Dreams coming true at Higher Coach Road!

It was very, very exciting to see this happening this week, along the riverbank, on the ‘bottom field’ of the Higher Coach Road estate… (Thanks to Vicky, of HCR Residents’ Group, from whom I’ve stolen this picture… I like the way it takes in Salts’ Mill in the background … the river is unseen to the right, of course.)

Now, the sight of a digger ploughing up grass may not seem very exciting to some, but this work marks the beginnings of a proper, permanent footpath that’s being laid along the riverbank. For as long as anyone can remember, people have been walking along this way anyway – often  with their dogs – because to get from Roberts Park (to the west) to the Bradford Rowing Club and Hirst Wood (to the east) you have to walk along here. But it’s only ever been grass, or an unofficial muddy track, which gets very boggy and muddy in wet weather. It can get very difficult, in particular, for older or less able-bodied people to use. There’s also the incline up from the field level to the raised footbridge area, which is really treacherous when it’s at all wet.

Now, with a proper path going in, those problems should be taken care of. And don’t worry, it’s not going to be nasty tarmac — but a permeable pebble path, like they have along past the rowing club. So it’ll blend in nicely with the natural surroundings, and won’t add any further to flood risk…

The reason I’m especially excited about this finally happening, is that this riverbank path is really the dream that got Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group started in the first place. The history is documented on this blog site, in fact… starting with

1. this post from April 2015 – almost four years ago now – which discusses Troutbeck Avenue resident Stewart‘s dream of a proper path along the riverbank. That post helped advertise and invite other residents to …

2. … the very first meeting of what was later to become the Higher Coach Residents’ Group… That meeting, hosted at the Rowing Club, is described briefly in this post from later that month (after you scroll down past some stuff about the Dockfield). I did not include residents’ names or pictures in that post because it didn’t feel right to be too public with discussions at that early stage. But a picture of those present — pasted in below — later became the cover photo for this Facebook group – for “Higher Coach Road River Link” – which was set up to attract the attention of other residents…

The “River Link” campaign was so-called because Stewart’s footpath was one of the two key, galvanising ideas that excited residents at that first meeting … The second key idea was from another resident, Pat, for a wildflower meadow, to make something more attractive of the long, unkempt grass on the bottom field. And very excitingly, this too is going to happen now! 

3. Here’s yet another post – from June 2015 which discusses how the first public action of the new residents’ group was to combine the two ideas (path and wildflowers) by planting some wildflower plugs along the riverbank path. This was just a modest gesture — a statement of future intent, if you like. But, according to the plans now published by Baildon Town Council, there is soon going to be a wildflower meadow on the part of the field closest to Roberts Park…

Notice how the meadow area will be just next to the football pitch area, which — for those with shorter memories — was established in the spring of 2016, also thanks to campaigning by HCR residents (see this blog post). But we’re getting ahead of the story…

4. If you check out this post from August 2015 you’ll see how the idea for a “Nature Trail” along the riverbank path — now the “headline” element of the scheme supported by Baildon Town Council — also originated with Stewart. He literally made a nature trail of his own with fence posts and home-made notices, and planted them along the riverbank path — partly as a means to attract passers-by to the new “River Link” group. (The posts that didn’t get pulled out by teenagers-with-nothing-better-to-do eventually got swept away in the Boxing Day flood, but that was OK, they’d served a purpose…)

5. By the autumn of 2015, the River Link group had morphed into Higher Coach Road Residents Group. The new name recognised, quite rightly, that the group should have the widest possible remit, to look out for all the interests of HCR residents, and not be limited to a single campaign objective. A first, formally-constituted meeting of the group was held in November at St. Hugh’s Church, lower down Coach Road, to which local councillors and others were invited. Although I never got round to blogging about that meeting (it was a very busy autumn), I did take this photograph that day…

Here’s Stewart, Pat and Pam, the three residents who had had the bravery to put themselves forward as Chair, Treasurer and Secretary (not necessarily in that order…?). Those roles have of course been taken up by others since. You know who you are… I can’t name everyone who helped to get the ball rolling with HCRRG, but it would be remiss not to give special credit to Ruth for setting up the still-very-active Facebook group for Higher Coach Road Residents Group and Friends.

So, what’s the point of all this…? Well, I guess the moral of this story is as follows…

Sometimes, when you want to involve other people in something, you might need a bold vision to catch their imagination. Maybe it’s a personal dream that seems a bit impossible, like a footpath along the length of your whole estate… And for sure, both the footpath dream and the wildflower meadow dream seemed for a time like they might never happen, because they were “too ambitious”. But these were the ideas that brought people together to begin with. And HCR Residents Group has achieved so much else in the 3+ years since it was formally established, that it almost wouldn’t matter if the footpath and meadow never happened… But they are happening!!

And so we can proudly declare that sometimes dreams can come true (as the song goes). And yes, it’s also the case that sometimes, if things seem almost too good to be true, then it turns out that they are too good to be true… And then people have to fight for what they’ve already been promised… But if that was to happen in this case (and I’m not at all saying it will) then I know that HCRRG now has the momentum and energy and also the political “nouse” to stand its ground and fight. (In the words of the boat-race slogan: “Go HCR Dragons!“)

OK, enough from me.

Pasted in below is the official press release statement about exactly what is supposed to happen on the estate… (many thanks to Councillor Vick Jenkins for sharing this)

Bradford Council and local community groups have been working together to develop the Higher Coach Road Nature Trail and Wildflower Meadow.

The Higher Coach Road Residents Group and Bradford Council’s Landscape Design and Conservation Team have secured the support of Pocket Parks Plus, Local Transport Plan and Baildon Town Council funding to improve walking facilities and neighbourhood connectivity by forming links between homes, local shops, open spaces, public transport and schools. 

The project will transform an area rough mown grass land that is already a well-used and loved stretch of land which takes in wonderful views along the River Aire.

A wildflower meadow will be created to increase biodiversity, along with interpretation to provide education on both wildflowers and the rich wildlife of the area.

Linking footpaths constructed from natural materials will improve access for the local community, along with timber steps and handrails on the riverside embankments adjacent to an existing foot bridge near Hirst Mill. The footpaths will run all the way through to Roberts Park.

Timber seating will be located near the footpaths to encourage people to stop and enjoy the space.

New way markers will be installed along with interpretation displays looking out towards the river, which will include information on wildlife and fauna. 

Additional native tree species will be planted.

The scheme will not only benefit the community, but the many visitors to the area, who come to enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Saltaire

The aim of the Higher Coach Road Residents Group is to look after and enhance the environment, encourage residents to be more active, promote social activities for recreation, promote a community spirit and sense of responsibility, and work with young people. The project will offer opportunities for volunteer groups and residents to be involved in wildflower seed sowing and plug planting that will be organised as planting season approaches in Spring time.

Notes:

Pocket Parks Plus is an initiative of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, supporting parks and public spaces where people can relax, exercise, socialise and play.

Local Transport Plan funding comes from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

A very merry Christmas to you and yours from Multi-Story Water! We’ve been pretty quiet in 2018, but here’s a seasonal greeting of sorts…

This is one of my favourite Christmas cards this year — a fat cat looking none too happy, because he hasn’t a snowball’s chance…  (the red scarf – tie? – reminds me of Donald Trump but I’ve always been prone to over-interpreting things!). Anyway, the card is from Lynda, from Lower Baildon, who featured as a “character” in both my one-man show Too Much of Water and our original Multi-Story Water shows back in 2012! She is also very much an actual person, whose home was flooded three years ago on Boxing Day, 2015, so the P.S. on her card was reassuring: “still above water : / ”

The river is high again this Christmas-time, after a lot of recent rain, but (touch wood) it’s nothing like as bad as 2015, and hopefully everyone will enjoy a safe festive season!

This was me last month (7th November 2018), decked out in my Christmas jumper, telling the story of Shipley’s flood yet again in Too Much of Water. When I first presented it for Saltaire Festival, 2016, I had no particular intention of ever performing it again, but people keep asking for it, so it still gets wheeled out occasionally (the script is permanently etched in my memory now). On this occasion I was performing at Manchester University’s Green Impact awards ceremony — an annual shindig they have to celebrate staff attempts at developing sustainable working practices… I was there to provide some variation in between two tranches of award-giving…

Too Much of Water (TMOW) is a piece that was made for intimate audiences, sitting or standing close to me in Roberts Park. On this occasion, though, the audience was a lot bigger than usual (as is apparent above!), so we had to “boost” the visuals using a live camera relay of the small objects at my feet…

Here I am, in fact, holding up the figure that represents “Lynda” — although frankly it looks nothing like her (I had to work with the dolls I was given…). You can just about see “her” enlarged on the screen behind me. Meanwhile my voice was amplified for the Whitworth Hall (where they normally hold graduation ceremonies, etc.) by a radio mic.

So here you have it… Salts’ New Mill, the Boathouse Inn, and Roberts’ Park’s Half Moon Cafe and cricket pavilion/scoreboard — all “under water” on Boxing Day 2015. (Models by the very wonderful Stewart Gledhill, of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group…)

In case you’re wondering how this piece about Shipley went over with a bunch of Manchester University employees who mostly don’t know the place, it turns out the answer is: very well! The Green Impact staff sent an email questionnaire about the awards event out to everyone who attended it (142 people, apparently), and got 72 completed responses… which is a pretty good return, as these things go. Of these, a very pleasing 73.6% (i.e. 53 people) rated TMOW as a 5* performance — with another 12.5% (9 people) rating it 4*. Since nobody in the audience had actually asked to sit through this, this is excellent feedback. 🙂 In fact in the same questionnaire, 44 of the 72 said that TMOW was their favourite thing about the whole event (which was generally considered well organised, well catered, etc.). I’m sharing this info in the interests of full documentation, and of course in the spirit of self-congratulation… Joking aside, though, what’s important here is that these very personal flood stories — as they were experienced by Lynda and others — can still capture people’s attention and empathy, three years after the fact.

And so this is Christmas. Another year over, and a quiet one for Multi-Story Water, as we’ve mainly been working on other things. But watch this space, as we’ll be back in action in the New Year.

 

 

Aurora: Moving Over The Face of the Deep

OK. So where to begin?

In the beginning,” we are told, “God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And . . . God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1: 1-3)

Maybe that’s too far back. Maybe I should begin in the 1770s, when the first sections of the Leeds to Liverpool canal were cut — through Shipley and Bingley — the first stage in a process that would connect Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool by water, and catalyse those cities’ rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution.

Or maybe I should just begin last month, when the Leeds-based arts collective Invisible Flock (with whom I have enjoyed some productive dialogues over recent years) invited me to attend the launch evening of their new, Liverpool-based installation, Aurora.Which is why, last night, I found myself walking through pouring rain in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, along with other intrepid visitors to Aurora‘s very first public showing. Everyone was cold and damp, and we’d been warned that we were likely to stay cold and damp, because we were about to step inside a reservoir. Toxteth Reservoir, that is: a remarkable, Grade-2 listed building that is part of Liverpool’s industrial heritage.

Those forbidding, sloping walls, built around 1845, were designed to contain and support vast quantities of water. This water, which presumably fell from the sky to begin with? — this being Liverpool — was held in a rectangular tank measuring around 2600 square metres. It was distributed as needed to provide clean water to the city’s rapidly expanding population, and also supplied early fire-fighting efforts, etc.

The roof of this vast space is held up with rows of iron pillars. Moving inside the building, we found ourselves navigating our way freely around a big rectangle of walkways, shadowing the interior edges of the building, which were marked out by coloured lasers. These walkways were all under 2 or 3 centimetres of water, so as we walked, patterns of coloured light rippled out in front of us.

I went into Aurora not really knowing what to expect. The last piece of Invisible Flock’s that I saw, Control, was a theatre show based on interviews with a myriad of “experts” — which explored who has what degree of control over the way the world is heading just now (politically, environmentally, technologically…). Control was all about the language from these interviews — words, words, words — and so I was expecting that to be continued somehow in Aurora. But instead… no words at all. Just impenetrable darkness, a void without clear edges, and water lapping around our feet, moisture clinging to us in the dank atmosphere. And light. Let there be light, said Invisible Flock. And behold, there was light. Especially, centrally, light picking out a big lump of slowly melting ice — hanging suspended in the middle of the space, and reflecting in the water below. Sometimes the ice was visible. Sometimes not.

As an experience, Aurora runs for about 40 minutes. Which is actually quite a long time when you’re standing in the dark and the cold, watching light play across water. If this were a regular gallery installation, it would be the kind of thing you’d just walk in and out of, when you’ve had enough, but here — like a theatre show — we all entered together and left together at the end. A captive audience. Trapped in the dark. Not quite sure how to get out even if you wanted to. So you’re very much left alone with your own thoughts. Partly because talking would seem, somehow, wrong in here. And partly because the sound score — an eerie combination of electronics and strings — is sometimes so loud it would drown out speech. Although it’s also sometimes so quiet that you can hear water dripping.A lot of things run through your head in a situation like this. I went through a phase, for example, of rejection and denial. It’s really just a big son et lumiere display, I thought to myself for a while. Where is the content? I’d read that this was some kind of local community project, so where was the community — other than standing around with me in the dark? I’d also read that this was to be a piece about global “water issues” like flooding and drought… but how can sound and light alone talk about those concerns?There was a stage in the show when we started to be shown more of the looming, arch-like architecture of the building — and though you can’t really see it in the picture above, it actually starting raining inside the building, around the inside of the exterior wall. This was the point when the piece felt the most “human” to me — an evocation both of man-made structures and of the weather we all live with in the north of England… the weather that Liverpool’s Victorian workers trudged through, just as we had today.

But what was most surprising, and most chilling perhaps, was just how inhuman, or rather nonhuman, Aurora turned out to be. To speak of flooding or drought is to speak, really, of the impacts on humans of there being too much water, or too little, for our accustomed ways of living. But in the end, Aurora seemed to me spectacularly unconcerned with such passing concerns. It really was about water as water. Mysterious. Impenetrable (even when we dive headfirst into it). Eternal. We’re made of it, we depend on it, but it does not need us.

For me, this thought was epitomised by the strange, hanging shapes that formed a kind of field, or cloud, or constellation around that central ice block. Shapes that looked at first like lanterns, then maybe water containers of some sort… but also weirdly alien. It crossed my mind, briefly, that they were the eggs of an Alien hive mother… Eventually I realised that they too, like the egg-like form in the centre, were ice. And they were melting. Water going from solid to liquid.

In one particularly eerie moment, these shapes hung very low over the water — as if threatening to descend right into it — before rising back up into the “stars”. The music during this whole section seemed mournful, haunting — I can’t even start to describe it — but in my mind the whole thing started to crystallise as a piece that was really, truly indifferent to human beings. Like the planet itself, perhaps. The planet that we are irrevocably altering with our own indifference towards it. The glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. The next Great Extinction of earthly species is already underway, and we started it — round about the time of the Industrial Revolution, when this building went up and we started burning fossil fuels at an ever-more-exponential rate. Aurora, then, evokes the facts of a very Dark Ecology. . . . But the oceans will outlast us. And so, in the end, will the ice.

Towards the end of the piece, sharp shafts of laser light begin to stab their way into the middle of the space — as if from the outer edges of outer space. And then, before you know it, those beams are catching and refracting through the hanging icicles, and the music goes from somber to strangely joyful, and there’s a dazzling symphony — or choreography, or something — of co-ordinated light and sound.Perhaps this, finally, is the aurora borealis evoked by the piece’s title. The Northern Lights. The spectacular natural light show that’s visible in areas approaching the north pole. (Come to that, it could equally well be the aurora australis – the Southern Lights. Both the ice-caps are melting, after all.) For me, though, something about those lights beaming in from outer space made it something else again…. A picture, perhaps, of an ocean-covered earth echoing with the music of the spheres — catching the starshine arriving from light years away, and amplifying its harmonies. An earth no longer despoiled by humans, but restored to one-ness with the rest of the universe…?

… Or something like that, anyway. Afterwards, I found two phrases from very different songs echoing around my head. From Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, the chorus of his hymn-like 1979 song “Hills of Morning“:

Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep —
I want to be a particle of your light
Flowing over the hills of morning

Or on a bleaker, perhaps more realistic note, some words from U2’s 2014 song “Iris” — a song of lament for the mother Bono lost when he was a child:

The stars are bright but do they know
The universe is beautiful … but cold.

Having reached its climax, Aurora ends, and mysterious ice blocks appear lit at the corners of the walkways, to help light our way out. Ice blocks with items frozen inside them… is this an arrow? a quill? …human relics of a forgotten civilization, preserved in ice forever.

But then, bit by bit, the magic ebbs away. On the way out, we can suddenly see the ramp up to the flooded walkways (when we came in, it was too dark…). Those familiar white lines marking the perimeters of a stage space or holding area. Suddenly so banal after the mysteries of what we just witnessed. But then that’s the way of magic, isn’t it? Sometimes its most magical when you can see how they pulled off the trick…

And outside, it’s still raining. It’s still Liverpool. And those walls that had seemed so imposing and forbidding when we went in seem suddenly much smaller, more ordinary… But ordinary like the outside of the Doctor’s Tardis. Because a moment ago they contained the universe inside…And so we repair to the launch reception for Aurora. Just up the street, on the other side of the Catholic Church, is the Mount Carmel Social Club… a community venue where members of the local community mix in with the slightly incongruous arty-types who seem to be staffing the show. Once everyone has a drink, the absence of words during the performance itself is (over-)compensated for by an excess of words from the great and the good — the Arts Council, the City of Liverpool, the commissioning body FACT, etc. It’s all the usual corporate verbiage that you get on such occasions, but it’s even harder to listen to than usual after what we just witnessed. Representing Invisible Flock, though, Victoria Pratt is refreshingly brief in her comments. She prefers, I think, to let the work speak for itself.

Bubbling and Babbling with Bradford’s Becks

After a year largely spent doing other things, it was a pleasure to return to the Bradford area this weekend to reprise my ongoing, water-themed double-act with singer-songwriter Eddie Lawler at not one but two local festivals. In the end, I think it’s fair to say that our Sunday gig (September 9th) was more enjoyable than Saturday’s — but ironically enough that’s mainly because of water… On Saturday (8th) it was pouring down out of the sky with enough force and frequency to, er, dampen anyone’s fun…

This was my vantage point on Tyrell Street for much of the afternoon. Eddie and I were supposed to be singing songs and telling tales of Bradford Beck, as part of the weekend’s Bubble Up festival — a water-themed arts extravaganza which had events dotted all around Bradford’s city centre. I was also attempting a bit of story-gathering as well as telling, by using a hand-drawn map of the city centre — showing the Beck’s hidden journey under its streets — and inviting passers-by to add their own annotations about memories of city centre locations. The memories added went as far back as 1968, but the map didn’t get nearly as populated with text as I had hoped, because (as the picture tells you) the footfall from shoppers was poor and getting poorer all afternoon — even as the rain poured and kept pouring…

Here’s Eddie, smiling as ever, and undaunted by the weather, even though there wasn’t — in the end — much meaningful opportunity for him to use that microphone to sing. He’s huddled under the Friends of Bradford’s Becks’ portable gazebo, along with fellow Friend Elizabeth, who was timetabled to lead walks along the route of the Beck through the city centre — via the plaques that are now placed in the pavements at key intervals.

Just past the gazebo, FoBB had opened up a manhole cover and surrounded it with a safety fence — as well as a polystyrene mock-up of a slate sculpture by Alex Blakey that’s being planned as a permanent feature… By looking down the hole, you can see Bradford Beck streaming by beneath the street. Although only the most educated observer would be able to distinguish the beck from a storm drain, passers-by were nevertheless intrigued when told that this was the hidden river around which the city was first built….

Across the street in Bradford’s City Park area, there were more under-trafficked gazebos and marquees, including the one from which Bradford Community Broadcasting (BCB) was live-casting for the day. Eddie and I took time out from our stall location to speak with host Mary Dowson — who was as engaging and on-the-ball as ever — about how and why we both got involved in using the arts to talk about water.

It was actually really interesting to talk with Mary immediately after she’d interviewed David Clapham (below, left). David is a scientist and water specialist who used to work with Bradford Council: he was really excellent at talking about the material and dynamic properties of water, in an engaging rather than a “dry” way (sorry). Eddie and I were then able to follow up from the cultural point of view, by talking not about “water” singular but about “waters” plural — as they were traditionally thought of, in the days before H2O was seen as a unified resource. (Of course waters still do vary in property and character from place to place, depending on mineral qualities etc.) Eddie’s songs often give particular watercourses personal identities, by singing in the first person: “My name is Bradford Beck… If you’re wondering what the heck I’m doing singing this song, it’s cos I have to roll along, incognito… Beneath the city streets, with no credibility…”

Alas, as you can see from this shot, our time in the BCB tent coincided with one of the heaviest of the afternoon’s downpours, which left City Park itself pretty much deserted. I do hope this wasn’t too disappointing for Bubble Up’s organisers, from the Brick Box community arts organisation. Some of the Brick Box team were there, in the BCB tent, in their distinctive water-themed wigs, trying to make the best of the situation… The weather was generally a lot better on Sunday (yesterday) than Saturday, so I do hope Bubble Up bubbled a bit better with some sunshine… By then, though, Eddie and I were off on our other festival weekend mission. presenting a musical walking tour for Saltaire Festival, titled The Ballad of Little Beck.

This was Roberts Park, in Saltaire, shortly before 12 noon, with the sun very much shining. Starting at the park’s bandstand, Eddie and I welcomed an audience of 15 or 20 intrepid walkers, who had come along to journey with us along long watercourses towards the ruins of Milner Field mansion — the “lost” country home of Titus Salt Jr.

The walk was in some ways a “live remix” of parts of the Salt’s Waters audio tour (still available for download!) that Eddie and I made the other year. Our title, The Ballad of Little Beck, came from the song of the same name that Eddie wrote for the audio guide, and which tells the story of the Milner Field mansion from the point of view of the small brook that flows through the grounds and was once dammed by the Salts to make a boating lake (again: river songs in the first person!). But the balladeering theme was taken in a different direction for this new walk, as we performed a selection of poems along the way, by local poets of the Salts’ era. In the picture above, Eddie is singing — to a tune of his own devising — the poem “Come to Thy Granny” by dialect poet Ben Preston, who built the Glen pub in Eldwick. We didn’t go quite as far as Eldwick (that would have been a long walk), but instead performed this on the path towards Eldwick, just before we turned off in another direction.

A little further along the route, here I am performing John Nicholson’s poem “Bingley’s Beauties”. (Thanks to Ruth Bartlett for these pics, by the way.) Nicholson was a mill worker and poet apparently loved by Titus Salt Sr., but he died in 1843, before Saltaire itself was built, when he drowned while crossing the River Aire en route to visit his aunt in, yes, Eldwick (we had traced his steps in this direction from Saltaire). As you can see from the picture below, at this point we were standing directly over Little Beck itself — halfway along Sparable Lane, heading towards Gilstead (in the parish of Bingley).

Heading further along Sparable Lane, we turned at corner of the walled gardens on the edge of the Milner Field mansion estate (below). By this stage, the weather had turned towards rain — as you can see from the umbrellas — but we were largely sheltered by trees and it was actually rather nice to get the cooling rain after the walk uphill. The rain then subsided soon enough (unlike the day before…).

Having reached Gilstead, we paused momentarily to consider the blue plaque commemorating Sir Fred Hoyle — famous son of Gilstead, world-leading scientist, and a poet of a different kind… (On radio in 1949, he coined the term “Big Bang” as a put-down to the recently-developed theory, only for it to stick as a descriptor!) Then finally we came to the Milner Field estate…

… here we paused at the entrance gate and gate lodge (‘North Lodge’), which is the best remaining indication of the architectural style of the now ruined mansion. And then it was into the woods to find the ruins themselves… Some of what we found there is recorded on some video clips collected here.

After making our way back downhill through the Milner Field estate, we finished up the walk with a visit to Bradford Amateur Rowing Club’s clubhouse — where we shared a drink and were treated to a number of additional songs from Eddie (who even took requests). The picture above (showing Eddie, me, Molly Kenyon, Rob Martin … others were at the bar at this point!) is courtesy of Denise Boothman, who sent it over to me by email with a note saying “Thanks once again for a fascinating and enjoyable afternoon.” We certainly enjoyed presenting it… Thankyou Saltaire Festival for inviting us to present.

Happy New Year: Beck to the Future?

It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re about to wish a fond farewell to 2017 (or not so fond, depending on your year…) and welcome in 2018. Since our Multi-Story Water project officially concluded this year, I don’t expect this blog to be very active in the coming twelve months… And yet you never know. Rivers keep on flowing, and time has a funny way of looping back on itself for all of us.

In January, for example, I will be attending this meeting at Bradford City Hall to discuss possible futures for Bradford Beck — or more specifically, for the “Shipley Canal Road Corridor”, the ribbon of green space and river that runs north from Bradford into Shipley alongside Valley Road. The photograph that shadows the background of the invitation above is taken from almost the exact same spot as the picture below: it shows the mouth of the “box culvert” into which the Beck flows for a short distance underneath the greensward near the bottom of Wharncliffe Road. The main concern of the January meeting will be to discuss the possibility of removing this culvert — and thus “daylighting” this short, underground stretch of the Beck.

If there’s a slight sense of time-looped deja vu for me here, it’s because I first heard this possibility mentioned back in 2012, at the very beginning of the MSW project, when I was first getting to know Shipley’s rivers. During that same year, Barney Lerner of the Aire Rivers Trust was undertaking a DEFRA-supported catchment assessment of Bradford Beck, looking at ways to improve the condition of the river. Barney came up with a number of recommendations, ranging from “soft options” like setting up a “Friends of” group (and of course he has chaired the Friends of Bradford’s Becks since its inception, as the group has undertaken everything from clean-ups to a walking guide to a poetry book) to more costly, technical options for daylighting the river. The end-game, for Barney and FoBB, would be for the Beck to be visible again all the way through Bradford city centre. That, of course, is still a very long way from being feasible, but the removal of the Shipley box culvert has often been mooted as a potential first step — a move that might “light the way” towards further renaturalisation. Below is one visualisation of what this stretch might look like in future…

This image, and the drawings below, are reproduced with Barney’s permission from a feasibility study which FoBB commissioned from JBA Consulting, at Salts Mill, back in 2015. As you can see, there’s a pleasing, serpentine flow to the river in the picture above. The schematic drawing below shows how this more natural meander (which would including new tree planting around the Beck) would be created by removing the “straight-jacketing” of the box culvert…

It’s clear, I think, that this open meander would represent a considerable improvement on the aesthetics of what’s currently there. Unfortunately, major public spending is not often considered purely for its aesthetic benefits… but potential flood alleviation is a way to attract funding, and it’s this agenda that underlies the January meeting. As is pretty clear from the cross-section diagrams below, the box culvert is a very limited, closed channel through which a high volume of water is trying to pass in a flood situation…

… at present, what that means is that excess water, which cannot get down the culvert, spills out all over the green space and onto the road. But if, instead of forcing the Beck through a closed pipe, you restore it to a more natural valley situation, with gradually sloping sides, then the Beck can just naturally rise up those valley sides in high water conditions. And thus, it will keep on flowing safely downstream, rather than spilling out all over the place.

The irony here, from a planning point of view, is that “offset” measures will be needed, in order to justify this restoration to the natural way of things. Since the removal of the culvert would mean less water spilling out of bounds, and more carrying on downstream, this becomes a concern for places downstream (like Shipley station) where that extra water might end up. So as well as planning to take out the culvert, the Council needs to offset the impact of that change by putting in other measures that will provide “flood storage capacity” along the Canal Road corridor, in high water conditions… Or something like that.

Now, obviously, I’m no technical expert. I’m talking here in layman’s terms, and I’ll certainly welcome the further clarification on these points that the meeting will no doubt bring. I do, however, have some professional competence as a historian, and in light of these plans for potentially daylighting the Beck in this spot, I wanted to draw attention to this document here…

This is the front cover to a big, map-size document book that I found in the Local Studies section of Bradford Central Library. In 1903/04, Shipley Urban District Council was a pretty new entity, having evolved from the old Shipley Local Board, and it had big plans for Shipley’s regeneration (this involved, for example, a lot of development in the Dockfield area, as discussed in a blog from this time a year ago, and featured in our micro-theatre performance This Island’s Mine). Interestingly, one of the schemes that the SUDC planned at this time was a revamp of the Canal Road Corridor…

In the map diagram above, you can again see Valley Road, and the Beck running alongside it…. together with a plan for re-routing the Beck slightly further east (“Proposed line of deviation of Beck”), further from the road. At the top of the picture runs the then-still-extant Bradford Canal (eventually filled in after its closure in 1922). Now look at the next image, which shows the next segment of Beck/Canal/Road on the way south towards Bradford…

This is the same curve in the Beck that is now being proposed for renaturalisation. Notice how, back in 1903, it came so close to the Canal that they were almost touching… Notice, too, that in these pictures, there is no box culvert. It wasn’t there then — I’m told it was built during the 1920s or 30s (perhaps around the same time they filled the canal in?). But perhaps that comment signalling a “proposed deviation” of the Beck is the first sign of plans afoot. And check this out…

These pencil-sketched engineers’ calculations almost look as if they could have been written yesterday. Don’t ask me what all the numbers mean, but the plan is for “66 feet of Culvert (covered)” — so about 20 metres. I found these sheets of calculations among the Shipley Urban District Council papers held by West Yorkshire Archive Service (to whom, thanks for permission to reproduce this image). The notes are undated, but they’re in amongst other papers relating to SUDC’s early 20th C. redevelopments, and they also provide detailed specifications about other sections of open culverting that this closed culvert will connect to (just as is indeed the case along Valley Road). Is this perhaps a handwritten plan for the construction of the box culvert in question?

Note that the writing in this picture states that the proposed culvert will run “under road”. The box culvert beside Valley Road does not, of course, run under the road — it simply continues next to it. But could these two words provide us with a clue as to why that culvert was built in the first place? Why would you cover over this section of the river, unless you were planning to put something on top of it? This has always been a bit of a mystery to me (what’s it for?), but it seems plausible that there was originally an intention to build a cross-street across the valley, linking what’s now Wharncliffe Road over to Crag Road. Whatever the intention, it never came to fruition … perhaps the Great Depression intervened in the 1930s, just as — more recently — the 2008 financial crash put paid to more recent dreams of rebuilding the Canal itself

Now, I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely here, of course, but who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? And what appeals to me most here is the sense of time circling back on itself, into the new year…

… Once upon a time the river meandered, and we decided to “deviate” it from its course and hem it in. A century later, we want to un-do what we did before and renaturalise it.

Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii)

 

 

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…

“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down…”

25th October 2017

For the attention of: Geraldine Howley OBE

Dear Geraldine,

Hello again. Hopefully you’ll remember me. Back in August, you were kind enough to meet with me and a couple of my colleagues, in your capacity as Chief Executive of Incommunities (Bradford’s main social housing provider). We discussed the housing conditions in the high rise flats off Crosley Wood Road in Bingley. I wrote about that meeting at some length in this blog, and in the interests of balance and “right of reply”, I sought your responses before finalising those posts. This time, though, in light of recent developments, I’m writing directly to you in this “open letter” – exercising my rights as a private citizen to express his personal freedom of speech.

You might remember that at our August meeting, you and your colleague Adrienne Reid acknowledged that the condition of the Crosley Wood flats is “less than ideal” (I worried at that phrase in the third part of the previous blog). You also acknowledged that sometimes Incommunities gets things wrong, and that the organisation could sometimes improve on the way it communicates with “customers” (or residents, as I prefer to call them). Unfortunately, though, you have recently provided a particularly grotesque example of such poor communication – in the form of this letter to residents, signed off by Adrienne…

Now, I think I do understand what you’re trying to do here. You’re trying to acknowledge that the flats are less than ideal. That it’s past time that significant improvements were made to living conditions. It would not have taken a rocket scientist to write this letter in a way that sought to reassure residents that you were putting their best interests first:

We know a lot of you aren’t happy,” you could have said (or words to that effect), “and we’re listening. So now we’re looking seriously at what our options might be. We know that some of you have lived in the flats a long time, and that these are your homes, and we need to be sensitive to that. So if there’s a strong sense that things should be left as they are, we will respect that, of course. On the other hand, we want to consider all our options, and this might even mean demolishing the flats and rebuilding on the same site. We want to assure you, though, that if we did that, you would be safely rehoused and given the option of returning to Crosley Wood when the work is completed.”

There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

But in the version that went out, what residents have actually been told is — in effect — as follows:

  1. We can’t seem to make enough money off these flats because not enough people want to live in them.
  2. Changes to welfare payments have hit your pockets, and so have affected our income too. So…
  3. We’re thinking of throwing you all out and knocking your homes down.
  4. Here’s a list of five possible future scenarios, but only in the fifth one (i.e. “do nothing”) do you get any clarity about where you’ll be living this time next year.

Did anyone stop to consider for one second how this letter might land with residents? Many of them are already disadvantaged socially, financially, and in other ways, and don’t feel that they have much power in situations like this, when a big, impersonal bureaucracy casually suggests making them homeless… I mean, seriously, this letter could hardly have been more thoughtlessly insensitive if you had been trying to be.

Fortunately, the local Labour Party has been made aware of the situation, and judging by this flyer (with it’s three simple, to-the-point questions) they will be present at your drop-in session tomorrow at the so-called “Kabin” community hub. Maybe they’ll help residents to find a stronger, united voice against Incommunities’ high-handedness. Here’s hoping.

Now, Geraldine, I realise that this may all just be a big misunderstanding. As I said, maybe you do just want what’s best for the residents, and there’s just been a total failure in the letter-writing department. Maybe you all do really care.

Honestly, though, caring shouldn’t need to be such a difficult thing to express.

Let me tell you a bit about my friend Ruth Bartlett, for instance. She lives in Shipley, on the Higher Coach Road estate — not far from Crosley Wood, really — and she first heard about conditions in those flats through watching my film High Rise Damp. As an active Labour Party member, she contacted Bingley town councillor Joe Wheatley to share it with him too, earlier this summer. I think that may be part of the back-story to Labour’s involvement now. Please note, though: Ruth got involved not because she’s a raging political hack, and not because anyone is paying her to take an interest (they aren’t), but simply because she cares about people… It’s called being a good citizen. “Do as you would be done by“, as Charles Kingsley put it in The Water Babies.

Speaking of “water babies”, in  her own community at Higher Coach Road, Ruth has been instrumental in getting an art group going for young residents. And earlier this month, because she had met Trevor Roberts from Canal Connections through links she’d made via our Multi-Story Water project, she was able to get him to provide a boat trip on the canal for the young artists… They took a ride up through Dowley Gap locks — up as far as the Crosley Wood estate, in fact… As you can tell from this video link (courtesy of Vicky Christensen, another good citizen), great fun was had by all. And nobody got paid anything. Trevor just happened to have a boat in the area, and he wanted to help support the group. Do as you would be done by.

This is just one simple, recent example of the kind of community co-operation and mutual support that I’ve seen over and over again during the time I’ve been working on our research project. In fact The Water Babies has been mentioned to me, on more than one occasion, and by quite different people, as an inspiration in their wanting to help others.

Just read that letter again, though. The one sent out to Crosley Wood residents under your organisation’s letterhead. Would you want to receive a letter like that, if you lived there?

Having met you, Geraldine, I really don’t believe that you want to seem like the “big bad wolf”, huffing and puffing and threatening to blow people’s houses down. Next time, could you please make sure that your staff give a little more thought to how these things come across…?

 

I thought I’d leave you with this Youtube link to a song you might like, by the Scottish band Glasvegas. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

“When you’re lost in the deep and darkest place around
May my words walk you home safe and sound…
I will, I will turn your tide
Do all that I can to heal you inside
I’ll be the angel on your shoulder
My name is Geraldine, I’m your social worker.”

Something to think about, perhaps.

Yours sincerely, till next time,

Steve

Postcards from South Africa: Leandra

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Pretoria — once the capital of apartheid. The Multi-Story Water project has taken me to many, varied places over the last few years — mostly without needing to leave Shipley — but this week it’s brought me all the way to South Africa. I’ve been invited, as an observer, to join an expedition run by a related research project (“Patterns of Resilience”), which has also been looking at the relationship between water and community — only this time in a town threatened by drought, rather than flood. Strange as it might sound, I want to suggest in this blog that, in addition to the glaring differences between these research contexts, there are also some odd similarities…

The location for this research has been Leandra, a township in the Govan Mbeki region (a couple of hours from Pretoria and Johannesburg). As you drive into town, passing this welcome sign, you come immediately to another hoarding warning residents and visitors to save water.

What if … this was the last drop?” is a question that, thankfully, I’ve never had to ask myself living in the UK. But it’s a very real issue in Leandra: we arrived on a cloudy day which briefly turned rainy (complete with thunder and lightning), but in 2015-16 they had a significant drought period that impacted severely on the community.

“Water is life – sanitation is dignity”, reads the small print on the poster. But life and dignity are impacted by more than just water shortage when water is short here. This is a predominantly rural area, whose residents traditionally survived through subsistence farming. Nowadays, what with industrialisation and globalisation, the farms have become big commercial enterprises – with giant maize silos like the ones you see here. In drought conditions, workers on the farms and at the silos simply get laid off because there is not enough work for them to do. And that leaves them unable to buy the food supplies that they would once have grown for themselves…

The research in Leandra has established that, although the recent drought was less severe in strictly physical terms (i.e. low rainfall) than some previous recorded droughts, the community experienced it as more acute than in the past. That is, they have in some ways become less resilient as a consequence of this greater dependence on a buying economy. In the past, families knew how to save emergency supplies of maize from their subsistence farming, for use in times of scarcity. The stored maize might have tasted sour, one man told me, but at least it was edible. But when you’ve become accustomed to simply buying in bulk from your local Spar, then when it’s gone, it’s gone…

Let’s get back to that question of water and dignity, though. Because on the face of it, there isn’t much dignity to be had in Leandra. The vast majority of residents live in homes like this… if they’re lucky…… or like this, if they’re not so lucky…

In South Africa, they call it “informal housing”. Shacks built of corrugated metal — or anything else lying to hand — get put up without consent or planning permission on land that has simply been appropriated by people too poor to aspire to anything else. Such homes, as you would expect, do not have proper plumbing or sewerage, of the sort we simply take for granted in the UK. Most people have to walk to get water, and the distances they walk get exponentially longer in times of drought. Little wonder, then, that people here are regularly lectured about saving water by the authorities — via billboard messaging of the sort pictured above, as well as by lessons in school, and so forth.

Those same authorities, however, seem unwilling or unable to do anything to address the enormous infrastructural difficulties facing communities like this. It’s not just that better facilities are greatly needed: according to residents, even the existing water supply infrastructure is riddled with problems. Old supply pipes get broken or burst, and water is simply lost… In fact, one of the key points to come out of the research here is the awareness that residents do not always know very clearly whether water shortages are the result of actual drought or of these failures in infrastructure…

An added issue here is that people are dependent on piped or stored supplies, in a way that — again — wasn’t necessarily the case in the past. An older resident I spoke to recalled a drought back in the late 1970s which was made worse by a plague of locusts attacking crops. Even then, though, the water deprivation was not as severe as in the recent drought, because people could still find water in ground-springs in certain places. Those springs, he said, simply don’t exist any more.

I’m no expert on groundwater, but I can’t help wondering whether this experience of springs drying up is another consequence of the area being subjected to more industrialised farming. (It’s well established that the water table will drop if land is mined more intensively for water supplies.) Whatever — it’s clear for anyone to see that the ground here is extremely dry, even in a relatively drought-free year like 2017. I put my size 11 feet in the photo above to highlight the scale of the cracks in the landscape. And this is land that should be relatively wet, since it lies close by to the one small stream we found on our reccy of the area…
A closer look at the stream itself provides further evidence of why only the most desperate of drinkers would consider taking water from this “natural” source rather than from a piped supply.

Yes, that green is the actual colour of the water — I dread to think what’s been emptied into it (perhaps from the silos you can see upstream…?). What with the concrete culvert you can also see here, supporting the main road, I was put in mind of Bradford Beck, and all the stories that used to be told about how filthy and toxic it once was….

It’s not just the flowing water that’s polluted, either… Just look at this drainage channel, with the line of rubbish that’s been carried along it, and remains even when there’s no water…

Almost everywhere you go in Leandra, there is litter like this. I guess when the environment is already poor — in every sense of the word — there’s not much incentive to keep it clean. Apparently such littering is a problem all over South Africa, but nobody really knows what to do about it — and in the great scheme of the problems here, it probably doesn’t rank that high on the priority list.

But here is the thing…

The people here do not mirror the landscape and the housing conditions. All the stereotypical expectations you might have about “what poverty looks like” are thrown out of the window when you meet the young people from this community, who have grown up in this environment. Most of them live in “informal housing”, with large families, crammed several to a room, and in normal times (never mind drought) they expect to eat only one meal a day. But they are all immaculately turned out, and indeed very fashion-conscious!

This is a “selfie” of me with Thato — one of the young people from Leandra who has been particularly involved with the “Patterns of Resilience” project. We’re comparing our Converse Chuck Taylor’s, but beyond that, she’s actually much more stylishly dressed than I would know how to be! (And check out the Chanel logo on the person next to her…) I’m told Thato is also a talented artist in her own right — an amazing drummer and percussionist — and while I didn’t get to see her perform, the project event we attended at the local community centre did conclude with an extraordinary demonstration of collective, local talent by the Umdzabu Cultural Group — some of them pictured here in their more traditional performing costumes…

In this picture, these performers look like what they are — kids! — but in performance they were nothing short of awe-inspiring. On the small stage of the community centre, they presented a sequence of drumming, dancing and choral singing — and every possible combination of the three — which ran for over 15 minutes without a pause. Every time a particular sequence finished (a pounding high-kick routine replaced by a quiet, reflective song, for example) they moved from one phase into the other with such tightness and precision that there wasn’t even time for applause. And the sound of the pounding drums and thumping feet was almost overwhelming in that small hall. I was, as you can probably tell, blown away by the whole thing!

Now, you might think that I’ve got a bit off the topic of drought here, but far from it. In fact one of the key findings of the research here has been establishing the importance to the community of what they call “positive distractions” in times of hardship. Distractions including singing and dancing, the playing of collective games, and so forth. As one young person summed it up to me: “when children are playing happily, they forget to eat.” True enough — and in times of drought, that means that they forget (at least temporarily) that they can’t eat. I struggled at first to see the significance of simply being “distracted” from the elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s obvious: the mental and emotional effects of hunger and thirst can impact on people just as can the physical, but if you can find collective ways to keep your spirits up and avoid sliding into depression or despair, you are — quite simply — going to survive longer.

The “Patterns of Resilience” project — run by the remarkable Angie Hart, from the University of Brighton, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Pretoria and elsewhere — has focused specifically on engaging 43 young people from Leandra as “co-researchers” in learning about resilience to drought. They were even paid something to take part (an ethical way for the research team to put some of their funding into the community itself, while also valuing the young people as co-workers, not just volunteers). The research has included arts-based activities that have helped the young people to process and reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and coping strategies during the recent drought of 2015-16. It has also involved training them up as interviewers, to go and talk to elders within the community, such as grandparents, about their memories of drought over the longer term. Through this process, the young people have learned valuable things about themselves and their community, as well as providing the university researchers with important insights (some of which I’ve already mentioned in this blog).

I will admit to being sceptical, at first, about the real commitment of some of these young people to the project. And indeed, I did get a sense that some of the (perhaps less engaged) participants interpreted these activities as another version of the familiar encouragement, from the powers that be, that they need to “save water” – through rainwater harvesting, etc. (Let’s not pretend that universities do not have “power” in a situation like this.) But the more I talked to Thato and her peers — some of whom also came here to Pretoria this week for a two-day “think tank” event — the more clear it became to me that the real value of this project has simply been in asking the young people what they thought. 

Over and over again, I heard this from them: that nobody has ever been interested in their ideas before, let alone people from overseas (and “England” is a kind of fantasy land to these young people). The very fact of being consulted, they said, and of being asked to think actively about how drought impacts on themselves and their community — rather than simply having “messaging” about behaviour change foisted on them — has changed their own sense of perspective, and enhanced their own sense of value in themselves. That is not nothing. It might not give them any more food or water, but it might — again — help make them more resilient, or even – more activist

I said at the start of this blog that I saw similarities between Shipley and Leandra. Obviously, these are not nearly as pronounced as the huge differences. But I’ve seen here — in a more concentrated, life-and-death way — some of the same patterns we identified during our Multi-Story Water research. To put it bluntly:

  1. The authorities perceive a problem that needs addressing… whether of flood risk or, in this case, potential water shortages.
  2. The authorities try to provide “messages” to local communities about what actions they need to take to protect themselves (in the form of pamphlets, posters, or whatever).
  3. On the end of such one-way messaging, residents sometimes feel more “talked at” than engaged with. There’s even a sense, sometimes, that they feel condescended to… They’ve perhaps been stereotyped as “hard-to-reach communities” (a euphemism for being deprived or marginalised in some way), but nobody has really tried very hard to reach them.
  4. Meanwhile, there’s also a justifiable sense among residents that the authorities are not always doing all the things that they could be doing to address the problems – at an infrastructural level. In South Africa, where there is a widespread problem with political corruption, the lack of practical solutions is especially endemic.
  5. Creative research projects that try to create a more two-way dynamic with local residents, and seek to value their insights and expertise on what it means to live in a particular place, can help to provide fresh insights and change perceptions a little on all sides… What they can’t do, however, is fix the problem…

The problems in Leandra are, quite clearly, massive and intractable. I couldn’t live there, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to. But the people who do live there, for all the life-and-death difficulties they face, have developed very real forms of personal and collective resilience that need to be valued, honoured, and paid attention to.

 

Continuing to reflect on water stories…

Although the funded period of our Multi-Story Water research is now officially over, we’ve been busy in September with a number of “legacy” activities – relating particularly to our work around flood narratives. This three-part blog looks at some of these activities, under the headings (1) Reviving, (2) Recycling, and (3) Reflecting…

1. Reviving

At the start of the month, I presented Too Much of Water, my one-man storytelling show about the impact of the 2015 Boxing Day floods in Shipley, at the 7th International Conference on Flood Management (icfm7). This was held at Leeds University, and having been asked by the conference organisers to present the piece as part of their “cultural programme” (alongside all the more technical conference talk), I liaised with my former colleagues at the University’s Workshop Theatre to present the piece there (many thanks, especially, to technical director Lee Dalley).

This was the first of several new engagements for TMoW this autumn, so I took the opportunity to do a slight “upgrade” on the show. Despite having been very well received in previous performances, I have always felt there was something slightly missing: the piece focuses on the stories of six families whose homes were affected by the flood, but until now did not acknowledge the impact on any local businesses — which, in its own way, can be just as devastating. So I’ve now worked in a seventh storyline, that of Brian Tuxford of Northway Vehicle Sales – the van hire business next to Baildon Bridge. I told a little of Brian’s story in this blog last autumn, having met him after the first version of Too Much of Water premiered at Saltaire Festival. It felt important to include his story, and the show now feels more “resolved” to me as a result.

After the Workshop Theatre performance, we held a Q&A session about issues arising, to which I’d invited two excellent guest speakers – Jonathan Moxon, who is Leeds City Council’s chief flood officer (formerly of the Environment Agency, he has featured on this blog before) and Rosa Foster, who lives in Shipley, and is the Environment Agency’s lead FCRM officer for the Upper Aire Catchment (i.e. Leeds and everything up… FCRM = Flood and Coastal Risk Management – though there’s not much coastline on the Upper Aire!). The Q&A was videotaped and I’m delighted to be able to show it off above – it makes for an interesting discussion. (Though it’s a little difficult to hear the audience questions on the recording, due to the mic direction, the answers should hopefully clarify…).

2. Recycling

Our connections with colleagues such as Jonathan and Rosa has led our Multi-Story Water project to quite an active involvement with telling the story of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (this despite the fact that our project was centered in Shipley/Bradford! The Aire keeps flowing regardless of local government jurisdiction…). At the Leeds Waterfront Festival in 2016, in collaboration with Common Chorus Theatre, we presented After the Flood – a promenade performance that attempted to provide audiences with an engaging sense of some of the issues involved in planning for flood alleviation – and this included a brief synopsis of the “FAS” scheme (its brand new, collapsible weirs represented on this occasion by a [comically crap] demo involving a clipboard and a balloon…). A year on, at the 2017 Waterfront Festival, we worked more directly with the FAS scheme and its main engineering contractors, BAM Nuttall, to present Weir Science – an entertaining, in-depth look at the new weir construction at Crown Point. On this occasion, we collaborated with Phil Marken’s Open Source Arts – an important hub for the voluntary flood response in the Kirkstall area.

The FAS partners (including the EA, City Council, BAM) were hugely pleased with the extent to which we engaged festival-goers with the weir scheme – so much so that they’ve installed Jon Dorsett’s improvised mural, created over the course of the festival weekend in June – in their site offices! (I snapped this picture mid-September)

So, bouncing off the success of that event, we’ve been invited to get involved with the “consultation” phase for FAS2…. i.e the second stage of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, which will look beyond the city centre to help protect upstream neighbourhoods such as Kirkstall, Horsforth, Rodley…  The broad outline of plans for this scheme has now been unveiled, though many of the details are still being determined, and the FAS team are interested to gather public responses about how planned alterations to the river landscape might also benefit local communities’ experience of the river. A series of consultation events, in the form of pop-up information stalls in public places, has been planned for October – starting this Monday 2nd in Horsforth (see this link for full list of dates and venues) – and a team from Multi-Story Water will be present at each location. This time, we’re working in collaboration with both Common Chorus Theatre and Open Source Arts…

In this photograph, taken during rehearsals at Open Source last Wednesday, you can see Phil Marken on the left and Common Chorus director Simon Brewis on the right (with performer Alice Boulton-Breeze in the middle). That doll’s house will be familiar to anyone who saw After the Flood, and that’s because – on this occasion – we’ve taken the decision to carefully recycle and redeploy key aspects of previous performances, rather than trying to devise anything completely new. Reusing certain props will save us a bit in financial terms – because, after all, this is a public consultation, not a “show” with a production budget… More importantly, the consultation context is also distinct from the festival contexts we’ve previously worked in, and that’s affected our planning here…

There’s a serious point to the FAS team wanting to share their thinking about the new scheme – and to seek feedback – and we can’t upstage or disrupt that with anything too “showy”. So we’ve come up, instead, with a sort of “modular” presentation – composed of different props, arranged on a display stall, that all offer different talking points. The strategy will be to draw people into conversation around whatever catches their eye from our display. (The doll’s house and other components have been carefully integrated design-wise by Simon’s colleague Ellie Harrison.) We’ll then to seek their responses to the various ideas we’re opening up for discussion. We’re not thinking of this as a “performance”, as such, but as a series of unique, person-to-person conversations – led by Alice and fellow presenter Jaye Kearney — which use props and images as a stimulus for discussion. The conversations might roam between the different “modular” elements, or not, as the mood dictates … they can be as long or as short as suits the individual passer-by. The main thing will be to whet people’s interest, and thus – perhaps — encourage them to engage in conversations with the FAS team themselves (who can then offer more involved, technical detail if people want it). Some respondents would engage with them anyway, of course, but the thinking is this creative engagement approach might help to “soften the landing” for people more wary of uniformed officials… (even if the uniforms are just FAS-branded T-shirts).

We’re also hoping that our conversations will also generate some interesting feedback “data” for the FAS team. In particular, it’s hoped that a hand-drawn map of the Aire between Apperley Bridge and Leeds city centre – which we’ve commissioned from Jon Dorsett, who also did the Weir Science mural pictured above – will provide a usefully interactive way to visualise the proposed FAS2 innovations, and to encourage public responses…

Anyway, one way or another, we shall see how this works out. Further blogging to follow!

3.Reflecting

And finally… it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Multi-Story Water project was discussed across Yorkshire’s airwaves last weekend (Saturday 23rd or Sunday 24th September, depending on your area). I was interviewed on the Paul Hudson Weather Show, which is syndicated across all the BBC North local radio stations – in Leeds, York, Sheffield, Lincolnshire… The whole programme is available for a month on the BBC iPlayer – with my bit starting almost exactly 30 minutes into the hour-long show. But I’ve also pirated the sound from the relevant section and uploaded here as a permanent record…

The interview experience was slightly odd. It involved very quickly spewing out ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and which really needed more detailed treatment. But of course, this was a local radio show and nobody wanted to listen to me banging on at length when there was an old Peter Cetera track called “The Glory of Love” to get to…

I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, and I’m genuinely grateful to Paul Hudson’s producer, Trisha Cooper, for inviting me onto the show and giving me the unexpected opportunity to discuss our research project. This came about because, after having me briefly trail the Weir Science performances on Johnny Ianson’s Radio Leeds breakfast show back in June, Trisha decided that listeners might be interested to hear more about the wider project that this had been part of.  Although it’s quite difficult to try to sum up several years’ work in five minutes flat… And I did, apparently, gab on a bit too long, which explains the oddly compressed editing toward the end of my segment of this pre-recorded show (the last bit, which refers to the other matters discussed in this blog post, doesn’t make much sense as a result).

Anyway… if you have read this post as far as this, you apparently don’t mind me gabbing on a bit… So thanks for indulging me, and enjoy the broadcast!