Meeting with Incommunities (Part 3: Shared responsibility?)

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

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

3. Shared Responsibility?

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

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

Chapter and Verse

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

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

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

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

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

Language matters

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

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

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

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

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

Oppositional dynamics?

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

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

Community “resilience”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 2: Brutalism)

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

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

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

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

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

Passing on the costs

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

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

Heating and condensation

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

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

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

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

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

“Lifestyle choices”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 1: fire safety)

Incommunities on the canal

Crosley Wood flats by the canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1. Fire safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Continue to Part 2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.

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…

ireland to crosley woods 207

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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New beginnings? (Crosley Woods, Shipley Connected, etc)

This week felt like “new beginnings” in all sorts of ways. For a start, it was a week of (mostly) gorgeous spring sunshine, so bright that it almost bleached out some of the snapshots pasted below — such a wonderful pleasure and relief after the relentless battering of rain that we all got during what was “the wettest winter since records began”… In a previous blog posted just over a year ago, reflecting on “the wettest year on record” (2012) I made the point that it’s been tricky to ascribe any individual weather event or phenonenon to “man-made climate change”, but this winter’s events have been so extreme that the argument is now extremely difficult to refute. Just take a look at this:

The footage in this video of the Aberystwyth glaciologist was shot by my friend and colleague Sara Penrhyn Jones, who is based at Aberystwyth University (where students were repeatedly evacuated from sea-front halls of residence during January). She also took this rather extraordinary shot of a wave hitting the town’s promenade during the storms:

massive waveI mention Sara in part because she’s now also a project partner. This year we’ll be beginning a new period of AHRC-funded research as part of a 3-year project titled “Towards Hydro-Citizenship”, with four case study areas: Shipley is one (carrying on where we left off last year), the area north of Aberystywith (Borth and Tal y Bont) is another, as are the Brislington area of Bristol and the Lee Valley in East London. More on all this another time – suffice for now to say that in Shipley, we’ll be keeping the Multi-Story Water (MSW) name going because it has some local recognition.

Anyway, getting back to the spring sunshine! This last Monday, March 3rd, I went for a little walk along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, crossing the imaginary jurisdictional boundary between Shipley ward and Bingley ward in order to get to this spot just east of the Dowley Gap “Seven Arches” aqueduct…

ireland to crosley woods 203Just visible in this shot, competing a bit with the sunshine, is the easternmost tower of the Crosley Woods social housing development. Crosley Woods is right next to the canal, but on the “wrong side” for access to the towpath. To access the canal, residents have to walk down through a muddy field (there’s no footpath, but two – er – bathtubs) and exit through a gate with a sign explicitly reminding everyone that this isn’t a public right of way and that permission even to walk through the field could be withdrawn at any time by our friends at Bradford Council… Here are Maya Williams and Paul Barrett, of Kirkgate Community Centre, about to go through said gate (Paul is helpfully pointing our way up through the field to the estate).

ireland to crosley woods 204I was on a wee scouting trip with Paul and Maya, because Kirkgate Centre have been doing some community development work at Crosley Woods over the last year or so (although it’s technically in Bingley, not Shipley, it falls within the parliamentary constituency and thus falls within their remit). Initial survey work indicated that very few people had anything good to say about living in Crosley Woods, since (like many high-rise estates of this type across the country) there are significant problems with social deprivation, drug abuse, and so on.  However, the one good thing that people highlighted was the proximity of the canal – a fact which prompted Paul to ask whether the definition of “Shipley” might be stretched to include Crosley Woods as we plan the next stage of our water-focused activities. The MSW project will be working directly in collaboration with Kirkgate Centre over the next 3 years, so we’re looking at points of common interest and concern… hence this week’s visit.

ireland to crosley woods 207Here are the three towers of Crosley Woods, looking not unpleasant in the sunshine, even if there are no trees in leaf yet. You can see how the almost rural location has some benefits for residents. (Here we’re looking west, with the canal off down to the left.) But in this next shot, taken looking back at the estate from the Bingley side, it’s also clear how the canal (now on the right) is inaccessible from the estate itself, because of a steep drop heavily planted with trees…

ireland to crosley woods 210The situation is even clearer in this next shot, a little further on towards Bingley…

ireland to crosley woods 211And a little further on again, we cross a bridge over the canal and suddenly the water and the landscape become beautifully visible…

ireland to crosley woods 214Some immediate questions arise, that we don’t yet have any simple answers for… Residents here at Crosley Woods value the canal, but how might a community engagement process or event best utilise its presence to help build community (as per Kirkgate’s brief), given that its accessibility is such an issue? Initial thoughts involve boats, but we’re at the very early stages with this as yet…

Meanwhile, back at Kirkgate Centre, this hand-drawn map of Shipley ward (no Crosley Woods…) is hanging on the wall. It’s the most prominent visual record of the “Shipley Connected” community planning day that Paul, Maya and co ran on January 25th at the Exhibition Building of Shipley College…

2014-02-17 14.04.31Shipley Connected was a successful event, attracting around 100 local residents who engaged in some quite animated debate around ways to improve and develop the area and community relations. I chaired an hour-long discussion about the local waterways, and also prepared the hand-drawn map as a way for people to playfully engage with the discussion by sticking on post-it notes about places they felt strongly about…

2014-01-25 14.25.19Here’s the map on the day, on the floor in a corner of the Exhibition hall… it had people crawling all over it on hands and knees to stick their post-its down, which was great to see! (As a theatre-maker, I always see it as a form of participatory theatre when you get people crawling around on the floor… 😉

Although Shipley Connected was conceived and run by Kirkgate with no directly intended link to the MSW project, it was great to get involved by way of further developing an emerging relationship that we all hope will be productive in the coming years. As Paul notes, many of the neighbourhoods in Shipley that need particular attention in terms of community development are also proximal to the river or canal, so it’s a natural fit to think in terms of using water as a kind of creative theme to hinge future work around.

For the record, the issues highlighted by the Shipley Connected “waterways” discussion were as follows (in no particular order):

Possibilities for improving riverside footpath access. The recent work to improve the stretch between Saltaire and Baildon Bridge (including the addition of the Aire Sculpture Trail), but there was discussion of opening up more of a continuous riverside “corridor” for walking… not least because the number of bikes on the canal path can sometimes make it perilous for pedestrians!  e.g. a better path from Roberts Park towards Hirst Wood (already mooted by residents on the Higher Coach Road estate); e.g. the public riverside footpath east of Baildon Bridge (linking to Denso Marston’s Nature Reserve) is in a very poor state of repair and needs improvement. The issue of responsibility for footpath maintenance was also raised…

Litter is an ongoing issue – not least the kind of stuff that gets wrapped around trees after high water and is left looking very unsightly. This is something that would take concerted effort from local volunteers to take care of, if the Council doesn’t take responsibility.

Future of local weirs. The argument about the potential Saltaire Hydro was referenced but nobody really wanted to get into it (old news?). There was discussion though about the costs or benefits of weir removal… One person raised concerns about the silting up of the river at Roberts Park, and wondered whether the presence of the weir was in part to blame for this (sediment building up on the upstream side). There was also some discussion of taking out the weir by Baildon Bridge (see this blog for fuller discussion).  It probably wouldn’t greatly improve the health of the river or access upstream for fish (since there are two more weirs just upstream), but there is also the flood risk argument.

Boats on river? There was discussion by some of those with longer memories about the days when boats could be hired at the Boathouse and rowed recreationally between the two weirs at Saltaire and Hirst Wood. Is there value in campaigning to get this back up and running?

Develop Bradford Beck recreationally. This is of course very much a priority for the Friends of Bradford Beck (whose chairman Barney Lerner was present for the discussion), and everyone agreed on the value of trying to make the Beck more accessible… development of cycle path and footpath, clean-up, etc.

Japanese Knotweed and other non-native plant species. These troublesome riverside invaders were raised by one participant, and Barney spoke very encouragingly about FoBB’s plans to train up some volunteers in the art of injecting weedkiller into the roots of invasives… The plan is to tackle this problem along the open-air sections of Bradford Beck, but also at trouble spots on the Aire (such as the area upstream of Baildon Bridge).

I think those were the main points people raised. (Interestingly, nobody really had any issues with the canal.) It was great to have Barney and other BB “friends” present, and I’m hoping MSW will also be able to work in an active, complementary way with them in the next few years. They’re doing great work!

And finally, an anecdotal aside looping us back to where I began this post… One of those present for the Shipley Connected discussion was Rosa Foster, a local resident, member of FoBB, and (in her day job) Environment Agency employee. She brought along her mum, Georgina Winkley, who was visiting from her home in Aberystwyth. When Georgina saw an item about the new “Hydro-Citizenship” project in her local paper the following week, she dropped an email to introduce herself to Sara (mentioned in the paper as the local contact name) and ask if there was any connection to the Shipley Connected event she’d attended… Sara said she didn’t think so, but copied me in… I said yes there was. Meanwhile, it turns out Georgina and Sara live on the same street. It is indeed a very small world…

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