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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.

This Island’s Mine – performing Dockfield

This was the scene just last night, in one of the flats at Amber Wharf. That’s the new-build properties next to the canal, in the Dockfield area of Shipley.

Sitting at the end of the table is Kat Martin, my co-performer in This Island’s Mine, the two-person play that we’ve devised and written about the history of Dockfield, and the close relationship that industry and residents have always had here with the River Aire, the Bradford Beck, and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. This was the latest in a series of performances we’ve been giving in homes and pubs/clubs over the last week or so.

The other folk in the picture are last night’s audience (who prefer not to be identified by name, but were happy for me to share this pic), and strewn across their kitchen table is the “stage” of our drama — a map of Dockfield built up during the course of the play, using ordinary household objects from Kat’s shopping bags. Meanwhile, this was the view out of the window…

This particular flat overlooks what was once the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool and Bradford Canals. That’s Junction Bridge, built in 1774 at the same time as these sections of the canal network, to allow horses to get across from one tow-path to the other. This junction features prominently in our story, during the play, and it’s been one of the fun things, in performing it, to be able to point directly to where we are “on the map” as we speak. We’re talking about places and things that our audiences know well, but bringing a different perspective to them. So far, the reactions have been great!

One of the key locations on our map is Saltaire Brewery, whose main buildings were built as an electricity works for Shipley Council at the beginning of the 20th Century (later nationalised under Yorkshire Electricity Board). We were privileged last week to present a public performance of the play in the beer yard outside the Brewery Tap — on a gorgeous April evening in the setting sun (which kept everyone just warm enough!).

The picture above was snapped early in the performance (at a historical moment when the fields of Dockfield-to-be are farmers’ fields, yet to be built on… hence the animals) by Janet Wojtkow, one of our spectators… Janet is the partner of Tony Gartland, the Brewery’s founder and owner, so she took particular pride in snapping this picture…

… at the moment when we talk about how the former electricity works (represented by the light bulbs) is now the Brewery (represented by the bottle of Blonde). I actually had to pause mid-performance for a moment while Janet took the picture — much to everyone’s amusement. But that’s one of the nice things about the informal, round-the-table set-up for this play… there is a script we’re following, but people can also interrupt, ask questions, make observations, and we try to improvise satisfactory responses. It gives the show a lovely sense of liveness and one-off-ness every time we do it.

This conversational approach is also designed to elicit further contributions from the audience after we complete our story. The talking continues… At the Brewery, for instance, Janet shared the full story of why Saltaire Brewery is not in fact located in Saltaire but in Dockfield (it would have been in Salts Mill, it seems, but for the untimely death of its owner Jonathan Silver – and the subsequent hesitations of the interim manager). And this was just one of the additional tales we’ve been told… Take Geoff Roberts, for instance, pictured here in blue just behind my head on the right of the picture…

Geoff worked for decades in water quality control — for Yorkshire Water and its predecessors — and following our tales of Dockfield’s sewage works and plumbing, he told us how his very first work assignment, as a new employee in 1973, was to visit the pumping station next to the footbridge at the bottom of Dock Lane (again – very much part of our map!) in order to remedy a fault. It was quite the trip down memory lane. This performance at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre was also attended by some with even longer memories, who told tales of Shipley and Bradford in childhoods before World War II.

Our most responsive and vocal audience so far was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club last week, where our audience was almost entirely made up of people who grew up in Dockfield itself, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Since the characters that Kat and I play — Barbara and Danny — are amalgams based on interviews with a number of folk of this sort of age (and also a bit younger… we’re deliberately vague about exactly how old the characters are), the performance sparked especially vivid memories from those watching. In the picture below, on the right, Tony Brannon is offering an observation, mid-performance…

… and you can tell its mid performance because the objects on the table are different from those we end up with at the end (see below!). Truth to tell, Tony had been one of my interview sources, and he’s also a regular at the club, so for him the performance really was like an extension of our previous conversations. He and the others became as much a part of the show as we were — in fact our 30 minute running time stretched to more like an hour, with all the interjections, observations, and debates prompted by our script! Personally, I loved the way that the line between ‘play’ and ‘audience’ became almost indistinguishable…

… and for all that they corrected — or at least disputed — some of our “facts” (as Tony said, everyone remembers things differently anyway), this audience was also especially appreciative of what we’d made. Mary (in the foreground on the left in the picture above) was especially keen, after the play, to know why we’d chosen to focus on Dockfield. She seemed delighted by the thought that the place she grew up in — the landscape of her own childhood, if you like —  was being celebrated and remembered in  a play (however low-key and informal it might be as a play). I had the sense that her own sense of pride in the specialness of that place was somehow being confirmed by this outside intervention. And she had a few additional stories to tell of her own — like the way that the railings along Dockfield Terrace had been cut down during the war, to feed the urgent need for metal for the war effort…

What I’m really proud about with this play, so far, is that it seems to “work” in different ways for different audiences. For these people at Woodbottom Club, it provided an opportunity to look back and remember together — they carried on talking for hours (literally) after the performance, but were still thanking us for this “special evening” when they left. Conversely, our hosts last night at Amber Wharf are relatively new arrivals in Dockfield, and so the play helped to ground them in the history of the place and answer some of the questions they had about it. In the end, I suppose, that’s the great thing about storytelling… a story has a shape of its own, but it can mean different things to every spectator, depending on the interests and experiences they bring to it.

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Postscript. This was tonight’s performance — Wednesday April 19th — at Saltaire Brewery Tap. This week we came inside (no setting sun to warm us this time), and were joined by the biggest and most diverse audience we’ve had yet… Diverse in terms of both age and background. Gathered in two rows around our table, they included long-term Dockfield residents, more recent arrivals, and visitors from right out of town!

Indeed, among those present were a family from the Midlands… theatre and cinema enthusiasts who had come up to see the “magic lantern” collection at the Bradford Media Museum (an old-fashioned form of colour slide projection), only to discover that the collection has been shunted off down to London. They seemed delighted by our show, though (as if reassured that the North had managed to keep some culture of its own!). Despite knowing nothing about the Shipley area, they said that the history of industrialisation — that we tell through the microcosm of Dockfield’s story — was one they very much recognised from their own Black Country background.

“You’ve invented a new paradigm”, one of them told me afterwards. I confessed to not knowing what he meant. “A new model for doing plays,” he explained. “You could take this format and tell the story of anywhere.” And I suppose you could…  Personally, I wouldn’t claim to any enormous originality in the format of this piece: the component parts come from a range of theatre forms. But it’s true I haven’t seen them combined in quite this way before, or for quite this purpose (telling the up-close story of a place, through the use of characters, rather than the story of characters, that’s set in a place). As I say, though, what’s most special to me about this piece is the way that it seems to invite such spontaneous, conversational responses — even as we’re performing it.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due to Kat Martin, my wonderful co-performer in this piece, and to Simon Brewis – our director, who also guided us skilfully through the play’s development phase, from my initial draft script. Simon also took the pics of the Woodbottom performance. Thanks also Janet Wojtkow (whose pics I pinched off our Facebook feed, where she’d uploaded them), Paul Barrett (for the Kirkgate Centre pic), and Ruth Bartlett (for tonight’s Brewery pics).

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

panoramaLike many people, I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to make sense of the chaotic whirlwind that has been President Donald Trump’s first week in office. Events in Washington don’t normally have much to do with the waterways and communities of Shipley (this blog’s usual subject matter), but there was something about the Women’s March held last Saturday in Shipley town centre — in protest at Trump’s inauguration — that resonated deeply for me. Let me try to explain why.

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The march in Shipley was, of course, one of many held all around the world. But unlike most of the other places where this happened, Shipley is not a major city. It’s not London or Manchester or Glasgow or even Leeds. It’s a small, former mill town, and the decision of some of its citizens to march was curious enough to attract journalistic comment as far away as India. The specific, local incentive for the action was a kind of subsidiary protest against the local Conservative MP, Philip Davies, who has stated that he would have voted for Donald Trump “in a heartbeat”. But it’s not just his liking for Trump that has antagonised Shipley’s self-proclaimed “Feminist Zealots” (their name is an ironic dig at Davies’s derogatory terminology); it’s their sense that he seems similarly reluctant to treat women as equals. Davies may not have been recorded boasting about grabbing small felines, but his membership of Parliament’s Equalities and Diversity Committee is — as even he would likely admit — about as natural a fit as asking Nigel Farage to join the European Commission.

women and placardsI will nail my colours to the mast and say that I whole-heartedly support the Feminist Zealots of Shipley — from whose previously ‘secret’ Facebook feed I have nicked these pictures of the march (with apologies to the photographers). But I also think it’s important to say that Philip Davies is not a man simply to be rubbished and ridiculed (despite the best efforts of, say, comedian Russell Howard). Whatever one thinks of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he is also a hard-working constituency MP who is quite remarkably responsive to the needs of constituents, regardless of who they vote for, or indeed what sex they are. I’ve lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard from local people of how he has helped them out with pressing problems to do with housing, local services, etc. Davies has earned the gratitude and respect of many, which is no doubt a big part of the reason he gets re-elected. So it was great to see that even the protest against him was voiced in a creative, generous spirit, rather than in the kind of divisive, aggressive language that Donald Trump himself has become known for:

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This slogan — “Bridges Not Walls” — recurred on a number of placards on the march, and exemplified the spirit of wanting to build and heal, rather than divide and antagonise. It’s also a gift to your local water-blogger, because of course Shipley has no shortage of bridges. Off the top of my head, I count seven road and footbridges across the canal between Dockfield and Hirst Wood (not including the lock gates, which you can also walk across), and a further four across the River Aire. (Of course the canal even takes a bridge of its own over Bradford Beck at one point, just to underline my point…) In short, in the Shipley area, we’re pretty good at finding our way over sometimes troubled waters. So maybe there are even bridges to be built between Philip Davies and his opponents? Before that begins to sound tritely optimistic, let’s take a closer look at one particular bridge…

IMG_2374This is Victoria Street in the foreground, ramping up to the left of the picture as it starts to bridge the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in central Shipley. (The distinctive chimney of Salts Mill is in the distance, to the west.) One the right of the image, standing to one side of the canal, is the headquarters of In Communities, Bradford’s social housing authority. (I’ll come back to them in a minute.) On the left of the picture — and directly across the canal — is the distinctive red-brick structure of the former Leeds-Liverpool Canal Company warehouse. This pairing of buildings, old and new, facing each other across the water, sums up quite a lot about the state of modern Shipley. Let’s look first at the warehouse…

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If you were looking to find local examples of what President Trump was speaking about in his ominous inauguration speech — those “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” — well, this would be as good a place as any to start. Sure, it’s a warehouse, not a factory, but this rather beautiful edifice (which my friend Eddie Lawler has playfully earmarked as the HQ for his imaginary “University of Saltaire”) has been left to go to rack and ruin in recent decades. It’s one of many sadly neglected canalside structures, which has never been retrieved and repurposed for any “post-industrial” service industry. But the question is, what would a Trump (what would a Davies?) propose to do to remedy the situation?

The answer promoted by most mainstream politicians, of either hue, in the UK and US over the last 30 years has been to trust the market. Private enterprise, we are told, will deliver improvements to all our lives… Well, perhaps it will in some places, but the canal company building is still there, crumbling, and last month it was raided by police officers charged with shutting down an unregulated private enterprise…

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As reported by the Telegraph and Argus , this was not the first time that the building has been squatted for the purpose of growing industrial quantities of cannabis…

Shipley Ashley Lane cannabis farm.jpg.galleryThe spirit of free enterprise has always been about serving yourself first, even if that involves stretching the law. It’s useful for some things, but it’s not going to save the crumbling infrastructure of Yorkshire’s former mill towns, let alone the American “rustbelt” states that swung victory for Trump. And the new President, who knows a thing or two about free enterprise, knows there’s no business incentive for rebuilding in depressed areas. (Where’s the profit in that?) So instead, he is promising the biggest federal infrastructure programme since FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s. Donald the Builder wants to make more than his signature golden towers. His plans will, he promises, put thousands of ordinary Americans back in work, and it’s these promises that got him the votes he needed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to win the election.

The question is, who is going to pay for all this? Because much as we’ve all got tired of mainstream politicians who seem only to represent vested interests (hence the Trump rallying cry to “drain the swamp!”), we’ve also got used to not having to pay too much in taxes. Hence Trump’s determination to make Mexicans, not Americans, pay for his most controversial infrastructure project — the mooted wall on America’s southern border (which, of course, the “Bridges Not Walls” slogan refers to). Well, good luck with that, Donald. So far the Mexicans don’t seem too impressed by your negotiation tactics.

But enough about America. Let’s get back to Shipley. Where the appeal of Philip Davies to local voters is perhaps not dissimilar to the appeal of Donald Trump. His slogan is “Your Interests, Not Self Interest”. And as I mentioned, Mr. Davies does seem to do a fair job of helping people out with their immediate difficulties, by banging heads together where he can. And yet… in this era of small-ish government and low-ish taxes, there’s little prospect of the local infrastructure being rebuilt any time soon.

For me, this realisation has become particularly apparent this last month thanks to some striking bits of local history. Paul Barrett at Kirkgate Centre recently circulated this link to Operation Progress — a 1957 documentary film, on the British Film Institute’s web player, which shows the demolition of some of Shipley’s insanitary old back-to-back houses, and the building of the spanking new council housing estates along Coach Road. You get an amazing sense, watching this film, of just how exciting and progressive it seemed at the time to build these solid new homes in green spaces on the Baildon side of the river — transplanting people from the dark, crowded streets so many had been living in before. This was “operation progress”, and it was masterminded not by private enterprise or indeed by central government, but by Shipley Urban District Council. They had a masterplan, and they carried it out, and in many ways we’re still living with the landscape they created in the 1950s. Partly because there’s been no comparable attempt at regeneration since…

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I’ve also been actively researching the history of Shipley’s Dockfield area this month (see also my last blog), and one of the striking things I’ve discovered is that here, too, it was Shipley Urban District Council that made all the difference. Not in the 1950s, but half a century earlier, when SUDC had a masterplan called the “Shipley Improvement Act of 1901”.

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Up til then, Dockfield had basically been the wild west (or rather east) — an area dominated by a few largely unregulated textile mills, with the only road access going under the railway via Dock Lane. The lane was in a shocking state of disrepair because the mill owners didn’t want the responsibility or cost of maintaining it. But then SUDC built Dockfield Road as a modern road link from the main Otley Road. And alongside Dockfield Road, SUDC built the row of terraced housing that still stand there. And at right angles to Dockfield Road, they also built the homes along Dockfield Terrace. Council houses all. And they made them solidly, from stone, with then-state-of-the-art plumbing and heating systems.

And at the same time they built a water treatment works in Dockfield, as the outfall to a brand new sewage main running west to east, the length of Shipley. Because decent sanitation is a basic health requirement. But left to its own devices, free enterprise was never going to provide it.

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All of which brings me back to In Communities. Remember them? Opposite the weed warehouse? It oversees what’s left of Shipley’s council housing stock. Of course, ever since Mrs. Thatcher introduced the right to buy in the 1980s, most council housing in the area — whether along Coach Road (c.1957) or in Dockfield (c.1908) has been sold into private ownership. There’s not much stock left, because there’s been no new drive for social house-building. Because — we’re always told — we can’t afford it. And to judge from the Comments on the InCommunities facebook page (where the average ‘star grading’ out of 5 is 2.2), the condition of much of the remaining stock is poor, and too little care is being taken about the welfare of those people having to live in them. In fact, I even made a film about this recently. But that’s another story.

My point is, if you look around Shipley, it’s easy to see why people here might — given the opportunity — vote for Donald Trump. Whether “in a heartbeat”, or just in the forlorn hope that it might change something. But my point is also that what we really need is properly resourced, properly led local government, with a new vision for the town’s future.

Is it too much to hope that we might build a bridge, on this basis, between Philip Davies and his detractors?

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This is Dockfield’s Junction Bridge. Built in 1774 to allow horses to cross from the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to the connecting towpath of the Bradford Canal. This is the junction – and the bridge – at the heart of Bradford’s early industrial expansion. Behind the bridge, Junction House — also built in 1774 — continues to fall into chronic disrepair…

 

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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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.

 

 

After the Flood: Domestic Damage

A house stripped bare.

No flooring, no plaster. A house stripped bare – with a dehumidifier as the only furniture.

For me, our “After the Flood” event at Kirkgate Centre last Sunday was something of an eye-opener. As will be clear from my other blog posts on this site, my conversations with people in the Shipley area since the Boxing Day floods have often been about the clear-up effort or about local features in need of repair following flood damage, such as Hirst weir. Up until last Sunday, the contact I’ve had with people directly impacted in their homes by the flooding had been limited to people who were nonetheless still living in their homes. People like Lynda, at Lower Holme, whose basement had been flooded by groundwater — with the result that she lost electricity and gas supplies for a week. Or people like Phillip (featured in this previous blog), who moved back into his home in Aire Close before the end of January, despite having had five or six feet of water in his living room.

It occurs to me now that because Phillip is a builder by trade, he planned to oversee repairs to his downstairs while living upstairs — but of course not everyone has such a relevant skill set, or can deal as stoically with the emotional impact of living in such conditions. The meeting on Sunday was attended by a number of people who have been living in temporary accommodation since Christmas, and who still don’t know when they will be able to move back home. People like Margaret (an old friend of the Multi-Story Water project), who lives adjacent to Lynda on Lower Holme, but whose living room and kitchen floors collapsed in the flooding. Her housing association put her in the Ibis hotel, at Shipley Wharf, where she has been since December — in a standard no-frills room, without a kitchen, having to eat all her meals out. She has just been told that work on repairing her home will finally begin in April, but she has been offered no explanation for the 3 month delay. Perhaps the property was simply too damp until now to do any meaningful work.

That’s certainly the case for Graham and Ann — who live right on the river in Lower Baildon — and had over five feet of water in their living room on Boxing Day. They are hoping to be told in the next few days that the walls of their house are now dry enough that work can begin on rebuilding and replastering. They were kind enough to invite me, yesterday, to see the state of their house before work begins. The entire downstairs has literally had to be stripped back to the brickwork, with the removal of stud walls turning the house into a series of spaces between brick columns. The dehumidifiers are still going full tilt.

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Seeing the state of this house made me realise just how long and difficult a road to recovery it can be for those affected by flooding. We all hear about the immediate impact of floods when they hit — it’s all over the news and the pictures are everywhere — but the story never stays in the public eye for long. The news cycle moves on, and so it’s easy to assume that the story is over. But it really isn’t, if it’s happening to you.

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This is Graham, indicating the height the water came up to in his living room. And yes, he is managing to smile about it. I’ve been so impressed by his and Ann’s positivity in the face of such a complete devastation of their home. He also pointed out how the French windows are full of water and will also need replacing…

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… and how they are taking extra precautions to keep the front door secured, given that empty houses can be a target for unwanted intruders…

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Outside, work on putting things to rights has not even begun. Graham pointed out how the decking outside his back door, and the hot-tub that used to sit next to it, were both picked up and then unceremoniously dumped again by the flood water…

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And this is all that’s left of the decking area that overlooked the river itself… (Graham pointed out the decking section itself, caught up against a tree 100 yards downstream)

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It’s clearly going to take quite a long time before Graham and Ann are going to have anything that resembles a home again, and they are understandably concerned about the threat of something like this happening again in future. All they can really do — whether they want to live here or look to sell — is to look to make the house as resilient and flood proof as possible. And that isn’t going to be cheap.

If the continuing difficulties of affected households are not being reported on, another location that I visited yesterday has been particularly far out of the public eye. Branksome Drive is a quiet, residential road that had not even been on my radar as somewhere that been affected by the floods, until some of those affected came to the meeting on Sunday. Indeed, not even Paul Barrett — Kirkgate Centre’s community development manager — was aware of the problems there. Branksome Drive is at the extreme west end of Shipley ward, out past Nab Wood cemetery, and as such is quite isolated from, and invisible to, other local people. But if you look on this bit of Google maps, you can see how the end of Branksome Drive sits worryingly close to the Aire at the bottom of the long S-shape bend that takes the river up towards Dowley Gap (when it then turns eastward and adopts a relatively straight line of flow through the rest of the Saltaire and Shipley area).

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Bottom of Branksome Drive, looking back from dead end

Curious to get a bit more of a sense of the location, I went down to Branksome Drive yesterday. From a junction with the main Bingley Road, it winds steeply downhill before curling around to arrive at a dead end. As you can see from the photograph above, one side of the street (to the right) is built up at a higher level than the other. It’s this left side, the more northerly side, that was hit worst by the flooding — according to Luke, a builder I spoke to, who was repairing this wall that separates the last house on the Drive from the neighbouring field. The floodwater, he said, came up as high as the top of the hedging.

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Luke confirmed that the damage to this wall was done by the river on Boxing Day. The water, he explained had just come sweeping over the brow of the hill in the adjacent field. You can imagine this from the picture below, where the row of hedging marks the normal line of the riverbank….

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As Luke noted, these 1930s houses (also hit in the floods of 2000, apparently) were built on what is basically exposed flood plain. They probably shouldn’t have been built at all, although saying that is of little comfort to the homeowners, obviously. The residents of fourteen or fifteen houses along the northerly side of the street are literally still mopping up from the Boxing Day deluge. Among the telltale signs were this Dyson van, with cable running into one of the houses (presumably for dehumidifying purposes)…

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… There were also a number of camper vans sitting on driveways as temporary accommodation…

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… as well as skips full of discarded furnishings outside other homes…

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…and even abandoned white goods left outside another property…

IMG_0654At the point where the street bends onto this last, vulnerable stretch of houses, there’s a public footpath that leads off down to the river itself, so I opted to take this route back towards Shipley.

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The water level yesterday was reassuringly low, but I imagine that during the flooding, it must have reached right up to the gravestones at this bottom corner of Nab Wood cemetery…

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Working my way downstream from here (going up north, on the map) I soon came to the Dowley Gap sewage works — viewed here from the Seven Arches aqueduct that brings the canal across the river at this point.

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Looking at the level of the river here, and the level of the settling tanks, you realise that on Boxing Day the water must have just swept over this lot, taking a lot of the sewage downstream with it. Just one of the reasons why the water ending up in homes downstream was so foully contaminated. (This set of assumptions, on my part, was confirmed last night by a conversation with Jim Walker, who used to work as “sludge manager” for Yorkshire Water, and knows the Dowley Gap site well.)

Incidentally, crossing over to the northern side of the canal, so as to get to the towpath that would take me towards Saltaire, I spotted this mink darting under the bridge. Entirely another kind of unwanted invasive…

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‘After the Flood’ event: immediate responses

I’m pleased to report that our “After the Flood” event, hosted at Kirkgate Centre yesterday afternoon (Sunday 20th March), was well attended and very thought provoking.  The detailed and sometimes difficult conversation included the sharing of some harrowing stories, and the asking — and to some extent the answering — of some tricky questions. Among those in attendance were several people who were flooded out of their homes at Christmas and have still not been able to return home. There were also representatives from various community organisations, from the recently-formed Yorkshire Volunteer Flood Support Group, from the Environment Agency, and from Bradford Council, as well as other local people who came to listen and share their perspectives. A really big thanks to everyone who attended: we hope you found it worthwhile.

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I was asked to say a little about the event on BCB radio this afternoon, and I’ll be blogging about it in more detail soon, but for today I just want to share the following exchange of emails, that give a good sense of some of the key points arising from the conversation. (Please note that the following emails were all widely copied to numerous recipients, so I’m not breaking any confidences in sharing them.)

The first is from Councillor Kevin Warnes (Green Party; represents Shipley ward on Bradford Council), writing to Kersten England, the Chief Executive of Bradford Council — at 9pm last night.

Kersten,
I hope you are well.
I am writing to let you have some feedback from a very interesting post-floods event that I attended in Shipley this afternoon. It was a ‘community conversation’ organised by an academic and community activist, Steve Bottoms, and hosted by the ever-excellent Kirkgate Community Centre. A range of people were there, including local community groups, residents, families affected directly by the flooding, representatives from the Environment Agency, several members of the brilliant Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group (YVFSG), Cllr Joe Ashton from Baildon Parish Council, and a senior drainage council officer (Kirsty Breaks, who was very helpful in providing as much feedback as she could to the meeting, and I am grateful for her time). I am copying as many people as possible into this email as I promised them all that I would pass feedback from the meeting back to you as our Chief Exec.
I am also, by the way, keenly aware that there will be a lot of Council activity in relation to the floods that I am dimly aware of, at best, and so much of what follows may well be in hand. So my apologies in advance if I am telling you things that you already know! And, of course, I am acting purely in my capacity as a ward councillor and not in any sense as a spokesperson for the individuals and groups that participated in the event.
I have two urgent matters to alert you about that came my way via YVSFG, plus (thirdly) a request re floods cleanup, and some general feedback.
The first matter is the future of the furnishings container currently managed by YVSFG and located in the Ian Clough car park in Baildon. I understand that the 40ft container is being used to store furnishings that have been donated to help flood victims as they relocate back into their homes or to new homes, or is temporarily storing furnishings left by flood victims while they sort themselves out. The group has two problems. First, the owner of the container has asked for it to be returned. Second, I understand that the group have been asked to vacate the car parking area anyway, apparently in order to create more space for the farmers market. So, I would be very grateful if the Council could please help the group to find a suitable space to store these furnishings for the near future. They are doing fantastic work and have helped at least twenty families already and all they are asking for is some support from the Council to provide them with some space to operate from.
The second matter relates to increasing public awareness of the group’s excellent work. They would welcome support from the Council in terms of publicising their services and the help that they are able to give to families in the area who have been flooded out of their homes (for example, helping them to engage with local schools, perhaps via the Schools Forum). Anything the Council can do in this regard would be appreciated. The key contact that I have for the group is their Coordinator, Vicki Gilbert, whom I am copying into this email, and I would be very grateful if the Council could contact Vicki directly to ensure that the group gets the help they need and deserve.
I must mention in passing that Vicki went out of her way to praise the fantastic help that her group has received from Sue Smith, of Asset Management, who has helped the group in their dealings with local businesses affected by the flooding. [Sue, thank you very much]
The third matter is a plea for more council support for the volunteer cleanups that are being organised locally in Shipley. Pauline Bradley-Sharp, representing the excellent Hirst Wood Regeneration Group of residents who have done so much for the area over many years, specifically asked if the Council could provide additional support for the cleanups that are continuing on a regular basis. If she could please be contacted as a matter of urgency, I would be most grateful.
I was surprised to learn that the Environment Agency does not apparently have any Flood Wardens currently anywhere in Bradford District. My feeling is that this is an area where the Council could assist proactively, perhaps by alerting local community groups via area offices (it would seem sensible to draw on these groups in the first instance, at least). After all, we rolled out the ‘snow wardens’ several years ago after those two successive cold winters and could surely liaise with the EA to help them do likewise. This could be a big step forward, a very visible and tangible ‘win’, as one problem that was cited today was that some residents received flood warnings whereas others did not, and a network of floods wardens would be a way of ensuring better grassroots communication in times of emergency.
More generally, there was a mix of positive feedback for the Council, but also some sharp criticism. Critical contributions to the conversation voiced concern about insufficient procactivity on the part of the Council, about insufficiently clear communication and about a degree of confusion at times as to ‘who was responsible for what’ when contacting the Council. There was also a wish for greater (or more visible) high-level Council engagement with floods policy.
I am sure that there was much that the Council got right and is getting right, and of course the flooding events themselves were incredibly challenging in many ways. In my own comments, as well, I stressed that the Council’s organisational capacity has been affected by the huge cuts in central government funding since 2010.
Having said that, though, I feel that the Council would be well-advised to review how it communicates with residents and local community groups about how it is dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. I cited, for example, the inexplicable delays that I have experienced as a ward councillor in extracting timely and detailed information about the future of the Baildon Recreation Centre (for which we still have no projected re-opening date, leaving residents uncertain and frustrated about its future).
I’ll leave it here for now, Kersten, and look forward to hearing from you and/or colleagues regarding the urgent matters raised above. And I apologise again in advance for the likelihood that I am relaying information to you that you are possibly already aware of. I mention all of this not to criticise, but purely to help achieve better outcomes in future.
If you would like more detailed information about the participants beyond the email addresses that I am copying into this email, I am sure that Steve (Bottoms) would be more than happy to oblige and liaise as needed.
Very best wishes,
Kevin
Cllr Kevin Warnes
Green, Shipley Ward
City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
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Ms. England replied as follows, first thing this morning: 
Hi Cllr Warnes
Thanks for raising these issues which we will review and address first thing this coming week. I have copied Steve Hartley and some of his senior staff into this email – between them they have responsibility for the relevant services and can respond.
 We are conscious of the huge effort made by volunteers to support flood affected households and communities and happy to help raise the profile of such work and provide other forms of support. And I am sure we can find alternative means of enabling the group to store equipment etc.
On the wider points you raise about the lack of proactively, slow response of the council during the flooding and lack of support for community efforts
1) we have done an initial review of our actions over Xmas. Some immediate changes have been made which we hope would tackle some of those issues in the event of a recurrence.
2) we are considering introducing flood wardens and community based equipment for use in emergency. We would be happy to work with the flood group – and others to develop the proposals.
Hope this helps by way of initial response – Steve will be in touch early next week with a fuller response
Best wishes
Kersten
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Subsequent to this, Paul Barrett — community development manager at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre (our hosts yesterday) — followed up with observations of his own, copied to all who had received the messages above.
Hi Kersten

It was interesting to read your response and I think some of the issues raised both at the meeting and more widely since Boxing Day are very pertinent.

The most prominent concerns focus on perceived failings by statutory agencies to undertake planning to alleviate flood risks, to have effective contingency planning for emergencies, and to respond effectively to the situation as it unfolded. These criticisms may not be entirely fair or warranted, but are worth highlighting all the same. They include concerns about:

• confused, uncoordinated or non-existent communication both between agencies and between agencies and community organisations and residents
• a perceived lack of initiative and a lack of the necessary “can do” attitude required in these situations
• contradictory and inaccurate information from staff about the roles and responsibilities of different agencies, and a tendency to “pass the buck”
• issues/concerns/etc raised by residents not being passed on to other relevant departments or agencies
• not getting back to people about any actions/outcomes
• not effectively coordinating efforts to mitigate the effects of flooding
• no local contact/coordination point
• little support, acknowledgement or encouragement for local community responses, especially in terms of offering equipment or expertise and advice (this is particularly sad as much of the clean up effort has taken place on public land).
• poor responses to ‘early warning’ reports by local residents of incidents in the days and weeks leading up to the flood – in particular about the build up of debris under Baildon Bridge

Obviously people are frustrated and living with the ongoing uncertainty and stress of homelessness, financial and emotional losses, a huge cleanup task, loss of local facilities, etc, so these concerns must be accepted in that context.Given that much of the relevant local knowledge, expertise and experience lies outside of the council – with local citizens, neighbourhoods, community organisations and bodies such as the Environment Agency – and the council has such limited resources, this seems an ideal opportunity for a very inclusive co-design/co-production process.

For example, warden schemes are a popular response by statutory bodies to perceived risks, as they follow a traditional institutional role-based model. A co-designed solution might produce something better suited to and more reflective of community self-management. In Shipley’s case, we have had just three major floods since 1947, so a warden scheme might not represent the best use of people’s time or be a particularly cost effective and may prove hard to sustain during the long “dry” spells. An alternative might be more focussed on embedding better flood awareness within pre-existing and self-sustaining community groups and local citizens while building more effective relationships between them and key agencies.

Whilst we would not dream of taking credit for the amazing community response, I do believe such a community development approach proved its value during the Boxing Day floods, with local neighbourhoods instantly responding to an emergency without any prompting and with little support or coordination from statutory agencies. In anticipation of flooding, we have actively worked with local riverside communities for a number of years, initially with BMDC community development funding and more recently as a community partner in a national Connecting Communities “Hydrocitizens” project. This project – led locally by Steve Bottoms and called Multi-Story Water – focuses on building local knowledge, capacity and resilience in these neighbourhoods based around whatever priorities they currently identify as important. This ensures they have the capacity – the confidence, experience, support and networks – to respond effectively to whatever emergency, crisis or need might emerge, whether that be flooding, pollution, environmental custodianship, or anything else, when it matters most.

Crucially, Multi-Story Water has also been collaborating with agencies to see how inter-agency working and community engagement can be improved. This has focused on encouraging new forms of governance based around de-institutionalised relationships, and recognising and engaging with the expertise in communities. This benefits communities as it avoids many of the perceptions, frustrations and issues highlighted above, and benefits agencies as it draws in high value, low cost support around common purpose and harnesses the considerable expertise, capacity and willingness of communities to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.

Ironically, we’ve received feedback from within the council that some officers are pointing to the tremendous community response as evidence that community development is in fact an unnecessary waste of money as communities “do it anyway”. This displays a worrying lack of awareness about our community development work despite numerous meetings with officers, regular monitoring reports and the council funding some of this work itself!

I would like to reiterate Kevin’s total admiration of the incredible work done by so many people in the Aire Valley over the past few months. This includes really astonishing work by Hirstwood Regen, the Higher Coach Road Residents group, the Debris Removal Initiative, Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group, the Salvation Army, Friends of Bradford Beck and many others. It is very inspiring and very humbling.
Best wishes
Paul Barrett
Kirkgate Centre Development Manager
I should say that Paul articulates a lot of my own initial feelings about the meeting, especially in those closing comments. We hope to follow up in various ways with some of the people we heard from yesterday. Anyway, more on this soon.

 

Talking and Walking (on Water)

We’ve had a busy couple of weekends, doing a lot of talking and a fair bit of walking, not necessarily at the same time. This photo was taken just this morning…

DSC_0231The location is Dockfield Terrace, and that’s my colleague Lyze (pronounced “Lizzie”, not “Lies” as one person mistakenly assumed — as Lyze says, “it’s my own fault for being pretentious”) standing with David, who kindly agreed to be photographed for this blog. David has lived in the Dockfields area since 1947 (that’s 68 years and counting), and is currently 500 pages into writing his life story — some of which we heard recounted as anecdotes! He’s one of the people who turned up to a community meeting that we organised this morning for local residents, at Q20 Theatre on Dockfield Road (thanks Q20! we are collaborating with them to deliver a river- and canal-themed version of their Shipley Street Arts Festival in June… more on that another time).

At the meeting we heard quite a few local concerns… everything from the need for speed controls on the main road (used as a rat run to avoid Foxes Corner) to very genuine concern about the wellbeing of this family of swans…

DSC_0230The swans have recently taken up residence on the canal bank above, having abandoned their previous nest — pictured below, on the track between Dockfield Road and the canal towpath…

DSC_0229… there was some debate among the residents who attended the meeting about what had happened here, but general agreement that at least one and possibly all of the swans’ eggs had been stolen by someone unscrupulous, and that the swans had been driven away from this spot in fear…  Whatever the correct story, it was striking how much the residents concerns were with the canal, and its resident wildlife, as well as with the roads, traffic, etc. Even though Dockfields is a very industrialised area with little obvious green space, the river and especially the canal give the area something special that people clearly value…  (For more on swans at this time of year, see Canal and River Trust’s page about caring for them.)

We’re working, in connection with Kirkgate Centre, to try to build community connections in the Dockfield area, with a view to ensuring that people’s concerns are listened to and acted upon. This includes understanding how their sense of connection with the local waterways might be a positive asset that can be built upon communally. We’re also working on the same process in the Higher Coach Road area, on the Baildon side of the River Aire. Last Saturday morning we had a parallel community meeting, this time kindly hosted by the Bradford Rowing Club…

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What is Maggie Roe saying to Paul Barrett? Caption suggestions please…

Here’s Kirkgate Centre’s Paul Barrett, pictured outside the club after the meeting (on a gorgeous, crystal clear day!), talking to landscape specialist Maggie Roe — who is very struck by the distinctive layout of the Higher Coach Road estate (see other blogs on that!). And here’s a shot from inside the club, showing the aftermath of a very positive and productive discussion with residents… I love the fact that Paul and Sara are both checking their just-taken photographs of the post-it notes!

DSC_0219Sara Penrhyn Jones is a filmmaker who was visiting us for the weekend from Aberystwyth, in Wales (like Maggie, she is part of the wider “Hydro-Citizenship” research project that Multi-Story Water is now a part of). Maybe she’ll have some film footage for us to share on this blog soon. Here she is armed with cameras again the following day — Sunday 19th April — on the canal towpath in Saltaire with Lyze…

DSC_0223… the other people in shot are some of the people who had gathered to go for a guided walk with me from this spot. As part of Saltaire’s “World Heritage Weekend” celebrations, I led a version of our Salt’s Waters walk — which will soon be available as a downloadable audio guide, for anyone to undertake whenever they like… although on this occasion we went with the low-tech, interactive option. The walk goes from the bottom of Victoria Road in Saltaire, and then heads west along the Aire, via Roberts Park and the Higher Coach Road estate, before turning uphill – alongside Loadpit Beck – on the way towards what little remains of Titus Salt Junior’s Milner Field mansion.

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A key feature of the audio mix will be Eddie Lawler’s beautiful song, The Ballad of Little Beck – written in honour of the unassuming stream that goes runs down through the grounds of Milner Field, and was once dammed as a boating lake. Eddie came along on the walk last Sunday and performed the song live, standing on the earthworked banking that takes Titus Jr’s coach road right across Little Beck (which trickles through at the base). It was a “shivers down the spine” moment, for me at least…

I don’t have other pictures of the walk, because for the most part I was too busy conducting it — talking and walking — to be taking photographs. But the merry band of travellers who came along on the journey were a great bunch to spend a couple of hours with. As I’d hoped, moreover, they had a good few suggestions (and one or two corrections!) to feed back into our work on the audio narrative…

So a big thanks to all those who contributed to a very enjoyable afternoon. Here are a few of you, enjoying Eddie’s music…

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Simmering quietly

Ok so here’s a really badly taken selfie to prove that we’re still here…

dec 14 762That’s me, Steve Bottoms, gurning at the camera – and blurring from left to right are Trevor Roberts, Lyze Dudley, and Paul Barrett (see ‘People’ page of this site for explanation of who we are and what we do). This is from a meeting at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre last Saturday, November 29th… and we were meeting on a Saturday simply because everyone’s been so busy that finding a weekday was a bit of a nightmare. Kind of sums up the autumn really… (Speaking personally, I’ve been a bit preoccupied learning the ropes of being head of department (Drama, University of Manchester) and so Multi-Story Water has had to take a bit of a back seat.)

But… the project is ongoing and things have been happening quietly in the background, despite the lack of updates on this blog. We’re planning a range of events and activities for 2015, working in and with various groups/neighbourhoods in the Shipley area. Writing about them here might prove to be a hostage to fortune, but watch this space for new developments in the new year…