or, to mis-paraphrase the biblical parable of the talents: “To those that have shall be given more.”

It’s apparently quite unusual, in the world of flood defences, for so many millions to be spent on such a specific, geographically-limited scheme as this. It’s reckoned that the new Crown Point weir, when lowered, will reduce upstream river levels on the Aire about as far as Victoria Bridge — so not even quite as far as the station. That’s a fairly short stretch of river, but it’s an extremely high value stretch of river. Better flood protection here will mean greater peace of mind for the major businesses and residential complexes on either side of the river — and will make it more likely that further inward investment will flow in to the city (especially in terms of the mooted regeneration of the South Bank area). So that’s why this investment has been made… and the results are, let’s be honest, pretty awe-inspiring… That coffer dam is quite literally holding back the River Aire, so that contractors have access to the riverbed.

This is FAS foreman Mark Pheasey, descending the gangway into the coffer dam, where the second section of the new collapsible weir is currently under construction (it’s now due for completion around September). Mark, also pictured below, is one of my new favourite people — helpful, generous, knowledgeable — after being assigned by his employers, the engineering contractors BAM Nuttall, to show me around the site…

I was granted this privileged access (and required to wear orange) as part of my preparation and research for Weir Science — our latest Multi-Story Water performance project, which I’ll document in the promised “Part Two” of this blog post. For now, though, just check out the big boys’ toys…

This is the main crane on site, weighing in at a modest 250 tonnes. The counter-weight alone (the big red bit on the back) is 86 tonnes. Mark laughed when I expressed amazement at this behemoth, because BAM deals with much bigger cranes on other sites. But still, it is way too big to have been driven here… It had to be assembled, here on Fearns Island (in the middle of the river), through the use of a smaller, mobile crane (a mere 110 tonnes) that was driven across to the island via a temporary stone bridge – erected across the narrowest part of the navigation. The big crane is basically being used as a very large coat-hanger from which to suspend equipment like this… (press play and insert fingers in ears…)

This hammer is pile-driving sheet metal… It’s the stuff the coffer dam is made of, but the row going in here is part of the permanent foundations for the new weir. This is “heavy metal” in action, and it’s being installed by a team of highly skilled contractors. BAM workers get assigned to work around the country in teams, where they’re most needed (Mark’s home is in Hartlepool – so mostly he only gets back to see his family at weekends). The guy you see in the video above, lining up the hammer so it falls just right, has been doing work like this for decades. (I didn’t catch his name, sorry…)

But if you’re not easily impressed by scale and power, you might prefer this bit of video instead…

Here we see the River Aire having a minor disagreement with the coffer dam holding it back, and leaking through the cracks to make a new, miniature river along its own river-bottom… A pump system is in operation to deal with this, 24/7.

 

Further along Fearns Island, we can glimpse the new weir doing its thing, while – across on the far side of the river – the new flood walls are still under construction (that white concrete will eventually have red-brick facing on it to blend in with the surrounding buildings). And to the left, also across on the far side, that scaffolding-covered block is the operations booth for the new system. Though the building itself isn’t finished yet, the key machinery has already been installed inside, as Mark showed me…

That touch-screen computer has adjacent settings on it for the two weir plates that will form part of the new weir. Since one of those plates is already operational, all the relevant readings are visible. But since the second plate is not yet installed (inside the coffer dam), that simply shows as being offline.

Whatever. I must admit that I was more drawn to the old school, lower-tech look of the pipes and dials below. And, yes, sadly, my inner child found some measure of amusement in the notice on the left…

Many thanks to Mark and BAM for a fascinating tour of the weir works. It gave me much of the material I needed for Weir Science, which we presented as part of the Leeds Waterfront Festival last weekend (June 24th/25th)… [see Part 2 of this blog].

Though based primarily in Shipley, the Multi-Story Water project has made annual forays downstream along the Aire to present performances at the LWF (see After the Flood and Seven Bridges under the Performance tab on the menu bar above). Working in Leeds has always felt like a different, but related context to Shipley, but this year the contrasts have seemed especially pronounced. Last year, an investigation led by this project established that there would be little to be gained, in terms of flood mitigation, by removing Shipley’s old industrial weirs. (Even if the money was available, which it isn’t.) In Leeds, though, they’re transforming a centuries-old landmark into contemporary art…

Life in a Bradford tower block: It’s about citizens, not cladding.

Two weeks on from the horrific fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, I feel angrier and more depressed than ever. Not only for the obvious reasons — the appalling and completely avoidable deaths of at least 79 residents, young and old — but also now because the public discussion seems to have descended into petty, buck-passing arguments over combustible insulation cladding. Central government blames local councils for not inspecting their housing stocks fast enough, while local councils blame building contractors for supplying substandard materials. And meanwhile, in those UK cities such as Bradford where there has so far been no sign of suspect cladding, we get to act like it’s somebody else’s problem entirely. Earlier this week, a report by the Telegraph and Argus confirmed the early reassurances from the city’s largest social housing provider, InCommunities, that “our high-rise blocks” use “non-combustible rock wool insulation which is not the same as that used in London.” Nothing to see here. Move along please…

And yet there is absolutely something to see here. Because while Grenfell tower’s flammable cladding seems to have been the immediate cause of this fire spreading so rapidly and lethally, there had long been concerns that any number of problems with that building were potentially life-threatening. The residents of Grenfell Tower had been well aware of this for years, but found that their concerns were repeatedly “brushed away” by the relevant authorities. So let’s not confuse the symptoms with the disease. This is not a story about cladding, it’s a story about ordinary people not being listened to. It’s a nationwide pathology, and one that is only perpetuated by the cat-fighting at governance level about who did (or didn’t) do what when. When you’re shouting, you’re not listening.

“Residents feel abandoned by those with the power,” London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has said of Grenfell tower: “They didn’t know where to go or what to do. Residents feel that they are neglected because they are poor.” That experience is certainly not unique to London. Khan’s comments immediately reminded me of the Crosley Wood estate in Bingley — three tower blocks troubled by a multitude of problems, where the residents I’ve encountered feel largely abandoned by both InCommunities and by Bradford Council (who seem powerless to enforce any accountability on the housing association). Last year, I made a short film, High Rise Damp, which tried to look at these issues through the eyes of one family living on the estate. Here it is:

This is Jenni Mynard. She and her family live on the eighth floor of ten in Peel House, one of the three Crosley Wood tower blocks. It stands right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which is why our Multi-Story Water project – working alongside Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre – became involved in a community engagement process there. The canal, we’ve found, is experienced by residents as one of the few upsides to living on this estate. But residents at Crosley Wood also experience water in their lives in much more immediate and troublesome ways – in the form of persistent damp problems throughout the buildings, often manifesting as black mould. This poses serious health risks: as Jenni explains in the film, her son Dylan suffers from chronic asthma which is likely a consequence of the damp. Yet all her attempts to have the problem addressed or even taken seriously by InCommunities haveseemingly fallen on deaf ears. Making this film was my attempt to have her tell her story, for anyone who might be willing to listen, as simply and directly as possible.

There is, unfortunately, nothing unusual or exceptional about Jenni’s story. That’s sort of the point. As Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea MP (whose constituency includes Grenfell Tower) remarked during her maiden speech to Parliament in the wake of the fire disaster, “I’ve seen housing conditions that are shocking… Homes growing toxic black mould… Chronic health problems such as asthma, with children being carted off to hospital at night.” Dent Coad has accused Kensington council of presiding over the “deterioration and perhaps even deliberate managed decline of social housing” in that borough. Making a similar point, another London MP, David Lammy (who personally knew one of the victims of the Grenfell fire, the acclaimed photographer Khadija Saye) has gone so far as to call it a case of “corporate manslaughter” – avoidable deaths caused by neglect and a lack of care.

Now, I’m not going to accuse anyone in Bradford of doing anything criminal, but we only need to look as far as the comments thread on InCommunities’ own Facebook pages to see that a great many of the housing association’s residents have faced comparable difficulties with run-down, substandard housing stock — and with a perceived lack of concern from those responsible. At the time of writing this post, the most recent comment is one from June 21st, from a resident whose “house was a disgrace” from the day she moved in, with unsafe wiring: but when she “rang incommunities [they] were rude and arrogant”. “Some people that work here are dishonest”, writes another complainant: “they just lied they do what suits them”. And another: “Absolutely fed up! I moved into one of your houses 2 years ago and spent every bit of my savings on doing up the whole house as it was an absolute disaster.” I have not cherry-picked these quotes – they’re among the first things that come up on the feed, and are completely typical of what follows. In fact this thread is such a litany of horror that my colleague Lyze Dudley recently decided to run the entire comments chain through a software programme to identify the most insistent complaints. This is what she found, represented as a “word-cloud” visual:

This image sort of speaks for itself. The word “thanks” does come up, but so too do “disgusting” and “joke”. And notice just how prominent that word “water” is in the mix. Whether it be issues of damp or problems with water supplies, InCommunities tenants experience water as one of the big negatives of their living conditions. Thankfully, the word “fire” does not appear. Yet.

I should stress that I am not trying to say InCommunities does nothing right. Indeed early last week, a few days after the Grenfell fire, its Chief Executive Geraldine Howley (left) was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, “in recognition of her services to housing, young people and the local community.” To earn this accolade, I’ve no doubt that Ms. Howley has done things at governance level that have made positive differences in people’s lives. And yet there is also, clearly, a serious disconnect between the management perspective and the perspectives of residents. So there’s an urgent need — in Bradford as well as in London — for constructive, respectful dialogue between authorities and tenants.

Perhaps that is just what InCommunities have been attempting this spring/summer, through a series of events and “walkabouts” they’ve set up on Bradford estates. At Crosley Wood, they laid on a well-attended “Fun Day” for residents on June 1st, which featured lots of music and bunting, free food and drink for residents (up to a point – when you’d had your allocation you had to pay for any more), as well as a caving bus, face painting and other family activities. There was also an information marquee offering advice on debt management, ways to save on household energy bills, and so on. There seemed to be a real effort to engage with residents, particularly by the new housing officer Joanne, and lots of people clearly had a really enjoyable time.

I asked Jenni Mynard (pictured below) what she made of the Fun Day. She was very grateful for it, she said, and suggested that a lot of the credit for the event and its positivity should go to Joanne — who is friendly, personable, enthusiastic and clearly concerned for residents’ welfare. Even so, Jenni sounded a note of caution about whether a single housing officer could ultimately make any real difference in terms of the wider problems faced by residents. “We’ve had good officers before,” she told me, “and they all seem to get beaten down in the end.”

That rather bleak assessment, reflecting a wariness borne of experience, was echoed by others who attended the Fun Day. Lyze Dudley, who also took these photographs, spoke to numerous residents on the day, and while most were appreciative of what had been laid on, some of them also remarked that they didn’t understand what this event was for: were InCommunities really going to address their concerns, or was this just a PR exercise? “The feeling was”, Lyze wrote in her notes, “that this has happened in the past. There’s a nice event where free food and drink is given out, residents are asked for their opinions and then nothing changes. One resident informed me that she would rather they spent the money on repairs to the flats rather than a party.” Of course, repairs would cost a lot more than a party – and that’s exactly the problem. Social housing in this country has been chronically under-funded for decades.

Another resident reported to Lyze his fears for the future of Crosley Woods’ portacabin community centre (rather peculiarly referred to as “the Kabin” in publicity for this event): “Joanne has informed him that they plan to change the locks on the cabin, essentially putting a stop to any of the sessions that currently run from here and taking ownership away from the residents who are taking responsibility for the cabin and have done for the past two years. Unfortunately he cannot tell me why or when this may happen.” It may be that this fear proves unfounded – let’s hope so. But unfortunately, the experience of Crosley Woods residents has in the past been of things being taken away from them, rather than provided to them.

This was underlined most chillingly by Jenni, when I phoned her recently to see if she was concerned about fire safety, following the Grenfell disaster. “We used to have a really good fire safety system”, she told me: “We had heat detectors, smoke alarms, and a common alarm system for the entire block. So if a fire started somewhere, we all knew about it.” That system also sent an automatic alert to the fire brigade, who would then respond swiftly. However, after the building was renovated a few years ago (Jenni doesn’t recall the exact year, but the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition were in power), the alarm system was not replaced. Now, fire safety has simply become a private matter of residents’ individual responsibility. If your smoke alarm goes off, Jenni says, you have to decide for yourself whether to inform your neighbours or call the fire brigade. It’s all down to you. 

[Please note: some of the statements in the paragraph above have since proved to be inaccurate. For corrections see here.]

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? It’s an endemic problem in modern Britain that people are too often just left to fend for themselves. We are expected to be personally “resilient” in the face of crisis, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect any help from the authorities. The Grenfell fire exposed the murderous reality of what that means in practice, but it was — as the tower’s residents were well aware — an accident waiting to happen. As for Bradford, well… cladding problem or no cladding problem, attention must be paid. 

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My thanks to Ruth Bartlett and Lyze Dudley for assistance with this post.

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.