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.


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.


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…


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


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…



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)


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).


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.


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….


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)…


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


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


…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.


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…


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.


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…



‘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.


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.

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,
Cllr Kevin Warnes
Green, Shipley Ward
City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
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
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.


Flood (mis)management? (some thoughts for George Osborne)

Tomorrow afternoon, from 2.30pm at Kirkgate Centre in Shipley, the Multi-Story Water project is hosting After the Flood – a community conversation event to discuss what happened in the Shipley area on and after Boxing Day… Please do come along and share your thoughts. We want to hear from as many people as possible!


Chancellor George Osborne in Leeds on Friday

Our event marks World Water Day (actually Tuesday 22nd), but it also comes just days after Chancellor George Osborne‘s budget statement — in which he announced £700 million, nationwide, for new flood defence and resilience schemes. This is to be paid for, according to this government website, by 0.5% being added to insurance tax… a cost which insurers will apparently pass on to households, and yet — it says — the average household will only be £1 worse off per year… Since there are clearly not 700 million households in the UK, I’m not quite sure how this adds up. But anyway, the point is that this money will include around £150 million for Yorkshire — to be spent mainly in York, Leeds, and the Calder Valley.

This is good news, but there’s also a sense of “too little too late”, when one considers that it was Osborne who slashed planned spending on flood defences when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, as part of his austerity drive. Moreover, according to this Yorkshire Post article — the estimated cost of necessary flood defence work in Yorkshire is currently estimated at around £180m, so there’s still a shortfall.

And of course there is no money for Bradford… Those in this area who were flooded at Christmas can feel justifiably aggrieved at this omission. But when there is not enough money to go around… or rather, when not enough money is being offered (because this government has an ideological commitment to budget surplus by 2020 — something that no serious economist thinks is even necessary!), then the available cash is always going to be targeted at areas perceived to be in the most need — and that basically means “where the most people are”. In fact DEFRA (government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has a system of cost-benefit analysis that is applied to any proposed flood defence scheme, and which calculates population numbers benefited in relation to amount of money spent. That approach will always skew things heavily towards major urban centres, and so it’s no surprise that Osborne (who, tellingly, visited Leeds the day after the budget announcement!) is promising to support “Phase 2” and even “Phase 3” of the planned Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme. Phase 1 has been being built since last year — affecting mainly the city centre. You can see a big crane right now down at the Royal Armouries, working on a new weir construction as part of this…


… but the irony is that “Phase 2” (i.e. further upstream in the Kirkstall area, for instance, which was hit badly at Christmas) was always supposed to be covered by the earlier scheme anyway — the one that was scrapped in 2010.

The funding for work in Calderdale does not quite stack up in relation to the cost-benefit analyses — I’ve been told — because the population figures in places like Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd are not nearly as high/dense as in a city like Leeds. But given that Calderdale has been repeatedly hit by severe flooding in both 2012 and 2015 — causing total misery for local people and some very dramatic pictures on the national news — it’s perhaps not that surprising that a PR-conscious government would decide that something visible needs to be done.


Hebden Bridge in full flood at Christmas

Unfortunately, it would seem, Shipley figures pretty far down on the priority scale, since (a) the numbers of people living directly in the flood-risk areas is relatively low, and (b) the national media coverage has been relatively minimal (apart from that caravan spectacularly hitting the footbridge at Dockfields/Lower Holme… that got a lot of airplay!).

This means that in Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, Apperley Bridge, it is really the “lead local flood authority” — ie. Bradford Council — that needs to step up and be seen to take action. And the Cameron/Osborne government has of course massively slashed Bradford’s working budget over the last few years… greatly limiting what can be spent by the city. But now there is a row brewing about the Council’s lack of a coherent flood defence strategy. According to this T&A article, the opposition Tory group is gunning for the council’s Labour leader, and she is trying to deflect blame for the lack of planning to the council’s officers rather than its councillors. But officers take their lead from politicians, so that’s a pretty poor excuse. And certainly, from what I’ve been hearing in various different contexts lately, Bradford Council has simply not been stepping up to play its part in the flood recovery effort. (Although it must be said that a lot of individual officers and councillors are doing their very best to do a good job and facilitate local people’s efforts, despite the lack of a joined-up strategy.)

Amidst all this doom and gloom, though, I was heartened this week to be sent the link to this short film — which is centrally concerned with the work that Chris Utley — who grew up in the Dockfields area of Shipley — has been doing in his current job down in Stroud, in Gloucestershire. (You can watch either the 3-minute “taster version, here…)

(Or there’s the full, 20-minute version here:)

As the film shows, there are novel experiments happening in locations like Stroud, to diminish flood risk by slowing and spreading the flow of water in what they call “upper catchment areas” (upstream), using comparatively natural methods. This works out much more economically than building big engineering structures downstream in the towns and cities affected (though that may be necessary too). What George Osborne needs to do, perhaps, is look less for the eye-catching, cash-splashing headline, than for innovative solutions like this one — which if applied more widely could make a big difference.

Conversations this week with people at the Environment Agency and the Aire Rivers Trust have brought my attention to the fact that much work is being quietly done to try to encourage landowners in the upper catchment of the Aire valley to embrace these more “natural” flood defence schemes. Notice, though, in Chris Utley’s video, how the big landowner they’re dealing with in Stroud is the National Trust — a charitable organisation that owns massive amounts of land and tries to be pro-active with new land management initiatives. When land is owned by a much more diverse patchwork of farmers and landowners — as in the upper Aire — there is a lot more work to be done bringing lots of different people onside. Let’s hope this proves successful, as it could make a big difference for people further downstream — in Bradford and Leeds alike.

The difficulty is, of course, that landowners don’t necessarily want water being retained in their own land, rather than draining off downhill. Historically, drainage ditches have been dug in upper catchment areas precisely to make land more farmable by removing water from it. And this brings to mind, also, one further story that caught my eye this week — one involving none other than American mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump. 


Trump is currently being sued by a town in Westchester County, New York state, for illegally and intentionally (they claim) altering the drainage system on his golf course so that water would drain off it quicker. This was designed to fill up the ponds on the course, to make them more aesthetically pleasing for golders, but has had the side-effect (so the town claims) of increasing their own degree of town centre flood risk. They were hit by flooding in 2011, but are suing now… which means that either (a) it took them a while to figure it out, (b) it takes a long time to get anything done legally in the United States, or (c) someone is out to raise negative publicity about Donald Trump. Or (d) all of the above. Who knows. We can rest assured, though, that Donald Trump’s house will never flood.

Update: according to this BBC news report (25 March), the sums needed by local government to pay for the flood repair and defence work now needed are considerably higher than anything being offered by government.