Aurora: Moving Over The Face of the Deep

OK. So where to begin?

In the beginning,” we are told, “God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And . . . God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1: 1-3)

Maybe that’s too far back. Maybe I should begin in the 1770s, when the first sections of the Leeds to Liverpool canal were cut — through Shipley and Bingley — the first stage in a process that would connect Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool by water, and catalyse those cities’ rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution.

Or maybe I should just begin last month, when the Leeds-based arts collective Invisible Flock (with whom I have enjoyed some productive dialogues over recent years) invited me to attend the launch evening of their new, Liverpool-based installation, Aurora.Which is why, last night, I found myself walking through pouring rain in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, along with other intrepid visitors to Aurora‘s very first public showing. Everyone was cold and damp, and we’d been warned that we were likely to stay cold and damp, because we were about to step inside a reservoir. Toxteth Reservoir, that is: a remarkable, Grade-2 listed building that is part of Liverpool’s industrial heritage.

Those forbidding, sloping walls, built around 1845, were designed to contain and support vast quantities of water. This water, which presumably fell from the sky to begin with? — this being Liverpool — was held in a rectangular tank measuring around 2600 square metres. It was distributed as needed to provide clean water to the city’s rapidly expanding population, and also supplied early fire-fighting efforts, etc.

The roof of this vast space is held up with rows of iron pillars. Moving inside the building, we found ourselves navigating our way freely around a big rectangle of walkways, shadowing the interior edges of the building, which were marked out by coloured lasers. These walkways were all under 2 or 3 centimetres of water, so as we walked, patterns of coloured light rippled out in front of us.

I went into Aurora not really knowing what to expect. The last piece of Invisible Flock’s that I saw, Control, was a theatre show based on interviews with a myriad of “experts” — which explored who has what degree of control over the way the world is heading just now (politically, environmentally, technologically…). Control was all about the language from these interviews — words, words, words — and so I was expecting that to be continued somehow in Aurora. But instead… no words at all. Just impenetrable darkness, a void without clear edges, and water lapping around our feet, moisture clinging to us in the dank atmosphere. And light. Let there be light, said Invisible Flock. And behold, there was light. Especially, centrally, light picking out a big lump of slowly melting ice — hanging suspended in the middle of the space, and reflecting in the water below. Sometimes the ice was visible. Sometimes not.

As an experience, Aurora runs for about 40 minutes. Which is actually quite a long time when you’re standing in the dark and the cold, watching light play across water. If this were a regular gallery installation, it would be the kind of thing you’d just walk in and out of, when you’ve had enough, but here — like a theatre show — we all entered together and left together at the end. A captive audience. Trapped in the dark. Not quite sure how to get out even if you wanted to. So you’re very much left alone with your own thoughts. Partly because talking would seem, somehow, wrong in here. And partly because the sound score — an eerie combination of electronics and strings — is sometimes so loud it would drown out speech. Although it’s also sometimes so quiet that you can hear water dripping.A lot of things run through your head in a situation like this. I went through a phase, for example, of rejection and denial. It’s really just a big son et lumiere display, I thought to myself for a while. Where is the content? I’d read that this was some kind of local community project, so where was the community — other than standing around with me in the dark? I’d also read that this was to be a piece about global “water issues” like flooding and drought… but how can sound and light alone talk about those concerns?There was a stage in the show when we started to be shown more of the looming, arch-like architecture of the building — and though you can’t really see it in the picture above, it actually starting raining inside the building, around the inside of the exterior wall. This was the point when the piece felt the most “human” to me — an evocation both of man-made structures and of the weather we all live with in the north of England… the weather that Liverpool’s Victorian workers trudged through, just as we had today.

But what was most surprising, and most chilling perhaps, was just how inhuman, or rather nonhuman, Aurora turned out to be. To speak of flooding or drought is to speak, really, of the impacts on humans of there being too much water, or too little, for our accustomed ways of living. But in the end, Aurora seemed to me spectacularly unconcerned with such passing concerns. It really was about water as water. Mysterious. Impenetrable (even when we dive headfirst into it). Eternal. We’re made of it, we depend on it, but it does not need us.

For me, this thought was epitomised by the strange, hanging shapes that formed a kind of field, or cloud, or constellation around that central ice block. Shapes that looked at first like lanterns, then maybe water containers of some sort… but also weirdly alien. It crossed my mind, briefly, that they were the eggs of an Alien hive mother… Eventually I realised that they too, like the egg-like form in the centre, were ice. And they were melting. Water going from solid to liquid.

In one particularly eerie moment, these shapes hung very low over the water — as if threatening to descend right into it — before rising back up into the “stars”. The music during this whole section seemed mournful, haunting — I can’t even start to describe it — but in my mind the whole thing started to crystallise as a piece that was really, truly indifferent to human beings. Like the planet itself, perhaps. The planet that we are irrevocably altering with our own indifference towards it. The glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. The next Great Extinction of earthly species is already underway, and we started it — round about the time of the Industrial Revolution, when this building went up and we started burning fossil fuels at an ever-more-exponential rate. Aurora, then, evokes the facts of a very Dark Ecology. . . . But the oceans will outlast us. And so, in the end, will the ice.

Towards the end of the piece, sharp shafts of laser light begin to stab their way into the middle of the space — as if from the outer edges of outer space. And then, before you know it, those beams are catching and refracting through the hanging icicles, and the music goes from somber to strangely joyful, and there’s a dazzling symphony — or choreography, or something — of co-ordinated light and sound.Perhaps this, finally, is the aurora borealis evoked by the piece’s title. The Northern Lights. The spectacular natural light show that’s visible in areas approaching the north pole. (Come to that, it could equally well be the aurora australis – the Southern Lights. Both the ice-caps are melting, after all.) For me, though, something about those lights beaming in from outer space made it something else again…. A picture, perhaps, of an ocean-covered earth echoing with the music of the spheres — catching the starshine arriving from light years away, and amplifying its harmonies. An earth no longer despoiled by humans, but restored to one-ness with the rest of the universe…?

… Or something like that, anyway. Afterwards, I found two phrases from very different songs echoing around my head. From Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, the chorus of his hymn-like 1979 song “Hills of Morning“:

Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep —
I want to be a particle of your light
Flowing over the hills of morning

Or on a bleaker, perhaps more realistic note, some words from U2’s 2014 song “Iris” — a song of lament for the mother Bono lost when he was a child:

The stars are bright but do they know
The universe is beautiful … but cold.

Having reached its climax, Aurora ends, and mysterious ice blocks appear lit at the corners of the walkways, to help light our way out. Ice blocks with items frozen inside them… is this an arrow? a quill? …human relics of a forgotten civilization, preserved in ice forever.

But then, bit by bit, the magic ebbs away. On the way out, we can suddenly see the ramp up to the flooded walkways (when we came in, it was too dark…). Those familiar white lines marking the perimeters of a stage space or holding area. Suddenly so banal after the mysteries of what we just witnessed. But then that’s the way of magic, isn’t it? Sometimes its most magical when you can see how they pulled off the trick…

And outside, it’s still raining. It’s still Liverpool. And those walls that had seemed so imposing and forbidding when we went in seem suddenly much smaller, more ordinary… But ordinary like the outside of the Doctor’s Tardis. Because a moment ago they contained the universe inside…And so we repair to the launch reception for Aurora. Just up the street, on the other side of the Catholic Church, is the Mount Carmel Social Club… a community venue where members of the local community mix in with the slightly incongruous arty-types who seem to be staffing the show. Once everyone has a drink, the absence of words during the performance itself is (over-)compensated for by an excess of words from the great and the good — the Arts Council, the City of Liverpool, the commissioning body FACT, etc. It’s all the usual corporate verbiage that you get on such occasions, but it’s even harder to listen to than usual after what we just witnessed. Representing Invisible Flock, though, Victoria Pratt is refreshingly brief in her comments. She prefers, I think, to let the work speak for itself.

Bubbling and Babbling with Bradford’s Becks

After a year largely spent doing other things, it was a pleasure to return to the Bradford area this weekend to reprise my ongoing, water-themed double-act with singer-songwriter Eddie Lawler at not one but two local festivals. In the end, I think it’s fair to say that our Sunday gig (September 9th) was more enjoyable than Saturday’s — but ironically enough that’s mainly because of water… On Saturday (8th) it was pouring down out of the sky with enough force and frequency to, er, dampen anyone’s fun…

This was my vantage point on Tyrell Street for much of the afternoon. Eddie and I were supposed to be singing songs and telling tales of Bradford Beck, as part of the weekend’s Bubble Up festival — a water-themed arts extravaganza which had events dotted all around Bradford’s city centre. I was also attempting a bit of story-gathering as well as telling, by using a hand-drawn map of the city centre — showing the Beck’s hidden journey under its streets — and inviting passers-by to add their own annotations about memories of city centre locations. The memories added went as far back as 1968, but the map didn’t get nearly as populated with text as I had hoped, because (as the picture tells you) the footfall from shoppers was poor and getting poorer all afternoon — even as the rain poured and kept pouring…

Here’s Eddie, smiling as ever, and undaunted by the weather, even though there wasn’t — in the end — much meaningful opportunity for him to use that microphone to sing. He’s huddled under the Friends of Bradford’s Becks’ portable gazebo, along with fellow Friend Elizabeth, who was timetabled to lead walks along the route of the Beck through the city centre — via the plaques that are now placed in the pavements at key intervals.

Just past the gazebo, FoBB had opened up a manhole cover and surrounded it with a safety fence — as well as a polystyrene mock-up of a slate sculpture by Alex Blakey that’s being planned as a permanent feature… By looking down the hole, you can see Bradford Beck streaming by beneath the street. Although only the most educated observer would be able to distinguish the beck from a storm drain, passers-by were nevertheless intrigued when told that this was the hidden river around which the city was first built….

Across the street in Bradford’s City Park area, there were more under-trafficked gazebos and marquees, including the one from which Bradford Community Broadcasting (BCB) was live-casting for the day. Eddie and I took time out from our stall location to speak with host Mary Dowson — who was as engaging and on-the-ball as ever — about how and why we both got involved in using the arts to talk about water.

It was actually really interesting to talk with Mary immediately after she’d interviewed David Clapham (below, left). David is a scientist and water specialist who used to work with Bradford Council: he was really excellent at talking about the material and dynamic properties of water, in an engaging rather than a “dry” way (sorry). Eddie and I were then able to follow up from the cultural point of view, by talking not about “water” singular but about “waters” plural — as they were traditionally thought of, in the days before H2O was seen as a unified resource. (Of course waters still do vary in property and character from place to place, depending on mineral qualities etc.) Eddie’s songs often give particular watercourses personal identities, by singing in the first person: “My name is Bradford Beck… If you’re wondering what the heck I’m doing singing this song, it’s cos I have to roll along, incognito… Beneath the city streets, with no credibility…”

Alas, as you can see from this shot, our time in the BCB tent coincided with one of the heaviest of the afternoon’s downpours, which left City Park itself pretty much deserted. I do hope this wasn’t too disappointing for Bubble Up’s organisers, from the Brick Box community arts organisation. Some of the Brick Box team were there, in the BCB tent, in their distinctive water-themed wigs, trying to make the best of the situation… The weather was generally a lot better on Sunday (yesterday) than Saturday, so I do hope Bubble Up bubbled a bit better with some sunshine… By then, though, Eddie and I were off on our other festival weekend mission. presenting a musical walking tour for Saltaire Festival, titled The Ballad of Little Beck.

This was Roberts Park, in Saltaire, shortly before 12 noon, with the sun very much shining. Starting at the park’s bandstand, Eddie and I welcomed an audience of 15 or 20 intrepid walkers, who had come along to journey with us along long watercourses towards the ruins of Milner Field mansion — the “lost” country home of Titus Salt Jr.

The walk was in some ways a “live remix” of parts of the Salt’s Waters audio tour (still available for download!) that Eddie and I made the other year. Our title, The Ballad of Little Beck, came from the song of the same name that Eddie wrote for the audio guide, and which tells the story of the Milner Field mansion from the point of view of the small brook that flows through the grounds and was once dammed by the Salts to make a boating lake (again: river songs in the first person!). But the balladeering theme was taken in a different direction for this new walk, as we performed a selection of poems along the way, by local poets of the Salts’ era. In the picture above, Eddie is singing — to a tune of his own devising — the poem “Come to Thy Granny” by dialect poet Ben Preston, who built the Glen pub in Eldwick. We didn’t go quite as far as Eldwick (that would have been a long walk), but instead performed this on the path towards Eldwick, just before we turned off in another direction.

A little further along the route, here I am performing John Nicholson’s poem “Bingley’s Beauties”. (Thanks to Ruth Bartlett for these pics, by the way.) Nicholson was a mill worker and poet apparently loved by Titus Salt Sr., but he died in 1843, before Saltaire itself was built, when he drowned while crossing the River Aire en route to visit his aunt in, yes, Eldwick (we had traced his steps in this direction from Saltaire). As you can see from the picture below, at this point we were standing directly over Little Beck itself — halfway along Sparable Lane, heading towards Gilstead (in the parish of Bingley).

Heading further along Sparable Lane, we turned at corner of the walled gardens on the edge of the Milner Field mansion estate (below). By this stage, the weather had turned towards rain — as you can see from the umbrellas — but we were largely sheltered by trees and it was actually rather nice to get the cooling rain after the walk uphill. The rain then subsided soon enough (unlike the day before…).

Having reached Gilstead, we paused momentarily to consider the blue plaque commemorating Sir Fred Hoyle — famous son of Gilstead, world-leading scientist, and a poet of a different kind… (On radio in 1949, he coined the term “Big Bang” as a put-down to the recently-developed theory, only for it to stick as a descriptor!) Then finally we came to the Milner Field estate…

… here we paused at the entrance gate and gate lodge (‘North Lodge’), which is the best remaining indication of the architectural style of the now ruined mansion. And then it was into the woods to find the ruins themselves… Some of what we found there is recorded on some video clips collected here.

After making our way back downhill through the Milner Field estate, we finished up the walk with a visit to Bradford Amateur Rowing Club’s clubhouse — where we shared a drink and were treated to a number of additional songs from Eddie (who even took requests). The picture above (showing Eddie, me, Molly Kenyon, Rob Martin … others were at the bar at this point!) is courtesy of Denise Boothman, who sent it over to me by email with a note saying “Thanks once again for a fascinating and enjoyable afternoon.” We certainly enjoyed presenting it… Thankyou Saltaire Festival for inviting us to present.

Happy New Year: Beck to the Future?

It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re about to wish a fond farewell to 2017 (or not so fond, depending on your year…) and welcome in 2018. Since our Multi-Story Water project officially concluded this year, I don’t expect this blog to be very active in the coming twelve months… And yet you never know. Rivers keep on flowing, and time has a funny way of looping back on itself for all of us.

In January, for example, I will be attending this meeting at Bradford City Hall to discuss possible futures for Bradford Beck — or more specifically, for the “Shipley Canal Road Corridor”, the ribbon of green space and river that runs north from Bradford into Shipley alongside Valley Road. The photograph that shadows the background of the invitation above is taken from almost the exact same spot as the picture below: it shows the mouth of the “box culvert” into which the Beck flows for a short distance underneath the greensward near the bottom of Wharncliffe Road. The main concern of the January meeting will be to discuss the possibility of removing this culvert — and thus “daylighting” this short, underground stretch of the Beck.

If there’s a slight sense of time-looped deja vu for me here, it’s because I first heard this possibility mentioned back in 2012, at the very beginning of the MSW project, when I was first getting to know Shipley’s rivers. During that same year, Barney Lerner of the Aire Rivers Trust was undertaking a DEFRA-supported catchment assessment of Bradford Beck, looking at ways to improve the condition of the river. Barney came up with a number of recommendations, ranging from “soft options” like setting up a “Friends of” group (and of course he has chaired the Friends of Bradford’s Becks since its inception, as the group has undertaken everything from clean-ups to a walking guide to a poetry book) to more costly, technical options for daylighting the river. The end-game, for Barney and FoBB, would be for the Beck to be visible again all the way through Bradford city centre. That, of course, is still a very long way from being feasible, but the removal of the Shipley box culvert has often been mooted as a potential first step — a move that might “light the way” towards further renaturalisation. Below is one visualisation of what this stretch might look like in future…

This image, and the drawings below, are reproduced with Barney’s permission from a feasibility study which FoBB commissioned from JBA Consulting, at Salts Mill, back in 2015. As you can see, there’s a pleasing, serpentine flow to the river in the picture above. The schematic drawing below shows how this more natural meander (which would including new tree planting around the Beck) would be created by removing the “straight-jacketing” of the box culvert…

It’s clear, I think, that this open meander would represent a considerable improvement on the aesthetics of what’s currently there. Unfortunately, major public spending is not often considered purely for its aesthetic benefits… but potential flood alleviation is a way to attract funding, and it’s this agenda that underlies the January meeting. As is pretty clear from the cross-section diagrams below, the box culvert is a very limited, closed channel through which a high volume of water is trying to pass in a flood situation…

… at present, what that means is that excess water, which cannot get down the culvert, spills out all over the green space and onto the road. But if, instead of forcing the Beck through a closed pipe, you restore it to a more natural valley situation, with gradually sloping sides, then the Beck can just naturally rise up those valley sides in high water conditions. And thus, it will keep on flowing safely downstream, rather than spilling out all over the place.

The irony here, from a planning point of view, is that “offset” measures will be needed, in order to justify this restoration to the natural way of things. Since the removal of the culvert would mean less water spilling out of bounds, and more carrying on downstream, this becomes a concern for places downstream (like Shipley station) where that extra water might end up. So as well as planning to take out the culvert, the Council needs to offset the impact of that change by putting in other measures that will provide “flood storage capacity” along the Canal Road corridor, in high water conditions… Or something like that.

Now, obviously, I’m no technical expert. I’m talking here in layman’s terms, and I’ll certainly welcome the further clarification on these points that the meeting will no doubt bring. I do, however, have some professional competence as a historian, and in light of these plans for potentially daylighting the Beck in this spot, I wanted to draw attention to this document here…

This is the front cover to a big, map-size document book that I found in the Local Studies section of Bradford Central Library. In 1903/04, Shipley Urban District Council was a pretty new entity, having evolved from the old Shipley Local Board, and it had big plans for Shipley’s regeneration (this involved, for example, a lot of development in the Dockfield area, as discussed in a blog from this time a year ago, and featured in our micro-theatre performance This Island’s Mine). Interestingly, one of the schemes that the SUDC planned at this time was a revamp of the Canal Road Corridor…

In the map diagram above, you can again see Valley Road, and the Beck running alongside it…. together with a plan for re-routing the Beck slightly further east (“Proposed line of deviation of Beck”), further from the road. At the top of the picture runs the then-still-extant Bradford Canal (eventually filled in after its closure in 1922). Now look at the next image, which shows the next segment of Beck/Canal/Road on the way south towards Bradford…

This is the same curve in the Beck that is now being proposed for renaturalisation. Notice how, back in 1903, it came so close to the Canal that they were almost touching… Notice, too, that in these pictures, there is no box culvert. It wasn’t there then — I’m told it was built during the 1920s or 30s (perhaps around the same time they filled the canal in?). But perhaps that comment signalling a “proposed deviation” of the Beck is the first sign of plans afoot. And check this out…

These pencil-sketched engineers’ calculations almost look as if they could have been written yesterday. Don’t ask me what all the numbers mean, but the plan is for “66 feet of Culvert (covered)” — so about 20 metres. I found these sheets of calculations among the Shipley Urban District Council papers held by West Yorkshire Archive Service (to whom, thanks for permission to reproduce this image). The notes are undated, but they’re in amongst other papers relating to SUDC’s early 20th C. redevelopments, and they also provide detailed specifications about other sections of open culverting that this closed culvert will connect to (just as is indeed the case along Valley Road). Is this perhaps a handwritten plan for the construction of the box culvert in question?

Note that the writing in this picture states that the proposed culvert will run “under road”. The box culvert beside Valley Road does not, of course, run under the road — it simply continues next to it. But could these two words provide us with a clue as to why that culvert was built in the first place? Why would you cover over this section of the river, unless you were planning to put something on top of it? This has always been a bit of a mystery to me (what’s it for?), but it seems plausible that there was originally an intention to build a cross-street across the valley, linking what’s now Wharncliffe Road over to Crag Road. Whatever the intention, it never came to fruition … perhaps the Great Depression intervened in the 1930s, just as — more recently — the 2008 financial crash put paid to more recent dreams of rebuilding the Canal itself

Now, I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely here, of course, but who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? And what appeals to me most here is the sense of time circling back on itself, into the new year…

… Once upon a time the river meandered, and we decided to “deviate” it from its course and hem it in. A century later, we want to un-do what we did before and renaturalise it.

Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii)



Insured against future flooding…?

There’s been a weird sense of deja vu this week, as the persistent rain across large parts of the UK led to flooding particularly in northern Lancashire and Cumbria. As reported in the Guardian and Telegraph and elsewhere, upwards of 70 people had to be rescued, and many homes were underwater, after a new local record was set for rainfall in a 24 hour period… Some of the areas hit were the same ones affected by Storm Desmond just under two years ago, when severe flooding hit the Lake District in early December. That was followed, of course, in good alphabetical order, by Storm Eva — which brought the Boxing Day floods of 2015 to the Aire valley, Calderdale, York, and many other places across the north of England.

The aptly named Water Street, in Lancaster, earlier this week…

Let’s hope that history is not about to repeat itself. But river levels on the Aire have been persistently high again recently, just as they were in the run up to Christmas in 2015, and on Wednesday the Environment Agency issued a flood warning for the Upper Aire – west of Keighley. It all seems worryingly reminiscent of two years ago. But maybe we shouldn’t even be surprised… maybe this is the new normal.

“I mean the weather we’re getting now, it’s just totally different from the weather we used to get. You would never, at this time of year, you would never expect to get all these floods. When I was a kid we used to get snow four feet deep. Now it’s just rain.”

Those are the words of Phillip Moncaster, secretary of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club, when I interviewed him in January 2016, shortly after both the club and Phillip’s home had been devastated by the Boxing Day flood. I incorporated them, verbatim, into the script of my one-man show about how the floods affected Shipley, Too Much of Water. It seemed oddly timely to be presenting the piece one more time (and quite possibly for the very last time) last week at Leeds Town Hall. Here I am, in fact, putting Phillip in place next to his (former) home at Aire Close…

The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of the Insurance Institute of Leeds (or IIL – the local branch of the Chartered Insurance Institute, CII). Normally these lunchtime sessions are lectures by invited professionals on insurance-related matters. It’s basically a CPD slot (continuing professional development), and attracts a sizeable audience of folk from Leeds-based insurance companies. There were a good fifty or so people in attendance for the session last week, and this included a good handful from the Shipley/Baildon area, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to me afterwards. One woman announced herself as the person who had dealt with the insurance claim for Half Moon Cafe, in Saltaire’s Roberts Park, which was of course badly hit on Boxing Day (and features in the show).

James Spencer cleaning up Half Moon Cafe after the 2015 flood

I think the intention of Melanie Jordan, who organised this event, was to get her colleagues to think about flooding more holistically — not just as something they deal with in terms of paperwork and statistics, but from the human point of view. She had initially approached Chris Sharp, a curator with Leeds City Museums, who also then recommended me. We spoke as a kind of double bill: he went first with the more traditional powerpoint presentation, then I did my performance.

Chris had organised the Flood Response exhibition at Armley Mills that ran from last December to May this year. His remit is specifically to curate community-focused exhibitions that draw on contributions from local people, and so he had seen many images and heard many stories about the Boxing Day flood as it impacted on Leeds — particularly in the Kirkstall area. Chris He spoke movingly about his experiences with the community there while preparing and mounting the exhibition, and he also put the 2015 event in context with other, historical floods, that the museum service had records and images about. He gave a fascinating presentation at the front of the hall, and we then asked the audience to literally turn around to face the back wall, where I had set up for Too Much of Water.

This was an attentive audience, but also a rather quiet one. They seemed unusually reluctant to laugh at what I have come to think of as ‘the funny bits’ (I’ve done this show enough now to know when to expect an audible response), so I wasn’t quite sure how it had gone down. It was reassuring and heartening, then, to receive written feedback via Melanie this week, which was overwhelmingly positive. Apparently there is a standard online feedback form for these sessions, where respondents tick numerical boxes (Chris and I scored well, it seems), and then can also leave any ‘further comments’ they feel inclined to offer… The written comments are all reproduced below, in the interests of full disclosure!

There was one person who clearly did not like the unconventional format for this “CPD” session:

“Not really appropriate for a professional audience.”

And another whose response is difficult to judge from their deadpan one-line response:

I am not sure what I was expecting but it was not that.”

It was very nice to know, though, that at least one person who was not expecting “that” was nonetheless pleased they had come:

“I have to admit I had not picked up on the fact that this was the story of the 2015 floods told through the medium of drama, and had I had notice I might not have attended, but Stephen’s performance really brought to life the human impact of this event. Chris’s presentation also helped to tell the individual stories of an event that as an industry we refer to primarily in numbers.”

That latter point was also underlined by others:

“It certainly made me think about the insured’s position and what it must have felt like to be in that situation.”

“It was good to have a ‘real life’ aspect to the presentation which affected the local area.”

And then there’s this one, which is the sort of feedback that makes your ears burn:

“I have attended 4 CII lectures now (the last 4 – starting with Ogden) and they have all been excellent but this has been by far the best and I think it stood out because both speakers were not from an Insurance background which gave a nice change of perspective. Both speakers were exceptionally good, their parts of the presentation were well researched and well thought out and they really brought home to you the real human cost of flooding. The performance at the end was inspired and unlike anything I have ever seen before and it was extremely well done. Inspiring. Thank you all.”

(You are very welcome.)

Generally, the respondents didn’t go into much detail about how the presentations related to their day jobs as insurers, but there were a number of comments suggested that the afternoon is likely to be memorable. Perhaps it will have given a bit of an insight that will help these good people treat future flood victims with even more care and concern than they would have anyway…

Because if this is the new normal, there will be future flood victims, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Giving voice to “Val”, a Shipley flood victim

For the record, here are the rest of the remarks, in the order they came to me, complete with typos. (I’ve omitted only one, which was moaning about the microphone acoustics in the room.)

“Very different from the standard lectures. It was fantastic to get a local perspective of issues faced and brought to life in such an enjoyable an enjoyable way. Fabulous, definately one I will remember.”

“I thought the dramatization lecture was really excellent. Great job in organising That.”

“A very different style compared to usual lunchtime lectures and made a welcome change”

“A thoroughly enjoyable lecture, both speakers had very good presentation skills, especially Stephen Bottoms with his performance piece.”

“Very different . I guess the next thing I should do is ask my local councillor what Leeds has learned?”

“The event was outstanding particularly Professor Bottom section. More of the same please.”

“Very engaging presentation/performance”

“I thought it was a brilliant idea to split the Lecture into 2 Parts. Both parts kept me interested & focused.  The Play in particular was a good way to put us in the shoes of the poor people who suffered in the floods and was delivered in a fun yet captivating way.  Well done CII on bringing us something different yet crucially important.”

“Both presentations were well presented and useful in bringing the flood events to life and how these affected people, businesses and the community. Stephen Bottoms in particular was excellent.”

“I thought this afternoons lecture was absolutely brilliant.”

“Fantastic afternoon”



The personal is political… and that includes debt.

Just this morning, Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to write off “tens of billions of pounds of housing associations’ debt”. The idea is that, if those organisations don’t have to service these debts, their finances will be freed up to actually build more social housing — and so address the chronic shortage of affordable homes. It’s a response, of sorts, to the UK’s much-debated housing crisis. But will such generosity in debt relief be passed on by the housing associations to the tenants who owe them…? That’s a question that also needs asking, when so many people are facing potential eviction from their homes. Not least in Bradford…

This brings me back to Jenni Mynard and her family. I wasn’t going to blog about them again, because this is not a story about water (which this blog-site is supposed to be concerned with), and also because discussing one family’s financial problems in a public forum like this seemed too personal, too intrusive. But… the story was already public, because of a crowd-funding campaign I ran two weeks ago on … and then this week I got a call from BBC Radio 5 Live… and then an email from someone at a TV production company too… and I realised that the story had attracted national interest, never mind just local. So I needed to find a way to reflect on it.

This is Jenni and her son, Dylan, in the picture I used on Just Giving this month. The snap was actually taken last year, near their home in Bingley, and right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. When this picture was taken, we had just finished filming material for a short documentary, High Rise Damp, which looks at the family’s housing situation on the Crosley Wood estate (three concrete tower blocks from the 1960s, which are long past their use-by date). Jenni agreed to take part in the film on the understanding that this was not a film about her so much as it was a film about people like her. The idea was to tell a story that, while necessarily personal, might be understood as being representative of many similar stories…

In the film, Jenni mentions getting into rent arrears with her housing association, Incommunities, at a time when she was having to take a lot of unpaid time off work because Dylan was sick with asthma — a condition that doctors said was very likely caused, or at least exacerbated, by the damp conditions in their flat. As a consequence of her mentioning this, public screenings of this film have led on more than one occasion to individual spectators offering to help pay off some of the family’s debt. Jenni, however, while grateful for such generosity, has resisted such offers on the grounds that this was — as I said — not just about her. Why should she benefit personally when so many others are in similar need?

Jenni’s admirable reluctance to take personal advantage of the situation is just one of the reasons why I like her so much. But this summer the family’s financial situation took a turn for the worse (for reasons too personal and non-relevant to discuss here), so that their careful attempts to manage their outstanding debt, while also paying their current rent due, was thrown off kilter. As a consequence, their housing association Incommunities began threatening eviction, and the family was eventually informed that the bailiffs would be coming to repossess their flat on Tuesday 7th November, unless they could come up with a big chunk of the money they owed. To be fair to Incommunities, they did respond to Jenni’s request for mercy: in the end, their demand was for a substantial portion of the debt, rather than the whole thing, to be paid off if eviction was to be avoided. But that offer left the Mynards with less than a week to find £1700, and they simply had no idea where they were going to find such a sum. Clutching at straws, I asked Jenni if I should try “going public” through a crowd-funding campaign.

We were both very wary about this idea, for obvious reasons. Jenni would be putting her family in the public eye as people who owed a substantial amount of money — and we were concerned that this might invite negative reactions. And why, given that so many other families are facing similar situations at present, would anyone think this particular family was worth helping? Jenni was as sceptical as I was about whether we would achieve anything, but as she said, she just didn’t have any other options left.

So… I set up a Just Giving page for the Mynards on the morning of Thursday 2nd November, with no idea whether we’d get anywhere. I put the link on my personal Facebook page, shared it on the Multi-Story Water Facebook page, and tagged a few people I knew who had seen the film, in the hope that they would feel inclined to donate. I’m no social media native (don’t even start me on Twitter…) so I privately felt that this was probably far too little, far too late. But by some miracle of viral sharing, the donations began to roll in that morning, surged a bit at lunchtime, tailed off during the afternoon, and then accelerated quickly again after work… We hit our £1700 target on that first day of the appeal, by around mid-evening…

Amazed and humbled, I posted a message thanking everyone who had donated, and mentioning that — if anyone else still wanted to donate — then the extra would all go to further defraying the Mynards’ rent arrears. And over the next few days, sure enough, the total sum continued to tick up. By Tuesday — the day of the scheduled eviction — the total amount given had topped just over £2,200 (where it has stayed since).

By then, of course, the eviction had been called off because we had been able to pay off the required sum. Jenni and her family — completely gobsmacked by the public response — breathed an enormous sigh of relief and sent out prayers and thanks to everyone who had donated:

“I cant believe all the wonderful people out there willing to help us. It was never my intention but we are so desperate it was the only other option. I have no words we can’t thank you and everyone enough, Dylan has a smile on his face and that’s priceless x. I want everyone to know how much we appreciate their help and support, some of the comments have brought tears to my eyes x”

So why did so many people support this? There were 98 separate donors in the end, most of whom did not know Jenni or her family at all. The statistics on the Just Giving site say a lot: after being shared 80 times on that first day alone, the page was viewed over 2000 times… So it was enough that around 1 in 20 of the people who looked at the story decided to donate… And that’s how these things work!

“Saw the film a few months ago and I’m really glad you’re fundraising. I wanted to help, and now I can (at least a bit!) Good luck everyone, more people are on your side than you’ve ever met.”

Interestingly, among those who did get onboard with the campaign, it actually became a bit of a “thing” that Thursday. I followed some Facebook feeds where people were reporting to each other that they had donated, and were updating each other on the rising total, with considerable good humour and something approaching excitement! As one friend of a friend commented, “this thread has made my day!” It’s really a win-win when people can be entertained by giving money to somebody else!

But what was also very clear from the comments posted was that people saw this as a symbolic campaign. It was, again, not just about Jenni’s family. The Mynards had simply become a publicly-identified example of a problem that many people were aware of but didn’t know how to do anything about. So given the chance to do something, people did… “We shouldn’t have to do this“, wrote one donor, while doing it, “but I can’t stand by and let this happen.”

Other comments suggested an awareness of the stark irony that donors were being asked to help Jenni and her family to stay in less than ideal living conditions:

I would love to see them have enough to rehouse themselves somewhere healthier and happier. Housing in this country is appalling. Best wishes xx

Of course part of the Catch 22 that families like the Mynards face is that it is very difficult to get anywhere else to live if you cannot get a good reference from your previous landlord. And that won’t happen if you owe them money… So let’s hope that, with a big chunk of their debt now cleared, Jenni and her family are indeed closer to be able to rehouse themselves somewhere better.

Anyway, as I said at the outset, I wasn’t going to blog about this. But then a couple of days ago, I picked up a phone message from someone at Radio 5 Live, who had read about the crowd-funding and wanted to know if Jenni and Dylan might be willing to talk on the radio… They were looking for personal stories to illustrate the wider problem of the housing crisis.

I called Jenni and discussed this with her, but she – quite understandably – said that she didn’t want to be on the radio. She had gone public because she needed to, but she didn’t have any wish to become a public figure. She was, she said, perfectly happy for me to speak on the family’s behalf if the radio people were good with that, because she knew I would try to direct the story back to the general problem and away from the personal specifics. One thing that both of us have found is that some people can get unduly nosey about personal specifics, once a story like this is out there…

In the event, nothing happened with the BBC, because when I called them back the next day, it turned out that they’d already covered housing on that morning’s breakfast show… (after leaving me a message at 4.30pm the previous afternoon… clearly I’m not wired for radio schedules!) I suspect they wouldn’t have pursued this story anyway, without Jenni herself being willing to speak on air, but the person I talked to did ask me how she was, and seemed genuinely pleased when I confirmed that the eviction had been called off…

You see, people do care about people. And actually, I do believe that many people who work for housing associations also care about people. This shouldn’t become an “us versus them” situation, because some of the problems here are systemic and are beyond the power of any one organisation to address (I tried to discuss some of these complexities in a 3-part blog I wrote in August). So the real question is how to turn the evident public concern about these issues into a movement for real political change. Because this is not just a story about individual families.


I have to stress again that I’m no expert on these issues, but I do think — as I indicated at the start of this blog — that it’s not enough simply for this Conservative government to throw money at housing associations and their balance sheets. That’s no guarantee that such money will really be used in a way that helps those most in need, unless clearer policy guidance is also put in place.

That seems to be the thought underlying the Labour Party’s decision this week to launch a petition — addressed to the Prime Minister — demanding that new regulations are put in place to ensure social housing be made safer for all residents. (This is the link, in case you want to sign it!) “Thousands of families are living in high-rise properties in the UK“, the petition statement begins: “Nearly all of these homes do not have adequate safety systems.”

It must be said that there’s no actual evidence on the petition to back up this claim (which is of course inspired by the ongoing controversy about the Grenfell tower fire in London). But in the case of Bradford, the assertion raises a specific question for Incommunities… When Jenni and I met with Chief Executive Geraldine Howley on August 11th, she told us that an independent fire safety audit of Bradford’s tower blocks had been commissioned from Savills. This was scheduled to begin the following week, on August 18th. It must, presumably, have been completed by now, so Incommunities should have detailed information on whether or not their tower blocks have adequate safety systems. However, I’ve searched the Incommunities website, and also the Telegraph and Argus website for reporting on this topic, and I can’t find any evidence that the findings of that Savills inspection have been made public. So where are they?

If they have been published, and I’ve missed it somehow, and everything is fine, then that’s great. But the communication that residents at Crosley Wood have been receiving recently has not been about safety, it’s been about these tower blocks possibly being sold or demolished by 2019, and the residents being relocated (see my last blog). The stated reason for this future planning is that the estate is now economically unviable, because of a lack of demand to live there… And maybe that’s really all there is to it. But as long as pertinent information remains (apparently) unpublished, then people are bound to worry that there’s something they are not being told.

People who live in tower blocks deserve to know the truth about the conditions they’re living in. So if the Savills report has not yet been made public, then maybe it’s time that it was. Fire safety has become a political issue since Grenfell tower, but it’s also a very immediate, personal issue for residents…

“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down…”

25th October 2017

For the attention of: Geraldine Howley OBE

Dear Geraldine,

Hello again. Hopefully you’ll remember me. Back in August, you were kind enough to meet with me and a couple of my colleagues, in your capacity as Chief Executive of Incommunities (Bradford’s main social housing provider). We discussed the housing conditions in the high rise flats off Crosley Wood Road in Bingley. I wrote about that meeting at some length in this blog, and in the interests of balance and “right of reply”, I sought your responses before finalising those posts. This time, though, in light of recent developments, I’m writing directly to you in this “open letter” – exercising my rights as a private citizen to express his personal freedom of speech.

You might remember that at our August meeting, you and your colleague Adrienne Reid acknowledged that the condition of the Crosley Wood flats is “less than ideal” (I worried at that phrase in the third part of the previous blog). You also acknowledged that sometimes Incommunities gets things wrong, and that the organisation could sometimes improve on the way it communicates with “customers” (or residents, as I prefer to call them). Unfortunately, though, you have recently provided a particularly grotesque example of such poor communication – in the form of this letter to residents, signed off by Adrienne…

Now, I think I do understand what you’re trying to do here. You’re trying to acknowledge that the flats are less than ideal. That it’s past time that significant improvements were made to living conditions. It would not have taken a rocket scientist to write this letter in a way that sought to reassure residents that you were putting their best interests first:

We know a lot of you aren’t happy,” you could have said (or words to that effect), “and we’re listening. So now we’re looking seriously at what our options might be. We know that some of you have lived in the flats a long time, and that these are your homes, and we need to be sensitive to that. So if there’s a strong sense that things should be left as they are, we will respect that, of course. On the other hand, we want to consider all our options, and this might even mean demolishing the flats and rebuilding on the same site. We want to assure you, though, that if we did that, you would be safely rehoused and given the option of returning to Crosley Wood when the work is completed.”

There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

But in the version that went out, what residents have actually been told is — in effect — as follows:

  1. We can’t seem to make enough money off these flats because not enough people want to live in them.
  2. Changes to welfare payments have hit your pockets, and so have affected our income too. So…
  3. We’re thinking of throwing you all out and knocking your homes down.
  4. Here’s a list of five possible future scenarios, but only in the fifth one (i.e. “do nothing”) do you get any clarity about where you’ll be living this time next year.

Did anyone stop to consider for one second how this letter might land with residents? Many of them are already disadvantaged socially, financially, and in other ways, and don’t feel that they have much power in situations like this, when a big, impersonal bureaucracy casually suggests making them homeless… I mean, seriously, this letter could hardly have been more thoughtlessly insensitive if you had been trying to be.

Fortunately, the local Labour Party has been made aware of the situation, and judging by this flyer (with it’s three simple, to-the-point questions) they will be present at your drop-in session tomorrow at the so-called “Kabin” community hub. Maybe they’ll help residents to find a stronger, united voice against Incommunities’ high-handedness. Here’s hoping.

Now, Geraldine, I realise that this may all just be a big misunderstanding. As I said, maybe you do just want what’s best for the residents, and there’s just been a total failure in the letter-writing department. Maybe you all do really care.

Honestly, though, caring shouldn’t need to be such a difficult thing to express.

Let me tell you a bit about my friend Ruth Bartlett, for instance. She lives in Shipley, on the Higher Coach Road estate — not far from Crosley Wood, really — and she first heard about conditions in those flats through watching my film High Rise Damp. As an active Labour Party member, she contacted Bingley town councillor Joe Wheatley to share it with him too, earlier this summer. I think that may be part of the back-story to Labour’s involvement now. Please note, though: Ruth got involved not because she’s a raging political hack, and not because anyone is paying her to take an interest (they aren’t), but simply because she cares about people… It’s called being a good citizen. “Do as you would be done by“, as Charles Kingsley put it in The Water Babies.

Speaking of “water babies”, in  her own community at Higher Coach Road, Ruth has been instrumental in getting an art group going for young residents. And earlier this month, because she had met Trevor Roberts from Canal Connections through links she’d made via our Multi-Story Water project, she was able to get him to provide a boat trip on the canal for the young artists… They took a ride up through Dowley Gap locks — up as far as the Crosley Wood estate, in fact… As you can tell from this video link (courtesy of Vicky Christensen, another good citizen), great fun was had by all. And nobody got paid anything. Trevor just happened to have a boat in the area, and he wanted to help support the group. Do as you would be done by.

This is just one simple, recent example of the kind of community co-operation and mutual support that I’ve seen over and over again during the time I’ve been working on our research project. In fact The Water Babies has been mentioned to me, on more than one occasion, and by quite different people, as an inspiration in their wanting to help others.

Just read that letter again, though. The one sent out to Crosley Wood residents under your organisation’s letterhead. Would you want to receive a letter like that, if you lived there?

Having met you, Geraldine, I really don’t believe that you want to seem like the “big bad wolf”, huffing and puffing and threatening to blow people’s houses down. Next time, could you please make sure that your staff give a little more thought to how these things come across…?


I thought I’d leave you with this Youtube link to a song you might like, by the Scottish band Glasvegas. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

“When you’re lost in the deep and darkest place around
May my words walk you home safe and sound…
I will, I will turn your tide
Do all that I can to heal you inside
I’ll be the angel on your shoulder
My name is Geraldine, I’m your social worker.”

Something to think about, perhaps.

Yours sincerely, till next time,


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!


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.