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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weir Science (Part 2): Quod Erat Demonstrandum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weir Science (Part 1): Hold Back the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Site-specific” pop-up films for Saltaire Arts Trail

[note: this piece was originally posted on 1st June but had to be taken down and and then restored for technical reasons. The text remains as was.]

It’s not every day you get to watch a film under water… But last weekend (May 27-28), that’s exactly what audiences were doing near the River Aire, west of Roberts Park…

We made a little pop-up cinema in the small passageway that runs underneath the Barden Aqueduct — the stone ‘beehive’ structure at the end of the Higher Coach Road flood plain — to screen the world premiere of Floody, a 9 minute movie masterpiece made with the Young Artists of Higher Coach Road…

This was the view from ‘backstage’ area, looking towards the river and the rest of the aqueduct — which for 150+ years has carried water supplies to Bradford, en route from the Yorkshire Dales. This passage under the pipe bridge was itself completely submerged during the major flood on Boxing Day 2015 — another reason why we dubbed this pop-up space “The Underwater Cinema”…

Here’s the entrance to the cinema (with a couple of lucky punters just entering!). It was identifiable mainly by the bit of black cloth hung across the entrance, to block out light, and the tell-tale sign of the hazard-taped extension cable carrying power to the projector from the nearest house… Audience capacity was limited, but at 9 minutes long we could restart the film regularly for the next group of passers-by, and we had a pretty steady stream of visitors, coming off the riverside path near the footbridge across the Aire…

As a film, Floody is very much the vision of the ‘Young Artists’ — a group of mostly primary-age children who have been meeting most Wednesday afternoons, for almost a year, for open air art workshops on the flood plain between the river and the Higher Coach Road estate. Indeed, the film features footage from one of these workshops, which have been run by the amazing Nicola Murray, of Spongetree arts in Baildon…

Facilitated in film-making workshops by Simon Kerrigan and Sian Williams (who also then edited the footage into its final form), the kids devised, acted, and shot a kind of horror thriller, in which a monster called Floody evolves from plastic bags abandoned in the river, and brings on an enormous storm, before being vanquished by the heroic children (who then remind us always to put our plastic bags in the recycling…). And if you think that sounds not-too-scary, well, there really is a moment in the film that made a lot of people jump… (As this hilarious bit of footage of “young artist” Leo demonstrates! Thanks Ruth Bartlett!)

The pop-up screening was arranged as an unofficial contribution to Saltaire Arts Trail, which runs every year on the last weekend of May. The “trail” is officially limited to a tour around Saltaire mill village itself: you get to nose around various people’s homes, which have been temporarily transformed into miniature art galleries displaying work from far and near. But we thought why not get people to “trail” out a little further along the river, and as some of the comments left in our feedback box showed, visitors to SAT were delighted to discover this added extra!

The ‘lure’ for visitors to walk out along the riverbank was another pop-up film installation in Roberts Park… (People who enjoyed this one were encouraged to venture out further for its companion piece.) The Salt Lions was set up in one of the park shelters (the one closest to the HCR estate), and attracted a consistent stream of visitors, who came off the sun-soaked park promenade to enjoyed the shade and a bit of a sit-down…

The Salt Lions is a 6-minute spin-off from the film project, which celebrates the Victorian bedtime tale of how the stone lions on Victoria Road  would leave their pedestals at night and wander down to the river to drink its waters. The kids responded to this by making a sepia-tinted silent movie, complete with captions, in which three of them hunt high and low around Saltaire for the “missing” lions…

Despite our best efforts with hessian hangings, it was difficult to mask the light out as much in the park shelter as under the aqueduct, so the film image was fainter and smaller (as the projector had to be placed fairly close to the screen). In a weird way, though, this complemented the silent movie “look” of the film, making it feel very old school indeed, like an old fairground cinematograph… And certainly audiences did not complain (kids of all ages, used to hi-tech digital gadgetry, watched this flickering image with rapt attention!). There was something about the film that just worked in this setting at the end of a Victorian park promenade… which of course was part of the intention.

This is Hannah, who features prominently in both our films – as she’s one a hard-core group of “young artists” who were ever present during the making of them. (Many more tended to come and go, depending on weather and mood…) Among the other stalwarts were Leo and Oliver – pictured below. These three not only hung out supporting the screenings at park and pipe bridge all day Sunday, they also showed up bright and early on the morning of bank holiday Monday having overnight prepared a new advertising hoarding for the park screening. Not only that… they had hand-signed whole fistfuls of autograph slips to hand out to their adoring public… (in their hands below)

The only problem was that by comparison with the sunny weekend, the Monday turned out to be cold and drizzly — with both park and flood plain thus largely deserted of passers-by (except for reluctant dog-walkers). We therefore took the collective decision not to try to remount our outdoor screenings — and instead got permission from Half Moon Cafe to set up indoors with them…

Having opted for a single location, we alternated screening both films for a few hours to customers coming into the cafe. I have to say that the atmosphere wasn’t quite the same: both films had worked particularly well in their sited settings (monster movie in the dark under the bridge; sepia cinema on the park promenade…) and the more neutral cafe setting didn’t have quite the same charge. But The Salt Lions could at least be seen better… Meanwhile, the kids themselves became the show, hiding behind the screen and popping out at the end (as if breaking out of the film!) to bow for applause and even take questions…

The Young Artists clearly took great pride in showing off what they had made to the public, and didn’t tire at all of watching the same short pieces over and over again with new audiences. And they handed out a lot of autographs… The project of working with these kids over the last year has been very beneficial for their personal confidence (a point marvelled at by some of their teachers, Nicola tells me), and in some ways it’s the environmental aspect of this that’s been most important. By that, I don’t just mean working with natural materials, which they have done a lot of in the art workshops. My point is that, because we had to work outside in the open air (because there is no obvious indoor space in which to congregate on the estate), the kids have always known they can walk away at any time… (and when it’s cold or wet, they’ve done just that!) Perhaps paradoxically, it’s that freedom to move in or out that has allowed them to commit… without ever feeling trapped in a room, or as if they were “at school”. The degree of dedication and buy-in which some of them have shown as a result is really striking… They didn’t have to be there, and so they chose to invest themselves. And we’re all really proud of the results…

Spared by Storm Doris

This was the slightly scary-looking state of Saltaire weir, three nights ago on Thursday 23rd February, after the country had been battered by Storm Doris…

16865113_10211387956322079_5698127446383449307_nOnly this morning, Ireland was hit by the next alphabetically-named storm coming off the Atlantic this winter — Storm Ewan. (Previously we’ve had Angus, Barbara and Conor. Sounds more like a sitcom than extreme weather, but whatever…) Thankfully, there’s been nothing like last winter’s “E” storm — Eva — which brought the chaos of the Boxing Day floods. But as these images show, the Aire was again perilously close to breaking its banks on Thursday…

16649155_10211387956882093_8829426053666866144_nThese pictures were taken by Higher Coach Road resident Syra Lax, who posted them on the HCR Residents’ Group facebook page (from where I have pinched them, with her kind permission). That page is becoming a really valuable source of local news, debate and eyewitness observation. Since it is intended for “Higher Coach Road Residents Group and Friends”, I recommend getting yourself added as a friend, even if you don’t live on the estate.

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Last Christmas: a view from the air

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Tomorrow, Sunday 18th December 2016, we’re holding a Christmas party at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club for the Higher Coach Road Residents Group — and other invited members of the local community. We held a similar event around this time last year, shortly before the club was devastated by flooding on Boxing Day. That’s the club’s buildings, there, on the lower right of the photo above. The ‘proper’ river is to its right, and the lake that was Woodbottom cricket pitch is to the left. This was 27th December 2015, as the flood water was starting to recede.

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Here’s a closer view of the club and adjacent caravan park… And below, another view as the aerial drone camera turns clockwise to show the rest of the club and the upstream area.

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Below, moving further upstream but looking back — a higher and wider shot of the whole area. Here, the main course of the river is much clearer, just off to right of centre. The club is in the middle towards the back of the shot, and in the foreground, Baildon Rec and the local Sea Cadets hall.

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Then, below… just a little further upstream still, and turning clockwise again to look west, we have the four houses of Aire Close — right next to the river — and the Victoria Mills complex on the opposite “bank”. In the distance, to the west, is Saltaire. Notice the visible watermark on the buildings in this shot, since the water is already well down on where it had been the previous day:

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0009.JPGI’m very grateful to Brian Tuxford, of Northway Vehicle Sales (on Baildon Bridge) for sharing these images with me and allowing me to put them up on the blog. I featured Brian a few weeks ago, in this blog post, but it’s taken me a while to get these images up (because the CD he gave me had got corrupted somehow, and I had to get technical support to recover the photo files). Anyway, it seems appropriate to share them at Christmas — one year on.

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Above, we see the view from just downstream of Baildon Bridge, looking west. The cricket pitch etc are to the back of the shot now, and in the foreground we see the retail area east of the bridge, off Otley Road… United Carpets, and in the bottom right, the garden centre section of B&M. The river channel proper is to the left. The collection  of white vans in the middle of the shot is part of the Northway Vehicles fleet — the part that hadn’t been swept away by the flood — and you can see here just why Northway’s compound was in exactly the worst place as far as the flood was concerned… right in harm’s way as the water diverted across the cricket pitch tries to find its way back into the main channel. Below we see the same scene in reverse (i.e. the other side of United Carpets is now to the left; the river is to the right), and here you can get a very clear sense of the trajectory that would have been taken by the 37 vehicles swept downstream off the Northway lot…

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The shot below gives some sense of how bright and sunny it was, on the day after the storm. Again we’re looking west, with the club to the left and the Rec in the centre of the shot. In the lower foreground is Otley Road, coming away from Baildon Bridge…

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If you compare the shot above with the shot below — which seems to have been taken later in the day, when the water level had further receded — you can see how more of the road is now visible. And how the worst flooded part of it is actually around the junction with Green Lane… The bridge itself, to the left, and everso slightly raised to cross the river, is by this point comparatively dry. Which may be why the vehicle trying to ford through the flood water had thought it safe to ignore the road closure signs at the other side…

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Particularly clear from this photo above is the way that the main river channel goes through a noticeable curve or bend as it comes under the bridge. Hardly surprising, then, that in high water — and with the channel under the bridge itself partially blocked by debris — the river diverts itself straight across this area, in a sort of “short cut.”

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Finally, then, back to the club. And the vapour trails in the sky, reflecting in the standing water on the cricket pitch. And one, stranded blue car, which is not going anywhere fast.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

 

Flood Response @ Armley Mills

It was a pleasure and a privilege this last Thursday evening, December 8th, to have the opportunity to perform Too Much of Water, my one-man show about the Shipley flood last Christmas, at Leeds Industrial Museum — aka Armley Mills. The occasion was the opening of a special exhibition titled Flood Response. A single room in the basement of the museum is jam-packed with varied, colourful, striking exhibits documenting the impact of the Boxing Day flood in (mostly) Leeds. As the title implies, the exhibition looks at how communities in Leeds, especially in Kirkstall and Armley (the mill itself was directly hit by flooding), responded to the flood, often by showing a surprisingly festive spirit of resilience and co-operation, and thereby turning a crisis into a form of community-building. In the same spirit, the exhibition itself is labelled a “community exhibition”, and as such is composed largely of material donated by members of the public, rather than being professionally produced or commissioned.

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The curator of this rather remarkable display is Chris Sharp, pictured here on the right — his first big project for Leeds City Museums. He’s done a tremendous job (I really do recommend you visit). The exhibition was officially opened by Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, pictured below during her speech, during which she spoke with real passion about the city’s response to the flood crisis..

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To Councillor Blake’s right here is Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, deputy leader of the council and (more to the point in this context) the ward representative for Kirkstall. As such, she was directly involved in the community response to the flooding along Kirkstall Road, and she really does seem to be one of those (rather too rare) politicians who inspires the confidence and affection of her local community. The exhibition opening itself was attended by quite a diverse crowd of invitees, enough to pack out the exhibition space, but here too the spirit of inclusion was apparent. This wasn’t just the predictable collection of luvvies and bigwigs you might expect to see at an exhibition opening, but a cross-section of people from the local community who had got involved in the flood response effort, in one way or another. (And here’s a few of them…)

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I’m very pleased to say that Multi-Story Water’s own contribution to telling the story of the Leeds flood response is on display as part of the exhibit (which will run for six months). Our promenade performance After the Flood — devised for Leeds Waterfront Festival in June — is on display in a new film version. We completed editing just in time for the exhibition opening. And OK, yes, some kind of technical glitch meant that the film file wasn’t playing on the digital screen designated for it on Thursday (i.e. the one to the left of this chap’s head, in the picture on the left), so it had to be temporarily installed on  an alternative screen at ground level. This hiccup should be resolved soon, though. And in the meantime you can also view the film online… Just look for After the Flood under the “Films” tab on the menu bar above… 

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This is actor Kat Martin — who you can just about see on the screen in the exhibition shot above — performing ‘live’ in After the Flood, as “Poppy”, a young woman whose family’s business on Kirkstall Road was badly affected by the flood. (The doll’s house represents the business, and the small figures are Poppy’s parents…) I’m really rather proud of this piece, made in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre, but on Thursday night, attendees at the opening were too busy milling and chatting to concentrate long on a video screen… Instead, after the speeches were over, they were invited upstairs to the museum’s cafe space for my live storytelling performance, Too Much of Water (both it and the ATF film were requested by Chris Sharp for the exhibition and opening – thanks for the opportunity, Chris).

Anyway, here I am, as pictured/tweeted by Geoff Roberts…

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When I originally performed this piece in Roberts Park, for Saltaire Festival, it was mid-September and the Christmas tree and jumper seemed amusingly quirky. Since then, I have performed it around the country (Exeter, London, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds), and I’m aware that by now — in December — I’m in danger of looking like I’m just trying too hard to be seasonal. Be that as it may, the performance was very well received by attendees at the opening, several of whom made a point of introducing themselves afterwards and thanking me personally (which was very nice – thankyou!).

What people find moving, I think, is the piece’s focus on some of the smaller, more human details of how people were affected by the flooding (the script draws from interviews with a number of people in the Shipley area, who are represented by the small wooden figures). I was especially flattered by the suggestion of one senior flood risk officer, who saw the piece on Thursday, that anybody who works with people affected by, or at risk of flooding (be it for the Environment Agency, local council, or whatever) ought to see this piece, because it will help them reflect on what it’s really like to be in those circumstances. High praise indeed.

On the other hand, I heard on Friday — from another friend who couldn’t attend the opening — that a couple of his colleagues at the Environment Agency, who had been at Armley Mills to represent on Thursday, had felt slightly uncomfortable watching the piece. They wondered if I was attacking the EA’s warning efforts in Shipley around the time of the flood. I’d just like to say, publicly, that I’m really sorry if they felt that way, because this was never my intention. Yes, certain details are documented in the show, as seen from the point of view of my interviewees, that might perhaps be seen as not reflecting all that well on the EA, but I was very careful in writing the piece not to make any comment either way — simply to represent the facts as best I could establish them, and let spectators draw their own conclusions. And I do make the point in the show that the Agency too, in its own way, was inundated on Boxing Day — struggling to keep up with the pace of events as the crisis unfolded in multiple towns, in multiple catchments, simultaneously. They, too, are only human.

With that in mind, I’ll close here by pasting in Scene 5 of our After the Flood film — “the Agency Man”. Hopefully this provides some sense of just how tricky the EA’s job is, in terms of Flood Response – often having to be all things to all people. In my (finite) experience, they usually do a great job, in often very difficult circumstances.

The Trouble with Baildon Bridge (views from downstream…)

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

Prologue

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

Part One: Northway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Scheming for Alleviation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Week of Action” at Saltaire WI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the Bradford flood: who scrutinises the scrutinisers?

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

Kat Martin as "Poppy", a Kirkstall flood victim

Kat Martin as “Poppy”, a Kirkstall flood victim

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

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

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

1. “In-depth review”. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Council doing itself a disservice… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Communication, communication, communication…  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Who needs experts? 

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

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

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

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

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

So much for scrutiny.