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.
Kersten,I hope you are well.I am writing to let you have some feedback from a very interesting post-floods event that I attended in Shipley this afternoon. It was a ‘community conversation’ organised by an academic and community activist, Steve Bottoms, and hosted by the ever-excellent Kirkgate Community Centre. A range of people were there, including local community groups, residents, families affected directly by the flooding, representatives from the Environment Agency, several members of the brilliant Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support Group (YVFSG), Cllr Joe Ashton from Baildon Parish Council, and a senior drainage council officer (Kirsty Breaks, who was very helpful in providing as much feedback as she could to the meeting, and I am grateful for her time). I am copying as many people as possible into this email as I promised them all that I would pass feedback from the meeting back to you as our Chief Exec.I am also, by the way, keenly aware that there will be a lot of Council activity in relation to the floods that I am dimly aware of, at best, and so much of what follows may well be in hand. So my apologies in advance if I am telling you things that you already know! And, of course, I am acting purely in my capacity as a ward councillor and not in any sense as a spokesperson for the individuals and groups that participated in the event.I have two urgent matters to alert you about that came my way via YVSFG, plus (thirdly) a request re floods cleanup, and some general feedback.The first matter is the future of the furnishings container currently managed by YVSFG and located in the Ian Clough car park in Baildon. I understand that the 40ft container is being used to store furnishings that have been donated to help flood victims as they relocate back into their homes or to new homes, or is temporarily storing furnishings left by flood victims while they sort themselves out. The group has two problems. First, the owner of the container has asked for it to be returned. Second, I understand that the group have been asked to vacate the car parking area anyway, apparently in order to create more space for the farmers market. So, I would be very grateful if the Council could please help the group to find a suitable space to store these furnishings for the near future. They are doing fantastic work and have helped at least twenty families already and all they are asking for is some support from the Council to provide them with some space to operate from.The second matter relates to increasing public awareness of the group’s excellent work. They would welcome support from the Council in terms of publicising their services and the help that they are able to give to families in the area who have been flooded out of their homes (for example, helping them to engage with local schools, perhaps via the Schools Forum). Anything the Council can do in this regard would be appreciated. The key contact that I have for the group is their Coordinator, Vicki Gilbert, whom I am copying into this email, and I would be very grateful if the Council could contact Vicki directly to ensure that the group gets the help they need and deserve.I must mention in passing that Vicki went out of her way to praise the fantastic help that her group has received from Sue Smith, of Asset Management, who has helped the group in their dealings with local businesses affected by the flooding. [Sue, thank you very much]The third matter is a plea for more council support for the volunteer cleanups that are being organised locally in Shipley. Pauline Bradley-Sharp, representing the excellent Hirst Wood Regeneration Group of residents who have done so much for the area over many years, specifically asked if the Council could provide additional support for the cleanups that are continuing on a regular basis. If she could please be contacted as a matter of urgency, I would be most grateful.I was surprised to learn that the Environment Agency does not apparently have any Flood Wardens currently anywhere in Bradford District. My feeling is that this is an area where the Council could assist proactively, perhaps by alerting local community groups via area offices (it would seem sensible to draw on these groups in the first instance, at least). After all, we rolled out the ‘snow wardens’ several years ago after those two successive cold winters and could surely liaise with the EA to help them do likewise. This could be a big step forward, a very visible and tangible ‘win’, as one problem that was cited today was that some residents received flood warnings whereas others did not, and a network of floods wardens would be a way of ensuring better grassroots communication in times of emergency.More generally, there was a mix of positive feedback for the Council, but also some sharp criticism. Critical contributions to the conversation voiced concern about insufficient procactivity on the part of the Council, about insufficiently clear communication and about a degree of confusion at times as to ‘who was responsible for what’ when contacting the Council. There was also a wish for greater (or more visible) high-level Council engagement with floods policy.I am sure that there was much that the Council got right and is getting right, and of course the flooding events themselves were incredibly challenging in many ways. In my own comments, as well, I stressed that the Council’s organisational capacity has been affected by the huge cuts in central government funding since 2010.Having said that, though, I feel that the Council would be well-advised to review how it communicates with residents and local community groups about how it is dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. I cited, for example, the inexplicable delays that I have experienced as a ward councillor in extracting timely and detailed information about the future of the Baildon Recreation Centre (for which we still have no projected re-opening date, leaving residents uncertain and frustrated about its future).I’ll leave it here for now, Kersten, and look forward to hearing from you and/or colleagues regarding the urgent matters raised above. And I apologise again in advance for the likelihood that I am relaying information to you that you are possibly already aware of. I mention all of this not to criticise, but purely to help achieve better outcomes in future.If you would like more detailed information about the participants beyond the email addresses that I am copying into this email, I am sure that Steve (Bottoms) would be more than happy to oblige and liaise as needed.Very best wishes,KevinCllr Kevin WarnesGreen, Shipley WardCity of Bradford Metropolitan District CouncilMs. England replied as follows, first thing this morning:Hi Cllr WarnesThanks 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 efforts1) 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 responseBest wishesKerstenSubsequent 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 wishesPaul Barrett
Kirkgate Centre Development ManagerI 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.