Insured against future flooding…?

There’s been a weird sense of deja vu this week, as the persistent rain across large parts of the UK led to flooding particularly in northern Lancashire and Cumbria. As reported in the Guardian and Telegraph and elsewhere, upwards of 70 people had to be rescued, and many homes were underwater, after a new local record was set for rainfall in a 24 hour period… Some of the areas hit were the same ones affected by Storm Desmond just under two years ago, when severe flooding hit the Lake District in early December. That was followed, of course, in good alphabetical order, by Storm Eva — which brought the Boxing Day floods of 2015 to the Aire valley, Calderdale, York, and many other places across the north of England.

The aptly named Water Street, in Lancaster, earlier this week…

Let’s hope that history is not about to repeat itself. But river levels on the Aire have been persistently high again recently, just as they were in the run up to Christmas in 2015, and on Wednesday the Environment Agency issued a flood warning for the Upper Aire – west of Keighley. It all seems worryingly reminiscent of two years ago. But maybe we shouldn’t even be surprised… maybe this is the new normal.

“I mean the weather we’re getting now, it’s just totally different from the weather we used to get. You would never, at this time of year, you would never expect to get all these floods. When I was a kid we used to get snow four feet deep. Now it’s just rain.”

Those are the words of Phillip Moncaster, secretary of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club, when I interviewed him in January 2016, shortly after both the club and Phillip’s home had been devastated by the Boxing Day flood. I incorporated them, verbatim, into the script of my one-man show about how the floods affected Shipley, Too Much of Water. It seemed oddly timely to be presenting the piece one more time (and quite possibly for the very last time) last week at Leeds Town Hall. Here I am, in fact, putting Phillip in place next to his (former) home at Aire Close…

The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of the Insurance Institute of Leeds (or IIL – the local branch of the Chartered Insurance Institute, CII). Normally these lunchtime sessions are lectures by invited professionals on insurance-related matters. It’s basically a CPD slot (continuing professional development), and attracts a sizeable audience of folk from Leeds-based insurance companies. There were a good fifty or so people in attendance for the session last week, and this included a good handful from the Shipley/Baildon area, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to me afterwards. One woman announced herself as the person who had dealt with the insurance claim for Half Moon Cafe, in Saltaire’s Roberts Park, which was of course badly hit on Boxing Day (and features in the show).

James Spencer cleaning up Half Moon Cafe after the 2015 flood

I think the intention of Melanie Jordan, who organised this event, was to get her colleagues to think about flooding more holistically — not just as something they deal with in terms of paperwork and statistics, but from the human point of view. She had initially approached Chris Sharp, a curator with Leeds City Museums, who also then recommended me. We spoke as a kind of double bill: he went first with the more traditional powerpoint presentation, then I did my performance.

Chris had organised the Flood Response exhibition at Armley Mills that ran from last December to May this year. His remit is specifically to curate community-focused exhibitions that draw on contributions from local people, and so he had seen many images and heard many stories about the Boxing Day flood as it impacted on Leeds — particularly in the Kirkstall area. Chris He spoke movingly about his experiences with the community there while preparing and mounting the exhibition, and he also put the 2015 event in context with other, historical floods, that the museum service had records and images about. He gave a fascinating presentation at the front of the hall, and we then asked the audience to literally turn around to face the back wall, where I had set up for Too Much of Water.

This was an attentive audience, but also a rather quiet one. They seemed unusually reluctant to laugh at what I have come to think of as ‘the funny bits’ (I’ve done this show enough now to know when to expect an audible response), so I wasn’t quite sure how it had gone down. It was reassuring and heartening, then, to receive written feedback via Melanie this week, which was overwhelmingly positive. Apparently there is a standard online feedback form for these sessions, where respondents tick numerical boxes (Chris and I scored well, it seems), and then can also leave any ‘further comments’ they feel inclined to offer… The written comments are all reproduced below, in the interests of full disclosure!

There was one person who clearly did not like the unconventional format for this “CPD” session:

“Not really appropriate for a professional audience.”

And another whose response is difficult to judge from their deadpan one-line response:

I am not sure what I was expecting but it was not that.”

It was very nice to know, though, that at least one person who was not expecting “that” was nonetheless pleased they had come:

“I have to admit I had not picked up on the fact that this was the story of the 2015 floods told through the medium of drama, and had I had notice I might not have attended, but Stephen’s performance really brought to life the human impact of this event. Chris’s presentation also helped to tell the individual stories of an event that as an industry we refer to primarily in numbers.”

That latter point was also underlined by others:

“It certainly made me think about the insured’s position and what it must have felt like to be in that situation.”

“It was good to have a ‘real life’ aspect to the presentation which affected the local area.”

And then there’s this one, which is the sort of feedback that makes your ears burn:

“I have attended 4 CII lectures now (the last 4 – starting with Ogden) and they have all been excellent but this has been by far the best and I think it stood out because both speakers were not from an Insurance background which gave a nice change of perspective. Both speakers were exceptionally good, their parts of the presentation were well researched and well thought out and they really brought home to you the real human cost of flooding. The performance at the end was inspired and unlike anything I have ever seen before and it was extremely well done. Inspiring. Thank you all.”

(You are very welcome.)

Generally, the respondents didn’t go into much detail about how the presentations related to their day jobs as insurers, but there were a number of comments suggested that the afternoon is likely to be memorable. Perhaps it will have given a bit of an insight that will help these good people treat future flood victims with even more care and concern than they would have anyway…

Because if this is the new normal, there will be future flood victims, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Giving voice to “Val”, a Shipley flood victim

For the record, here are the rest of the remarks, in the order they came to me, complete with typos. (I’ve omitted only one, which was moaning about the microphone acoustics in the room.)

“Very different from the standard lectures. It was fantastic to get a local perspective of issues faced and brought to life in such an enjoyable an enjoyable way. Fabulous, definately one I will remember.”

“I thought the dramatization lecture was really excellent. Great job in organising That.”

“A very different style compared to usual lunchtime lectures and made a welcome change”

“A thoroughly enjoyable lecture, both speakers had very good presentation skills, especially Stephen Bottoms with his performance piece.”

“Very different . I guess the next thing I should do is ask my local councillor what Leeds has learned?”

“The event was outstanding particularly Professor Bottom section. More of the same please.”

“Very engaging presentation/performance”

“I thought it was a brilliant idea to split the Lecture into 2 Parts. Both parts kept me interested & focused.  The Play in particular was a good way to put us in the shoes of the poor people who suffered in the floods and was delivered in a fun yet captivating way.  Well done CII on bringing us something different yet crucially important.”

“Both presentations were well presented and useful in bringing the flood events to life and how these affected people, businesses and the community. Stephen Bottoms in particular was excellent.”

“I thought this afternoons lecture was absolutely brilliant.”

“Fantastic afternoon”

 

 

The personal is political… and that includes debt.

Just this morning, Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to write off “tens of billions of pounds of housing associations’ debt”. The idea is that, if those organisations don’t have to service these debts, their finances will be freed up to actually build more social housing — and so address the chronic shortage of affordable homes. It’s a response, of sorts, to the UK’s much-debated housing crisis. But will such generosity in debt relief be passed on by the housing associations to the tenants who owe them…? That’s a question that also needs asking, when so many people are facing potential eviction from their homes. Not least in Bradford…

This brings me back to Jenni Mynard and her family. I wasn’t going to blog about them again, because this is not a story about water (which this blog-site is supposed to be concerned with), and also because discussing one family’s financial problems in a public forum like this seemed too personal, too intrusive. But… the story was already public, because of a crowd-funding campaign I ran two weeks ago on justgiving.com … and then this week I got a call from BBC Radio 5 Live… and then an email from someone at a TV production company too… and I realised that the story had attracted national interest, never mind just local. So I needed to find a way to reflect on it.

This is Jenni and her son, Dylan, in the picture I used on Just Giving this month. The snap was actually taken last year, near their home in Bingley, and right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. When this picture was taken, we had just finished filming material for a short documentary, High Rise Damp, which looks at the family’s housing situation on the Crosley Wood estate (three concrete tower blocks from the 1960s, which are long past their use-by date). Jenni agreed to take part in the film on the understanding that this was not a film about her so much as it was a film about people like her. The idea was to tell a story that, while necessarily personal, might be understood as being representative of many similar stories…

In the film, Jenni mentions getting into rent arrears with her housing association, Incommunities, at a time when she was having to take a lot of unpaid time off work because Dylan was sick with asthma — a condition that doctors said was very likely caused, or at least exacerbated, by the damp conditions in their flat. As a consequence of her mentioning this, public screenings of this film have led on more than one occasion to individual spectators offering to help pay off some of the family’s debt. Jenni, however, while grateful for such generosity, has resisted such offers on the grounds that this was — as I said — not just about her. Why should she benefit personally when so many others are in similar need?

Jenni’s admirable reluctance to take personal advantage of the situation is just one of the reasons why I like her so much. But this summer the family’s financial situation took a turn for the worse (for reasons too personal and non-relevant to discuss here), so that their careful attempts to manage their outstanding debt, while also paying their current rent due, was thrown off kilter. As a consequence, their housing association Incommunities began threatening eviction, and the family was eventually informed that the bailiffs would be coming to repossess their flat on Tuesday 7th November, unless they could come up with a big chunk of the money they owed. To be fair to Incommunities, they did respond to Jenni’s request for mercy: in the end, their demand was for a substantial portion of the debt, rather than the whole thing, to be paid off if eviction was to be avoided. But that offer left the Mynards with less than a week to find £1700, and they simply had no idea where they were going to find such a sum. Clutching at straws, I asked Jenni if I should try “going public” through a crowd-funding campaign.

We were both very wary about this idea, for obvious reasons. Jenni would be putting her family in the public eye as people who owed a substantial amount of money — and we were concerned that this might invite negative reactions. And why, given that so many other families are facing similar situations at present, would anyone think this particular family was worth helping? Jenni was as sceptical as I was about whether we would achieve anything, but as she said, she just didn’t have any other options left.

So… I set up a Just Giving page for the Mynards on the morning of Thursday 2nd November, with no idea whether we’d get anywhere. I put the link on my personal Facebook page, shared it on the Multi-Story Water Facebook page, and tagged a few people I knew who had seen the film, in the hope that they would feel inclined to donate. I’m no social media native (don’t even start me on Twitter…) so I privately felt that this was probably far too little, far too late. But by some miracle of viral sharing, the donations began to roll in that morning, surged a bit at lunchtime, tailed off during the afternoon, and then accelerated quickly again after work… We hit our £1700 target on that first day of the appeal, by around mid-evening…

Amazed and humbled, I posted a message thanking everyone who had donated, and mentioning that — if anyone else still wanted to donate — then the extra would all go to further defraying the Mynards’ rent arrears. And over the next few days, sure enough, the total sum continued to tick up. By Tuesday — the day of the scheduled eviction — the total amount given had topped just over £2,200 (where it has stayed since).

By then, of course, the eviction had been called off because we had been able to pay off the required sum. Jenni and her family — completely gobsmacked by the public response — breathed an enormous sigh of relief and sent out prayers and thanks to everyone who had donated:

“I cant believe all the wonderful people out there willing to help us. It was never my intention but we are so desperate it was the only other option. I have no words we can’t thank you and everyone enough, Dylan has a smile on his face and that’s priceless x. I want everyone to know how much we appreciate their help and support, some of the comments have brought tears to my eyes x”

So why did so many people support this? There were 98 separate donors in the end, most of whom did not know Jenni or her family at all. The statistics on the Just Giving site say a lot: after being shared 80 times on that first day alone, the page was viewed over 2000 times… So it was enough that around 1 in 20 of the people who looked at the story decided to donate… And that’s how these things work!

“Saw the film a few months ago and I’m really glad you’re fundraising. I wanted to help, and now I can (at least a bit!) Good luck everyone, more people are on your side than you’ve ever met.”

Interestingly, among those who did get onboard with the campaign, it actually became a bit of a “thing” that Thursday. I followed some Facebook feeds where people were reporting to each other that they had donated, and were updating each other on the rising total, with considerable good humour and something approaching excitement! As one friend of a friend commented, “this thread has made my day!” It’s really a win-win when people can be entertained by giving money to somebody else!

But what was also very clear from the comments posted was that people saw this as a symbolic campaign. It was, again, not just about Jenni’s family. The Mynards had simply become a publicly-identified example of a problem that many people were aware of but didn’t know how to do anything about. So given the chance to do something, people did… “We shouldn’t have to do this“, wrote one donor, while doing it, “but I can’t stand by and let this happen.”

Other comments suggested an awareness of the stark irony that donors were being asked to help Jenni and her family to stay in less than ideal living conditions:

I would love to see them have enough to rehouse themselves somewhere healthier and happier. Housing in this country is appalling. Best wishes xx

Of course part of the Catch 22 that families like the Mynards face is that it is very difficult to get anywhere else to live if you cannot get a good reference from your previous landlord. And that won’t happen if you owe them money… So let’s hope that, with a big chunk of their debt now cleared, Jenni and her family are indeed closer to be able to rehouse themselves somewhere better.

Anyway, as I said at the outset, I wasn’t going to blog about this. But then a couple of days ago, I picked up a phone message from someone at Radio 5 Live, who had read about the crowd-funding and wanted to know if Jenni and Dylan might be willing to talk on the radio… They were looking for personal stories to illustrate the wider problem of the housing crisis.

I called Jenni and discussed this with her, but she – quite understandably – said that she didn’t want to be on the radio. She had gone public because she needed to, but she didn’t have any wish to become a public figure. She was, she said, perfectly happy for me to speak on the family’s behalf if the radio people were good with that, because she knew I would try to direct the story back to the general problem and away from the personal specifics. One thing that both of us have found is that some people can get unduly nosey about personal specifics, once a story like this is out there…

In the event, nothing happened with the BBC, because when I called them back the next day, it turned out that they’d already covered housing on that morning’s breakfast show… (after leaving me a message at 4.30pm the previous afternoon… clearly I’m not wired for radio schedules!) I suspect they wouldn’t have pursued this story anyway, without Jenni herself being willing to speak on air, but the person I talked to did ask me how she was, and seemed genuinely pleased when I confirmed that the eviction had been called off…

You see, people do care about people. And actually, I do believe that many people who work for housing associations also care about people. This shouldn’t become an “us versus them” situation, because some of the problems here are systemic and are beyond the power of any one organisation to address (I tried to discuss some of these complexities in a 3-part blog I wrote in August). So the real question is how to turn the evident public concern about these issues into a movement for real political change. Because this is not just a story about individual families.

***

I have to stress again that I’m no expert on these issues, but I do think — as I indicated at the start of this blog — that it’s not enough simply for this Conservative government to throw money at housing associations and their balance sheets. That’s no guarantee that such money will really be used in a way that helps those most in need, unless clearer policy guidance is also put in place.

That seems to be the thought underlying the Labour Party’s decision this week to launch a petition — addressed to the Prime Minister — demanding that new regulations are put in place to ensure social housing be made safer for all residents. (This is the link, in case you want to sign it!) “Thousands of families are living in high-rise properties in the UK“, the petition statement begins: “Nearly all of these homes do not have adequate safety systems.”

It must be said that there’s no actual evidence on the petition to back up this claim (which is of course inspired by the ongoing controversy about the Grenfell tower fire in London). But in the case of Bradford, the assertion raises a specific question for Incommunities… When Jenni and I met with Chief Executive Geraldine Howley on August 11th, she told us that an independent fire safety audit of Bradford’s tower blocks had been commissioned from Savills. This was scheduled to begin the following week, on August 18th. It must, presumably, have been completed by now, so Incommunities should have detailed information on whether or not their tower blocks have adequate safety systems. However, I’ve searched the Incommunities website, and also the Telegraph and Argus website for reporting on this topic, and I can’t find any evidence that the findings of that Savills inspection have been made public. So where are they?

If they have been published, and I’ve missed it somehow, and everything is fine, then that’s great. But the communication that residents at Crosley Wood have been receiving recently has not been about safety, it’s been about these tower blocks possibly being sold or demolished by 2019, and the residents being relocated (see my last blog). The stated reason for this future planning is that the estate is now economically unviable, because of a lack of demand to live there… And maybe that’s really all there is to it. But as long as pertinent information remains (apparently) unpublished, then people are bound to worry that there’s something they are not being told.

People who live in tower blocks deserve to know the truth about the conditions they’re living in. So if the Savills report has not yet been made public, then maybe it’s time that it was. Fire safety has become a political issue since Grenfell tower, but it’s also a very immediate, personal issue for residents…