“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.

 

Flood memories at Saltaire Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When is a flood not a flood? (Two tales of wet flats)

This Tuesday I was treated to stories of “water inundation” at opposite ends of the housing spectrum. I’ll explain why I’ve used that term in a moment, but first let me introduce you to Andrew Mason, an old friend of the Multi-Story Water project (we had an actor playing him back in 2012) who kindly spared me some time to discuss flood damage…

IMG_1551Andrew, who grew up in Shipley, is the property developer behind the Victoria Mills apartment complex on the south bank of the Aire, between Saltaire and Baildon Bridge. He built the place about a decade ago — converting existing mill buildings and also constructing from scratch three distinctive, curved apartment blocks: Northern Lights, to the left in the image above; and VM1 and VM2, in the background of the shot below, which stand on the bank of the river itself.

IMG_1540Victoria Mills was badly hit by the Boxing Day floods last year, and eight months on, the site is still in the process of rebuild and recovery. Actually, the first six months were occupied largely by endless debates with the insurance company, due to the extent and complexity of the damage, so the repair work only really began in the last couple of months. In these images you can see work continuing on the site’s bar, VM Lounge. As is apparent from the watermark on the windows in the shot below, the place was under 1.8 metres of water on Boxing Day.

IMG_1547VM Lounge has been completely redesigned following the flood, and like other businesses and homes in the area, there’s been something of a learning curve… The refit will be consciously more “flood resilient” than the bar’s previous incarnation, in terms of its fixtures and fittings: the pillars below, for example, will be left as exposed (albeit coated) masonry in the new design, partly as “post-industrial chic” and partly because this will avoid the need ever to repeat the process of stripping away flood-soaked plaster from the brickwork.

IMG_1548Despite this new eye to resilience, though, it’s important to note that VM Lounge and the grassy courtyard area it fronts onto were always designed and expected to flood in the development’s original plans. The rationale for putting the bar at this lower level was that, well, at least nobody lives there. If this gets wrecked, it’s less serious than someone’s home being impacted.

Indeed, the courtyard is specifically designed as a “compensatory flood storage” area — meaning that, in order to get planning permission for the development, Andrew and his colleagues had to provide a contained area on site for high water to flow into (in order that the defended buildings don’t just displace all the water downstream). In short, the courtyard is designed to become a temporary lake, while the actual living spaces are higher up, safely out of harm’s way. At least in theory…. Yet at 4pm on Boxing Day, while away at the coast in Whitby, Andrew received a call from a resident informing him that apartments were under water…

IMG_1541What went wrong? Well, this picture above tells something of the story. The wall to the right (which supports the walkway from which I took the first shot above of VM Lounge) is a flood wall. It’s designed to store displaced water away on the other side, where the bar is, while keeping this grassy tennis court area safe and dry. So it was thought safe to install apartments at ground level in the block you see here (Masons Mill) and in the one facing it (Old Mill). It was these apartments that were hit on Boxing Day.

Interestingly, though, the insurance company insists that these apartments (unlike the bar), were not “flooded”. Rather, they were affected by “a water inundation event”. The technical difference, Andrew tells me, is that flooding is what happens when the river flows into your property… whereas in this area the water came up through the ground. “Like something out of a science fiction movie”, Andrew remarks.

Basically, the land in this area was so completely waterlogged during the flood that pressure from the swollen river pushed water up through the ground itself. The irony is that Andrew’s tennis courtyard was particularly vulnerable, because — in line with the best current design thinking — it was created to provide “sustainable urban drainage”; i.e. to let water sink down into the ground rather than it simply draining off impermeable surfaces and being channeled away elsewhere (back into the river). So for instance, the tennis court itself is made of “tenniscrete”, a form of porous hard surface that allows water down through it. Yet the twist here, of course, is that what goes down can also come up. The ground’s porosity also allowed water to rise through it. It’s an issue that, Andrew notes, nobody thought to raise when the Victoria Mills complex was being designed — not the architects, not the engineers, not the Environment Agency. And now it’s too late to do remedial work to solve the problem. All that can be done is to make those ground floor flats, like the bar, more resilient to future “inundation”.

Now meet my other interviewees from Tuesday. Jenni Mynard and her son Dylan…

IMG_1555They’re pictured here on the bench at Dowley Gap locks, on the canal, which is just a five minute walk from their home in the Crosley Wood housing estate (at the east end of Bingley – close to Baildon and Shipley). If Victoria Mills styles itself as luxury apartment living, Crosley Wood is the polar opposite — a council estate, now run by Bradford’s social housing quango In Communities, which nobody who lives there has a good word for. The three concrete tower blocks that make up the estate were built back in the 1960s, and should probably have been demolished long ago…

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Although the setting for the estate is beautifully green and wooded, and right next to the canal, the buildings themselves are in a terrible state. Jenni and family had a “water inundation event” of their own only a few weeks ago, when the badly plumbed piping under the kitchen sink sprang a leak and deluged the floor, leaving them paddling around in several centimetres of water. Jenni knows of almost identical incidents that have occurred in neighbours’ flats — and she has also had water pouring through her bathroom ceiling from a leak in the flat above. (Her own leak, of course, flowed down to the flat below… so there’s a kind of cascade effect – like an indoor waterfall!) But the real problem in terms of “living with water” in these buildings is the persistent damp from condensation in the external walls and in the walls around ventilation shafts. Dylan has lived his entire life at Crosley Wood, and has an asthmatic condition that his parents are convinced is related to the black mould spots on his bedroom wall. Yet every attempt that the Mynards have made to get In Communities to pay serious attention to the condition of the flat — or to relocate them to alternative accommodation — has fallen on deaf ears.

Despite these struggles, though, Jenni and her family remain the most positive and community-minded people you could wish to come across. For instance, she and Dylan were active in the flood clear-up attempts organised by Bingley Flood Support in the aftermath of the Boxing Day deluge. They could see that other people needed help, and — as Jenni says — that is what community is for. Her approach is perhaps summed up by a phrase that’s been quoted to me by several other volunteer flood responders this year: “Do as you would be done by.” (These words are, of course, from Charles Kingsley’s Victorian children’s novel, The Water Babies — which is itself set in West Yorkshire, in Airedale and Wharfedale.)

I got to know Jenni and Dylan a little during recent visits to Crosley Wood’s regular Wednesday afternoon community meal (in the prefab hut that passes as a centre for residents). My colleague Lyze, and Paul Barrett of Kirkgate Centre, have been engaging with that group for some time now. I’ve been wanting, somehow, to reflect creatively on the circumstances that residents find themselves living in, and it occurred to me that Jenni’s story might make a good one focus for a short documentary film. She’s so passionate and articulate about their circumstances – and Dylan so sly and funny –  that the film will require no editorialising commentary from me. We spent two days this week shooting footage in and around Bingley, at Crosley Wood, and inside their flat — working from a rough outline plan that uses water as a connecting thread (from the Bingley Five Rise to the Crosley Wood ten-rise…). Maybe, just maybe, it will make somebody pay attention to their situation?

IMG_1561The final scene of the film will be a playfully imagined escape from the flats, as Jenni and Dylan disappear off into the sunset towards Saltaire, along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. My colleague Trevor Roberts had one of his Canal Connections boats, the Out and About, coming through Dowley Gap locks on Tuesday evening, so we hitched a little ride… (That’s skipper Katrina at the tiller – she let Dylan have a go too.)

Thanks so much to Jenni and Dylan for a memorable and enjoyable couple of days filming. I really hope they’ll be proud of the results when we’ve finished editing the footage. Thanks to Andrew Mason, too, and of course to Canal Connections. Out on a boat, on a gorgeous summer’s evening like Tuesday’s, it was possible – at least temporarily – to forget the problems with wet flats…

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Mud of the Aire / Mud of the Somme… (Down at Denso’s)

This week I visited the Nature Reserve at Denso Marston’s, in Lower Baildon (Charlestown) to meet the warden there, Steve Warrillow. My visit was motivated by my research into how the Boxing Day floods have affected people and places in the Shipley/Baildon area. In my mental mapping, Denso’s is the most easterly point of interest on this stretch of the river —  with Branksome Drive and Dowley Gap at the westernmost end. Steve, though, is a fascinating interviewee and we talked about many things besides the flooding…

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Here he is down on the riverbank, pointing out to me the extent of what was lost to the river as a result of the flood. He estimates that, last year, there was eight to ten feet more banking between the river and the main footpath through the reserve — but as you can see, at this point there’s barely any gap at all. Given that much of the nature reserve is a fairly thin strip of land between the Aire and Denso’s working factory site, Steve can’t necessarily afford to lose whole chunks of it to the river… although of course he is the first to admit that it is the nature of rivers to alter their course over time.

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So severe has the banking collapse been, Steve notes, that he has decided to leave a small forest of Himalayan balsam in its (self-seeded) place, to provide a kind of safety barrier along the sharply sloping banking next to the path. (The balsam is of course visible in the photo above — as is, on the opposite side of the river, some of the flood debris still hanging in trees some seven months later.) Balsam grows tall enough that it masks and deters, but it is also of course (as discussed in my last blog but one) an invasive species that wreaks havoc with native plants and soil integrity along riverbanks. Some would no doubt be appalled that Steve has allowed so much of it to remain in place — rather than trying to pull it all up before it can release more seeds downstream — but he adopts a more philosophical attitude, seeing balsam as just one issue among many he has to deal with, rather than in terms of the tabloid-style hysteria that it sometimes attracts.

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Away from the river, evidence of the flood is also to be found underfoot. This, Steve points out, is river sand — left behind by the receding waters. It’s the kind of stuff that householders affected by the flood tried to get rid of straight away, not least because of the likely contaminants in it (e.g. raw sewage from up at the Dowley Gap sewage works). But of course, in a more natural setting like this one, anything organic can be left to rot down and provide nutrients for the earth. The big problems Steve had to deal with on the nature reserve, post-flood, was the huge quantity of inorganic debris that was swept downstream and left on site — everything from cars and freezers down to plastic bags and tampons. There were also quite a few dead animals, large and small … organic matter, yes, but not what you want left about to rot!

When you’re dealing with a sizeable patch of land like this, which was ten feet under water at the worst of the flooding, and has plenty of trees to act as barriers/obstacles to things being swept along, its unsurprising that so much was left behind. Fortunately, though, most of the debris was cleared away quite quickly by a major volunteer clean-up effort in January — when the Friends of Denso Marston’s customary volunteer force was joined by others from the area including the Friends of Roberts Park, Hirst Wood Regeneration Group, and Mat Holloway’s ADRI (Aire Debris Removal Initiative). Steve recalls the amazingly positive initial response to the Reserve’s calls for help — but also notes that this positive burst of energy tailed off quite quickly… He has been frustrated, in the months since, by the thoughtless remarks of visitors wondering why everything is not as perfect with the reserve as they would expect it to be… (We can all have very short memories.)

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Looking at the site today, it would indeed be easy to forget about the recent flooding, given that Steve and his volunteers have done such a great job cleaning it up and restoring it to former glories. This photo of the reserve’s wetland pond — the heart of its wildlife habitats — looks positively idyllic, and belies the hard slog that has gone into managing its restoration in the months since the flood. Moreover, Steve notes, the banking all the way around the pond is perilously soft, just as it is along the river.

He has been cheered, though, by the signs of wildlife making a resurgence on the site even after so much of it was rudely displaced at Christmas. In the reserve’s education hut (a new one now located some way up the hill, at a safer distance from the river than the old one, which was wrecked by the flood), Steve proudly showed me this display of dragonfly chrysalises that he has collected from around the site this year. There had been fears that the dragonfly population would be badly affected by the flooding and its aftermath, so this little exhibition is evidence of very good news…

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Even so, the reserve’s dragonfly population is also indicative of wider changes in the natural world that would be foolish to ignore. If the flooding, as many have argued, is symptomatic of a changing climate in this 21st century, so too is the fact that Steve regularly observes dragonfly species on this site that he would never have seen twenty years ago, when the reserve was establishing itself. The warming climate is pushing many species north in search of more temperate climes. (Although the chrysalises preserved in this display appear to be from species that are more “natural” residents of Yorkshire.)

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Also on display in the education hut is Steve’s personal collection of First World War memorabilia — set out to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme at the beginning of this month. Aside from being a keen birder and insect expert, Steve is fascinated by story of the Somme — as well he might be, given that his great-grandfather was one of the lucky soldiers to survive the slaughter (had he not… no Steve). Among the treasures collected here are his great-grandfather’s first-aid box (the black tin to the right of this shot, now displaying bullet fragments etc), and a still-unopened tin of Tommy’s rations (the gold box to the left). It’s pretty weighty! Steve has heard tell of one such box being opened quite recently, and its contents still being perfectly intact (presumably because it was completely airtight). So strange what changes, and doesn’t, over time.

Steve’s interest in the war extends to having booked a package tour to the Somme, which he is heading off on in August. It’ll be his second visit. We spoke quite a bit about all this, as well as about the reserve and the flood, and I mentioned that — on July 1st, the centenary of the Battle — I had been fortunate enough to witness the eerie presence of World War I soldiers on the streets of Manchester… I promised to post some pictures on this blog, so Steve could see them…

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This was Exchange Square, towards the end of the day, as all the “soldiers” who had been positioned in different parts of the city, ever since the morning rush hour, gathered together for the event’s understated conclusion…The appearance of silent soldier figures in cities up and down the country that day was part of a commemmorative art event conceived by the artist Jeremy Deller (who in 2001 famously staged a reconstruction of the 1984 police vs. miners clash at the “Battle of Orgreave”). Titled simply “We Are Here” (after the song “We’re here, because we’re here…”; there wasn’t much more rationale for the trench warfare…), the piece consisted simply of perfectly attired actors standing — or sitting — as a silent presence within the everyday lives of commuters and shoppers. A little like the traditional “two minutes silence”, but played as an interruption in space rather than time.

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Each soldier had a collection of “business cards” indicating the identity of the man he was representing (and thus, literally, re-membering). They didn’t offer them around, but if you went up to one of them to ask what was going on — or simply to ask who he was — then he would give you a card and simply walk away. Like a ghost.

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It’s not just water that can sweep people away.

Thanks Steve, for a memorable visit.

Shipley’s weirs – a technical view

IMG_1436Yesterday I was back down at Shipley weir, immediately downstream of Baildon Bridge, to visit my old friend the heron (above), and to show around a colleague of mine at Manchester University, Andrea Bottacin Busolin. Andrea (male, pronounced the Italian way, because he’s Italian) is a civil engineer who very kindly took some time out to analyse some flow data for the River Aire (which was, in turn, kindly supplied by the Environment Agency). This investigation was in response to a question raised by Phillip Moncaster, of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club (just upstream of the bridge). Put simply, if this weir was taken out of the river, might this reduce flood risk to the club and other local homes and businesses? Phillip’s hypothesis (discussed in more detail in this previous blog post) was that taking the weir out might lower the flow level of the water going under Baildon Bridge — meaning that in high water conditions the bridge would not so quickly turn into a concrete dam across the river…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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We noted rather grimly that there’s a lot of debris in the river again, especially around the bridge, just waiting to contribute to damming problems in high water conditions. And there was more of this to be seen as Andrea and I walked upstream to from Shipley weir towards Saltaire weir, using the riverside path. Look at this by the pipe aqueduct just upstream of Phillip’s club…

IMG_1437And then of course there’s the flood debris from last time, still very much apparent in the riverside trees….

IMG_1438Indeed, Andrea was intrigued to notice the amount of “lateral vegetation” along the river banks — by which he means the trees and shrubs that grow right out into the river, and catch hold of rubbish like this in high water. Vegetation like this, he noted, will provide some resistance to water flow which is difficult to represent in the simple graphs. It will be interesting to see if the EA’s new data set starts to take this kind of close-up detail into account, although – again – it probably won’t affect the broad conclusions about the weir.

Reaching Saltaire and its weir, its particularly apparent just how low the flow in the river is just now — enabling you to see the entire structural architecture of the weir…

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We didn’t walk up as far as Hirst weir (pictured below from a visit the day before), but perhaps the most significant finding of Andrea’s technical analysis is just how much of a role Hirst weir continues to play in relative flow levels, even in high water. This is relevant to the continuing debate about whether the Rowing Club’s repair of that weir has adequately addressed the downstream flood risk issues associated with it.

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

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

Looking for common ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water margins

I’ve been continuing, in recent weeks, to nose around Shipley and Baildon to get more of a sense of how the Boxing Day floods affected people in different areas. Come September, at Saltaire Festival, we’ll be presenting a new storytelling piece called Wading Home for Christmas that will seek to capture some of these accounts in an engaging and pointed way. Last weekend I paid a visit to Aire Way, one of the streets off Coach Road which opens out onto the flood plain area east of Roberts Park. What the residents here told me really underlines just how narrow the margins can be in terms of who gets hit by flooding and who doesn’t.

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These are the houses on Aire Way — the gap in the middle is where the road comes in for car access — with the odd- and even-numbered houses extending from either side of this entry point. Here we’re looking west, in the direction of the park. If you imagine taking the photograph above, and then turning through about 180 degrees, this is what you would see looking the other way….

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The line of trees in the distance marks the edge of the River Aire, with the large buildings all being on the other (Shipley) side of the river. Here you see one of the several cricket pitches that populate the local flood plain areas… But what’s amazing to contemplate is that this corrugated tin cricket hut was — according to the residents — completely under water on Boxing Day. I said, what, completely? You couldn’t even see the ridge of the roof? They said that’s right. Back in 2000, when the last major flood hit, you could still see the roof — but not this time.

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Taking a closer look at Aire Way, we can see a waterworks manhole in the grass just in front of the houses. This, I was told, is the point that the floodwater got to back in 2000. Just shy of the final slope. On Boxing Day 2015, though, the water came right up and into people’s homes — filling the ground floor and flowing out of the back. It also came up through the foundations of the houses — quicker, in fact, than it arrived at surface level. Residents had to wade out of their homes, and some have only recently been able to return. But look at this…

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To the right in this picture is the most westerly house on Aire Way, and to the left is the most easterly house on Tennis Way (the next street opening off Coach Road as you head towards the park). As you can see, there’s just a slight rise in the banking between Aire and Tennis, but this extra bit of height made all the difference. The homes on Tennis Way remained unaffected by the flooding — safe as houses.

Incidentally, the other people who were safe as houses were those living upstairs on Aire Way — who had a grandstand view of the flood from their balconies. These houses are actually split-levels, with the upstairs apartments being accessed by stairs leading straight up from front doors on ground level. So the worst the upstairs residents got was some damage to their stair carpets, but by all accounts, Bradford Council paid out its £500 per household in flood relief to anyone on this stretch who asked for it, regardless of whether they were upstairs or downstairs. One might question whether this money was really going where it was most needed.

If the level of the water made a big difference, depending on where exactly you live along here, it’s also worth noting that seemingly small differences in residential status also really made a big difference. Aire Way and Tennis Way are still mostly (if not all) social housing stock — run by InCommunities. Among the residents I spoke to were Kenneth, who is a regular tenant with In Communities, and was really happy with the help that he received from them in the wake of the flooding. He was back in his repaired house by mid-March, and has no complaints. His only problem is that — like a surprising number of people living near the river, it seems — he had no contents insurance for his belongings, and so has had to fork out for an entirely new set of furniture.

However, just along the street from Kenneth is Chris. He did have contents insurance, but he also has his home on a 99-year lease from InCommunities (he’s sort of halfway to being a home-owner). Being a leaseholder meant that Chris found himself right at the back of the queue in terms of getting the flood damage repaired. InCommunities were still responsible for sorting it, since ultimately they are the property owners, but they were apparently in no hurry to do so. Perhaps they were working on the basis that Chris can’t move anywhere else because of the length of his lease. So Chris literally just moved home two weeks ago — mid-May — after nearly five months being put up in Abbey Lodge guest house, up on Kirkgate in Shipley. He was still unpacking boxes when I met him…

Speaking of which, here is Margaret Wright — an old friend of this blog. She normally lives on Lower Holme, off Otley Road — near the new Wickes. But I took this photo in April, when she was still living in a room at Shipley’s Ibis Hotel (just by the canal).

IMG_0874Margaret finally moved home on April 28th — after being stuck in the Ibis for four months, without even any self-catering facilties. Her housing association, Accent, gave her and her grandson James a daily allowance of £25 between them to feed themselves … which, needless to say, doesn’t go far when you’re eating out all the time. Even so, this and the hotel bills do add up, and as Margaret points out, you would think it was in Accent’s interests to have got her back into her home quicker than this! And unlike InCommunities, it was not even as if Accent had the excuse of having a lot of clients to deal with after the flooding. They admitted to Margaret that they had just one other property in the area — in Bingley — affected by the floods. But this very lack of impact on them as an organisation seems to have led to a general lack of concern.

The particular irony is that the water didn’t even reach Margaret’s house at ground level. It’s set back far enough from the river that the only impact was from water coming up through the basement. Margaret’s neighbour Lynda had exactly the same situation, but remained safely in her home throughout (despite losing power for six days around New Year). However, where Lynda’s ground floor had apparently been reinforced on some previous occasion, Margaret’s had not. Yet another small difference that made a very big difference… Margaret’s kitchen and living room floors were undermined by the flood water, and caved in. It then took four months for Accent to get it fixed — although the actual working time, Margaret says, was a matter of only three weeks. The rest of the time was simply taken up with interminable bureaucratic delays, for the visits of loss adjusters, surveyors, and God knows what. And no doubt for the paperwork to sit around on a pile for a while, until it got attended to. Margaret had been almost six weeks in the Ibis before anyone even began to do anything to the property…

Fortunately, Margaret is able to joke about her experiences as a kind of black comedy — but the strain on her has been clear to see. She’s in her later sixties, and suffers from arthritis – and you would think that, as a resident of 33 years, Accent had a duty of care towards her. Instead though, their attention to the house has been all about the “margins”… Costs have been cut at every opportunity, especially on the finish, so that Margaret has had to vociferously complain about idiocies such as an ugly gas heating pipe being run along her living room wall above the skirting board. (If you know how beautifully she has always kept her home, you know just how much of an insult this is.) The final straw, though, was when she discovered that her living room window blind — one of those nice, wooden-slatted ones that cost well over £100 — had mysteriously lost its draw-string and so been rendered useless. A workman eventually admitted to having cut it off so he could use it as a plumb-line. This completely unnecessary bit of criminal damage resulted in Accent having to pay out for a brand new blind. As Margaret remarks, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” It’s all about the margins…

If you leave Margaret’s house, at the bottom of Lower Holme, and walk the short path down to the river, this is what you’ll come to…

IMG_0912The brand new flood wall on the right, installed just last year before the Wickes opened, was overtopped on Boxing Day. The debris still caught in the trees (and this photo shows just one sample of a problem all along this stretch) indicates just how high the water came, but also just how long it’s now been left unattended to… This is the stretch of river that became nationally visible at Christmas, when the TV news played cameraphone footage of a caravan being smashed into the footbridge at the bottom of Lower Holme. But most of the rest of the time, this is a pretty neglected stretch of river. Out of sight of the general public, out of mind of the authorities… It’ll take a volunteer effort, in all probability, before this lot is cleared.

Floods, it turns out, can make you cynical.

 

How is this a Strategy, exactly?

So yesterday I popped into Kirkgate Centre in Shipley, where a drop-in consultation session was being held by the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council (CBMDC – or “Bradford Council” to most of us) on its new Local Flood Risk Management Strategy. To read the document in question, click here

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These are some of the lovely people gathered at the consultation to chat with people popping in — Vicki and Karen from Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support in the foreground, as well as reps from Bradford Council and the Environment Agency. When I popped in shortly after the session started, though (it ran from 2.30 to 6.30), there was a bit of a shortage of public being consulted. Maybe it picked up later on.

The personal advice and support being offered, on the day, seemed to me to be rather at odds with the very impersonal, rather unhelpful contents of the actual strategy document. I’ve read through it all now and I’m actually struggling to know what the strategy is, to be honest. And I don’t think this is just me being dense.

Let’s break it down. The document, nicely illustrated by pictures of floods, is in 9 sections, plus appendices. These 9 are:

1. Introduction. Which tells us that there have been floods and will be more floods and that this is natural, as well as caused by climate change (which is caused by us). It also tells us that Bradford Council is designated by law as the Lead Local Flood Authority for the district (and lists the laws in question). So. No strategy yet then.

2. CBMDC Powers and Duties. A list of statutory duties for Bradford Council. Still no strategy.

3. Risk Management Authorities. A list of authorities with a remit on flooding in the area — mostly Bradford Council, plus ‘strategic oversight’ from the Environment Agency (which, confusingly, is placed at the top of the diagram above CBMDC, as if they have ultimate responsibility, even though CBMDC is the “Lead Local Flood Authority”… Is someone passing the buck here…?). Btw, still no strategy…

4. Spatial Extent of Strategy. Which means, “here is a map of Bradford District”. The River Aire is named, as is the River Wharfe at the northern edge of the district. Mysteriously, no sign of Bradford Beck or any other river in Bradford itself… And still no sign of a strategy.

5. Sources of Flooding. A list of ways to get flooded and things in the district that are likely to flood. Thanks for that.

6. Historic Flooding within Bradford District. Tells us about flooding that has happened before. Mostly since 2000. Which, again – thanks for that – but this is not a future strategy.

7. Climate Change and Flood Risk. One paragraph on climate change being risky. “It is imperative,” it says here, “that plans and schemes are developed to better manage and adapt to any increased risk of local flooding.” Good. Where are they?

8. Objectives and Measures for Managing Local Flood Risk. This seems to be the bit that comes closest to any kind of strategy objectives. But everything here is couched in maddening generalisations which don’t appear to add up to very much of anything…

CBMDC wants to “improve understanding of flood risk”, we are told. It wants to “communicate flood risk to partners and stakeholders” (although many of the people at risk already know they are at risk, given that we just had Bradford’s worst flooding in living memory). CBMDC also wants to conduct “targeted maintenance”, but it doesn’t say where this maintenance should take place, and you would have hoped that they were doing targeted maintenance anyway..?

The crux of the matter is that they want to “reduce the impact of flooding”, “ensure appropriate development in Bradford District” (e.g. not building on flood plains), and “improve flood response and post flood recovery”. All of these are admirable goals, but they are just that — broad goals. There is absolutely no detail in this so-called “strategy” about how any of these generalised ambitions might be developed or pursued in future, in relation to specific locations or communities in the district.

9. Funding for Strategic Measures. A list of funding sources for when things need to be done, even though we have no idea what things might need to be done from this document.

So to sum up… there is no strategy here. There are lists of basic facts and existing circumstances, and there are some vague generalisations about intentions that could have been written any time in the last 20 years. None of which gives this reader any confidence at all that Bradford has anything resembling a plan to tackle flooding.

In my day job, at present, I am marking a lot of student essays. If I were grading this strategy document, it would get a very poor grade. Somewhere in the low 2.2 zone, perhaps, or maybe even third class. There’s a recitation of some basic facts, suggesting (as I often say to students in this area) “a very limited amount of research”. There’s also “a serious lack of critical thinking” in response to the facts gathered.

Go back. Revise. Resubmit.