Meeting with Incommunities (Part 1: fire safety)

Incommunities on the canal

Crosley Wood flats by the canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1. Fire safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Continue to Part 2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, the end is near…

This Saturday evening, we have a retrospective event for the Multi-Story Water project at Kirkgate Centre in Shipley. The funded period for the project officially ends this month, and although I’m sure it will have various kinds of after-life (not least this blog, which I expect to continue updating from time to time), we are presenting an exhibition to mark this end point.

For the launch evening on Saturday, we’ll also be remounting two well-received live performances — Too Much of Water and Salt’s Waters — and screening selected short films. We do hope you can join us. Please do RSVP Ruth if you’d like to come, so we can estimate numbers. (Like everything we do, it’s free of charge.)

Weir Science (Part 2): Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum. QED. These three letters are usually used when something has supposedly been proved – but the phrase literally means “that which has been (or is to be) demonstrated”. Well, at Leeds Waterfront Festival, last weekend but one, we set out to demonstrate (without ‘proving’) how the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme’s brand new weir at Crown Point operates. Through the medium of street performance. And therein lies a tale…

In the first part of this two-part blog, I looked at the FAS scheme itself, and took you, dear reader, on a backstage tour of the heavy engineering work still continuing at Crown Point — in the middle of the River Aire — to install the new weir. But why was I, a drama professor, given this access to the site? It all goes back to an unexpected conversation with BAM Nuttall’s FAS project director Andy Judson, over lunch at a networking event last November. On that occasion, I found myself describing to Andy our contribution to Leeds Waterfront Festival 2016, the promenade performance After the Flood  — during which plans for the new weir were demonstrated using a clipboard and a balloon… (as seen below, in a scene featuring Nick DeJong and Joe Large). It was shame, I said to Andy, that the moveable weir mechanism itself couldn’t be demonstrated to the public, because (a) it’s underwater and (b) it will only be operated in potential flood conditions. When I said that, though, you could sort of see a light bulb illuminating over Andy’s head. “Maybe we could demonstrate it,” he said, “by building a mock-up model at ground level during the festival…”

And here is the mock-up model, as exhibited the day before the Festival by BAM foreman Mark Pheasey (left) and two colleagues including stakeholder relations manager Jonathan Bulmer (right). The model was originally going to be much larger — on the same scale as the real thing, and using one of the actual air bladders that will go into the weir installation (as seen below – the black rubber bladders stacked next to the metal weir plates at the FAS compound to the east of the city centre…).

In the event, though, there were logistical problems with the full-scale plan, so Mark Pheasey dreamed up the scaled-down model using painted hardboard for the weir plate (which really does look like the real thing – as you can see) and some much smaller air bags, which didn’t have to support the weight of the River Aire! Actually I think this worked much better than the full-scale model might have, because the air-bags in the mock-up could inflate and deflate in seconds, raising and lowering the hardboard weir, whereas the big bladder would have taken at least half an hour to inflate fully. Much better for demonstration purposes!

So this is the model in situ at the weekend, on the left (weir plate up), being explained to two members of the public by one of the volunteering FAS staff (the people with white patches on their T-shirt sleeves). On the far right is Andy Judson himself, chatting to the Environment Agency’s Mark Garford and others. The FAS team were on hand all weekend, in different combinations, to chat to the public about the scheme from a more official, technical point of view — using the model as a point of focus.

It became clear that word of the model demonstration had spread to some pretty influential places. Above is Hilary BennLabour MP for Leeds Central, who seemed genuinely fascinated by the scheme when he turned up early on the Saturday morning. And on the Sunday, Richard Parry, the Chief Executive of the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways) also stopped by to see what we were doing (at which point I shamelessly asked for a picture with him…).

Despite this interest at policy level, though, the mock-up model and uniformed FAS team still looked — as they themselves put it to me — somewhat “dry” and “worky” for a festival weekend. Somehow the general public had to be engaged a little more eye-catchingly, and this is where Weir Science came in ….

… that’s the name we gave to the creative elements we built around the FAS model. “We” being Multi-Story Water and Open Source Arts, in Kirkstall, which is run by Phil Marken (one of the leading lights in Leeds’s voluntary flood response after the inundation of Boxing Day 2015). Phil himself wasn’t available at the weekend, but he had arranged for “graphic harvester” Jon Dorsett – above – to be on hand to gradually build up a visual record of the activities as they occurred, on four white boards that BAM staff had fastened to the open gate of their compound. The first thing Jon did was draw this appealing, cartoonish logo for us – to catch the eye of passers-by… (I love that he even hand-drew all the logos… a lovely counterbalance to the ‘official’ signage).

Phil had also consulted his address book of street performers and come up with one-man-band Jake Rodrigues, aka “Shabby Jake”, aka Professor Leaky-Faucet. This last was a new identity and ‘look’ that Jake created for us this weekend, inspired by the Weir Science title and by every mad scientist you’ve seen in books and movies… In fact Jake’s entire set was tweaked for context, as he engaged crowds in (seemingly) spontaneous renditions of “songs with weir in the title”… from Queen’s “Weir the Champions” to Vera Lynn’s “Weir Meet Again”, via the Pointer Sisters’ “Weir Are Family”, and many others. The results were hilarious, as were Jake’s various bits of improvised schtick about the weir model (“it’s a giant cheese toastie maker”) and explanations about the risks involved in flooding Leeds with custard…

In the picture above, taken on the Sunday, Jake is chatting with passers-by while accompanied by another of Phil’s recommendations — stilt-walker Nik, aka Das Isobar. The job of these two, whom I briefed carefully in advance, was to deliver a version of their usual act — wandering out and about in the immediate Leeds Dock area to attract attention — while also trying to encourage people towards the weir demonstration area. They did a tremendous job of this, by blending visual appeal with conversational wit. One of my favourite moments of the weekend was watching Nik, from the top of his stilts, chatting animatedly with a man from the Netherlands, who (craning up to look at him) was explaining in detail the history of his country’s reactions to the 1997 floods that engulfed about a third of their landscape… (Nik was only with us for the Sunday: on Saturday the same role was filled by an excellent contact juggler, Steve the Pirate, although I don’t have any good pics of him unfortunately.) Oh and also in the picture above, there’s the otter…

The otter costume belongs to the Environment Agency, apparently, and is often used at public engagement events. Here it is worn by Rosa Foster, one of the EA’s senior flood risk management officers, who found herself oscillating between waving goofily with the head on, and then lifting it up to explain details to passers-by… Rosa made the interesting point to me, though, that when she first put the costume on at the start of the day, people were waving at her, or posing for pictures with their kids, but weren’t readily being pulled in to talk about flood alleviation. After Jake and Nik started up, though, she found that the engagement process became much easier. Andy Judson made much the same point, telling me that the performers succeeded in creating a much “softer landing” for the FAS team’s more technical explanations … Once drawn in by the sense of fun, spectacle and banter, people were much more willing to express their curiosity about the weir itself… and some great conversations then followed. Throughout the weekend it became clear that the FAS team were having a great time chatting with people, since the level of interest was so much greater than they’re used to.

Here’s Professor Leaky-Faucet again (above), in the midst of the “pre-show” set that he delivered six times over the course of the weekend, before each of our Weir Science walking tours (starting at 12.30, 2.00 and 3.30 each day). On the occasion below, he was also accompanied by Nik — down off his stilts and doing his object manipulation routine. At one point this involved commandeering a child’s remote control joystick box, and appearing to use it to “drive” a wheelchair-user around in circles… this man played along gamely to hilarious effect (he was of course really operating his own chair!) .. thereby totally upstaging Jake!

Jake’s crowd-gathering set would end, each time, with him delivering his stompy, one-man-band version of the theme tune to the 1980s teen movie Weird Science — now renamed “Weir Science”…

… here are his lyrics, which stage manager Jenny and I (above) would point out with our fingers as he went… rather like the bouncing ball on karaoke lyrics…

As soon as Jake finished his song, I would then take over in my role as “Guy…from the Council” (complete with carefully selected hush puppies). Accompanied by “my glamorous assistant Jack” (“of all trades”) in head-to-toe BAM orange, we would then demonstrate the weir model before inviting people to come with us on a tour around the real thing… Jack (played by the aptly named Jack Waterman) would then read a mock safety briefing, during which people joining us were invited to put on hi-viz vests…

… and a surprising number of people proved willing to do just that (even though we made clear that the vests were optional – still it was a useful way for us to identify our audience on the move). Our first stopping point on the tour was a spot just by the river, where Jack would explain how the crane on Fearns Island had been erected – while also having a sly go at “men in suits and ties”, such as myself, who under-estimate the skills and expertise of construction workers such as himself…

My script for this was based on a gently satirical reading of the research interviews I’d done as preparation: the idea was to bring a human side to the story, to offset and balance out our more technical explanations.

And then it was off across Knights Way Bridge… stopping part-way across to get a good look at the weir itself — currently half-completed… Here we discussed what exactly a coffer dam is, and spoke in some detail about the scheme’s benefits for wildlife…

At one point, “Guy” even attempted to explain the possible reappearance of lamprey in the Aire by demonstrating with a visual aid …

After completing our crossing of the bridge, we stopped outside the Turlow Court apartment building — badly hit during the Boxing Day flood of 2015 — to reflect on some of the residents’ feelings about the flood alleviation scheme (which are generally very positive, despite the temporary inconveniences involved with the construction process).

Then, for our last stop, we brought the audience to a spot directly overlooking the new weir. This was within a fenced-off construction area, which had been specially tidied and made safe for us, for the weekend, by BAM staff.

Here, Jack and I shared various anecdotes, including the story of the moorhen who had made her nest against the upstream side of the part of the sheet piling used to construct the coffer dam for the first (now complete) section of the weir works… Since the nest could not be removed, either legally or morally, when they came to take the coffer dam down, the FAS team had to find a way of working around it — at some considerable cost and expenditure of time. And yet there are now moorhen chicks swimming happily around — who appeared right on cue for one of the Sunday performances, much to the delight of the audience! (I don’t have a picture of them, but here is a tern that stage manager Jenny spotted on the weir…)

Finally, to wrap up, my good friend Eddie Lawler would appear to sing his brand new song, written for the occasion, “The New Leeds Weir”. This had a great, catchy chorus involving making the imagined sounds of the weir moving (“Psst! Fsssh! Bub-bub-bubble! What’s going on at at the New Leeds Weir?”) which many audience members merrily joined in with. It was a lovely, relaxed way to conclude the presentation.

And then, before departing, many audience members wanted to stand around some more, look at the weir and the river, and ask further questions…

Back at the starting point, Jon gradually built up a visual representation of some of the feedback we received over the course of the weekend… Some of it related to people’s thoughts about the weir installation itself, and some of it was feedback on the way we’d presented and explained it to people. My favourite is: “Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed that!”

A huge thankyou to everyone who collaborated on putting this weekend together — to Andy, Jonathan, Mark and everyone at BAM… to Rosa, Mark Garford and others at the EA… to my “sidekick” Jack Waterman, to Phil Marken and Open Source arts, stage manager Jenny, street performers Nik and Steve, and of course two very different musicians who wrote original material for the occasion… Jake and Eddie… Thanks all!

By the end of the weekend, Jon had pretty much filled up that big expanse of whiteboard, and it was the last thing to get dismantled on the Sunday. I gather it might get preserved as a mural in a meeting room somewhere. So I made sure Jon signed it, bottom right corner. QED.

Weir Science (Part 1): Hold Back the River

This is me, taking a selfie, rocking head-to-toe orange. Something of a contrast to my usual look, but this is a blog post about contrasts. I’ll explain the new look shortly, but first…

The last couple of weeks have seen striking contrasts in weather patterns (climate change? wot climate change?). At the peak of a mini-heatwave that had us all sweating, June 21st was the hottest June day in the UK in 40 years. But only a week later, after several days of persistent rain, Bradford was once again facing flood warnings across the district — with water at perilously high levels in the Shipley area along both Bradford Beck and the main River Aire. Appropriate, then, that we also saw the publication this week of a long-awaited council report on Bradford’s preparedness for future flooding — which concludes that the serious budgetary cutbacks Bradford has experienced in recent years has left it vulnerable and exposed to “accelerating climate change risks”.

This report, from a committee chaired by Shipley’s own Green party councillor (and all-round lovely human) Kevin Warnes, is far better-informed than another report published last autumn by a different committee (which I critiqued in this previous blog post), and took advice from local figures who really do know what they’re talking about (such as the chairmen, respectively, of the Aire Rivers Trust and the Friends’ of Bradford’s Becks, Geoff Roberts and Barney Lerner). And while the report is frank about some of the council’s own failings, its key conclusion about insufficient funding points the finger (implicitly) right back at central government — since Bradford is among those councils who have been most disproportionately hit by austerity-era cutbacks (and faces another £32 million in cuts over the next couple of years). My last post on this blog was – in part – about the desperate under-funding of social housing in the area, but the shortage of adequate flood defences is symptomatic of related economic disparities…

Speaking of which… if we’re looking for contrasts, let’s head 12 miles downstream to Leeds, where a very expensive bit of flood engineering is still under construction…

This is the weir at Crown Point — aka Leeds Dam. The rather aesthetically appealing waterfall effect on the right of the picture (i.e. the north side of the river) is created by the brand-new, state-of-the-art weir installation that has replaced the old industrial weir (versions of which have held up water here for about 700 years). The idea with this new weir is that it gets lower – or even disappears completely – in high water conditions, thanks to the pressurised air bladders underneath it, which can simply be deflated to lower the level of the water on the upstream side. It’s the first time this technology has been used in the UK as a flood alleviation measure – and it’s being installed not just here at Crown Point but downstream (on an even larger scale) at Knostrop weir. These weirs, combined with the new flood walls running through the city centre, up as far as the railway station, comprise Phase 1 of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS).

This £47million scheme (underwritten by the City Council, with central government support) will soon be followed by the even more expensive Phase 2 – covering points east through Kirkstall to Horsforth – using money provided by then-Chancellor George Osborne in the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods of 2015. Bradford, by contrast, was offered nothing — and the big difference of course is that money follows money. Or, to mis-paraphrase the biblical parable of the talents: “To those that have shall be given more.”

It’s apparently quite unusual, in the world of flood defences, for so many millions to be spent on such a specific, geographically-limited scheme as this. It’s reckoned that the new Crown Point weir, when lowered, will reduce upstream river levels on the Aire about as far as Victoria Bridge — so not even quite as far as the station. That’s a fairly short stretch of river, but it’s an extremely high value stretch of river. Better flood protection here will mean greater peace of mind for the major businesses and residential complexes on either side of the river — and will make it more likely that further inward investment will flow in to the city (especially in terms of the mooted regeneration of the South Bank area). So that’s why this investment has been made… and the results are, let’s be honest, pretty awe-inspiring… That coffer dam is quite literally holding back the River Aire, so that contractors have access to the riverbed.

This is FAS foreman Mark Pheasey, descending the gangway into the coffer dam, where the second section of the new collapsible weir is currently under construction (it’s now due for completion around September). Mark, also pictured below, is one of my new favourite people — helpful, generous, knowledgeable — after being assigned by his employers, the engineering contractors BAM Nuttall, to show me around the site…

I was granted this privileged access (and required to wear orange) as part of my preparation and research for Weir Science — our latest Multi-Story Water performance project, which I’ll document in the promised “Part Two” of this blog post. For now, though, just check out the big boys’ toys…

This is the main crane on site, weighing in at a modest 250 tonnes. The counter-weight alone (the big red bit on the back) is 86 tonnes. Mark laughed when I expressed amazement at this behemoth, because BAM deals with much bigger cranes on other sites. But still, it is way too big to have been driven here… It had to be assembled, here on Fearns Island (in the middle of the river), through the use of a smaller, mobile crane (a mere 110 tonnes) that was driven across to the island via a temporary stone bridge – erected across the narrowest part of the navigation. The big crane is basically being used as a very large coat-hanger from which to suspend equipment like this… (press play and insert fingers in ears…)

This hammer is pile-driving sheet metal… It’s the stuff the coffer dam is made of, but the row going in here is part of the permanent foundations for the new weir. This is “heavy metal” in action, and it’s being installed by a team of highly skilled contractors. BAM workers get assigned to work around the country in teams, where they’re most needed (Mark’s home is in Hartlepool – so mostly he only gets back to see his family at weekends). The guy you see in the video above, lining up the hammer so it falls just right, has been doing work like this for decades. (I didn’t catch his name, sorry…)

But if you’re not easily impressed by scale and power, you might prefer this bit of video instead…

Here we see the River Aire having a minor disagreement with the coffer dam holding it back, and leaking through the cracks to make a new, miniature river along its own river-bottom… A pump system is in operation to deal with this, 24/7.

 

Further along Fearns Island, we can glimpse the new weir doing its thing, while – across on the far side of the river – the new flood walls are still under construction (that white concrete will eventually have red-brick facing on it to blend in with the surrounding buildings). And to the left, also across on the far side, that scaffolding-covered block is the operations booth for the new system. Though the building itself isn’t finished yet, the key machinery has already been installed inside, as Mark showed me…

That touch-screen computer has adjacent settings on it for the two weir plates that will form part of the new weir. Since one of those plates is already operational, all the relevant readings are visible. But since the second plate is not yet installed (inside the coffer dam), that simply shows as being offline.

Whatever. I must admit that I was more drawn to the old school, lower-tech look of the pipes and dials below. And, yes, sadly, my inner child found some measure of amusement in the notice on the left…

Many thanks to Mark and BAM for a fascinating tour of the weir works. It gave me much of the material I needed for Weir Science, which we presented as part of the Leeds Waterfront Festival last weekend (June 24th/25th)… [see Part 2 of this blog].

Though based primarily in Shipley, the Multi-Story Water project has made annual forays downstream along the Aire to present performances at the LWF (see After the Flood and Seven Bridges under the Performance tab on the menu bar above). Working in Leeds has always felt like a different, but related context to Shipley, but this year the contrasts have seemed especially pronounced. Last year, an investigation led by this project established that there would be little to be gained, in terms of flood mitigation, by removing Shipley’s old industrial weirs. (Even if the money was available, which it isn’t.) In Leeds, though, they’re transforming a centuries-old landmark into contemporary art…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.

“Site-specific” pop-up films for Saltaire Arts Trail

[note: this piece was originally posted on 1st June but had to be taken down and and then restored for technical reasons. The text remains as was.]

It’s not every day you get to watch a film under water… But last weekend (May 27-28), that’s exactly what audiences were doing near the River Aire, west of Roberts Park…

We made a little pop-up cinema in the small passageway that runs underneath the Barden Aqueduct — the stone ‘beehive’ structure at the end of the Higher Coach Road flood plain — to screen the world premiere of Floody, a 9 minute movie masterpiece made with the Young Artists of Higher Coach Road…

This was the view from ‘backstage’ area, looking towards the river and the rest of the aqueduct — which for 150+ years has carried water supplies to Bradford, en route from the Yorkshire Dales. This passage under the pipe bridge was itself completely submerged during the major flood on Boxing Day 2015 — another reason why we dubbed this pop-up space “The Underwater Cinema”…

Here’s the entrance to the cinema (with a couple of lucky punters just entering!). It was identifiable mainly by the bit of black cloth hung across the entrance, to block out light, and the tell-tale sign of the hazard-taped extension cable carrying power to the projector from the nearest house… Audience capacity was limited, but at 9 minutes long we could restart the film regularly for the next group of passers-by, and we had a pretty steady stream of visitors, coming off the riverside path near the footbridge across the Aire…

As a film, Floody is very much the vision of the ‘Young Artists’ — a group of mostly primary-age children who have been meeting most Wednesday afternoons, for almost a year, for open air art workshops on the flood plain between the river and the Higher Coach Road estate. Indeed, the film features footage from one of these workshops, which have been run by the amazing Nicola Murray, of Spongetree arts in Baildon…

Facilitated in film-making workshops by Simon Kerrigan and Sian Williams (who also then edited the footage into its final form), the kids devised, acted, and shot a kind of horror thriller, in which a monster called Floody evolves from plastic bags abandoned in the river, and brings on an enormous storm, before being vanquished by the heroic children (who then remind us always to put our plastic bags in the recycling…). And if you think that sounds not-too-scary, well, there really is a moment in the film that made a lot of people jump… (As this hilarious bit of footage of “young artist” Leo demonstrates! Thanks Ruth Bartlett!)

The pop-up screening was arranged as an unofficial contribution to Saltaire Arts Trail, which runs every year on the last weekend of May. The “trail” is officially limited to a tour around Saltaire mill village itself: you get to nose around various people’s homes, which have been temporarily transformed into miniature art galleries displaying work from far and near. But we thought why not get people to “trail” out a little further along the river, and as some of the comments left in our feedback box showed, visitors to SAT were delighted to discover this added extra!

The ‘lure’ for visitors to walk out along the riverbank was another pop-up film installation in Roberts Park… (People who enjoyed this one were encouraged to venture out further for its companion piece.) The Salt Lions was set up in one of the park shelters (the one closest to the HCR estate), and attracted a consistent stream of visitors, who came off the sun-soaked park promenade to enjoyed the shade and a bit of a sit-down…

The Salt Lions is a 6-minute spin-off from the film project, which celebrates the Victorian bedtime tale of how the stone lions on Victoria Road  would leave their pedestals at night and wander down to the river to drink its waters. The kids responded to this by making a sepia-tinted silent movie, complete with captions, in which three of them hunt high and low around Saltaire for the “missing” lions…

Despite our best efforts with hessian hangings, it was difficult to mask the light out as much in the park shelter as under the aqueduct, so the film image was fainter and smaller (as the projector had to be placed fairly close to the screen). In a weird way, though, this complemented the silent movie “look” of the film, making it feel very old school indeed, like an old fairground cinematograph… And certainly audiences did not complain (kids of all ages, used to hi-tech digital gadgetry, watched this flickering image with rapt attention!). There was something about the film that just worked in this setting at the end of a Victorian park promenade… which of course was part of the intention.

This is Hannah, who features prominently in both our films – as she’s one a hard-core group of “young artists” who were ever present during the making of them. (Many more tended to come and go, depending on weather and mood…) Among the other stalwarts were Leo and Oliver – pictured below. These three not only hung out supporting the screenings at park and pipe bridge all day Sunday, they also showed up bright and early on the morning of bank holiday Monday having overnight prepared a new advertising hoarding for the park screening. Not only that… they had hand-signed whole fistfuls of autograph slips to hand out to their adoring public… (in their hands below)

The only problem was that by comparison with the sunny weekend, the Monday turned out to be cold and drizzly — with both park and flood plain thus largely deserted of passers-by (except for reluctant dog-walkers). We therefore took the collective decision not to try to remount our outdoor screenings — and instead got permission from Half Moon Cafe to set up indoors with them…

Having opted for a single location, we alternated screening both films for a few hours to customers coming into the cafe. I have to say that the atmosphere wasn’t quite the same: both films had worked particularly well in their sited settings (monster movie in the dark under the bridge; sepia cinema on the park promenade…) and the more neutral cafe setting didn’t have quite the same charge. But The Salt Lions could at least be seen better… Meanwhile, the kids themselves became the show, hiding behind the screen and popping out at the end (as if breaking out of the film!) to bow for applause and even take questions…

The Young Artists clearly took great pride in showing off what they had made to the public, and didn’t tire at all of watching the same short pieces over and over again with new audiences. And they handed out a lot of autographs… The project of working with these kids over the last year has been very beneficial for their personal confidence (a point marvelled at by some of their teachers, Nicola tells me), and in some ways it’s the environmental aspect of this that’s been most important. By that, I don’t just mean working with natural materials, which they have done a lot of in the art workshops. My point is that, because we had to work outside in the open air (because there is no obvious indoor space in which to congregate on the estate), the kids have always known they can walk away at any time… (and when it’s cold or wet, they’ve done just that!) Perhaps paradoxically, it’s that freedom to move in or out that has allowed them to commit… without ever feeling trapped in a room, or as if they were “at school”. The degree of dedication and buy-in which some of them have shown as a result is really striking… They didn’t have to be there, and so they chose to invest themselves. And we’re all really proud of the results…

Community Spirit beats Corporate Power? (Twice this week)

[note: this piece was originally posted on 12th May, but for technical reasons has had to be removed and reposted. The text remains as was.]

This blog post is about two seemingly unrelated events that have taken place within the last week:

  1. At the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Boat Festival, in Saltaire’s Roberts Park last Saturday 6th May, the HCR Dragons finished 7th out of the 41 competing crews.
  2. Yesterday, Bradford Council’s planning officerannounced publicly that the consortium proposing to build a University Innovation Centre on Green Belt land at Milner Farm, Bingley, had withdrawn its application. The public hearing about the plans scheduled for Monday 15th May will therefore not now take place.

Now you might think this is a rather gratuitous attempt to connect things that have nothing to do with each other, but bear with me. First off, here’s the top results of the boat race:

The eventual winners, Provi-ducks (up from third last year – well done them!), are presumably representatives of the Provident Building Society. You can’t always tell a lot from the names these crews choose to call themselves, but Dragon Boat Festivals are conventionally set up (this is true at the annual Leeds Waterfront Festival too) as opportunities for businesses to do a bit of “team building” among staff. For the privilege, they pay a hefty entry fee, which goes to the Lord Mayor’s charities and the organising company.

Last year, however, the newly set-up Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group argued the case for admission to the race as a community crew. They couldn’t necessarily raise the full entry fee, they acknowledged, but they would do their best to raise as much as they could through personal sponsorship. And the Lord Mayor, surely, ought to be allowing community groups to participate — not least a group representing Higher Coach Road estate, since it sits directly west of Roberts Park. The Dragon Boats race along a stretch of the Aire that is visible from some of the residents’ homes! In short, the argument was: it’s our river too.

Difficult to argue with, once the point is made. HCRRG’s case was accepted, and the “HCR Dragons” thus competed at last year’s races, finishing 16th out of 45 boats — as reported in this blog post from a year ago. But that was then. This year, the team had its own rendezvous tent, pictured above, at which they displayed the hand-painted T-shirts worn by last year’s team. A year on, the HCR team was bigger, more organised, more prepared, and better dressed:

Still, note that Jolly Roger flying on the HCR banner in the background… These guys still see themselves as the pirate team gatecrashing the corporate party, and they were justifiably proud of themselves for finishing right up in 7th this year (one place behind our friends at Saltaire Brewery…). As this year’s team organiser Vicky Christensen memorably remarked in a Facebook comment:

“just shows you don’t need corporate sponsorship or huge companies backing you….couldn’t afford training sessions for any of us but team spirit and a love of our area pulled us together! I’m so proud of HCRRG!”

 

And this is where I move seamlessly (?) on to the development application for Milner Farm — just west (upstream) of the Higher Coach Road estate. The Multi-Story Water team has a longstanding interest in this area: check out our downloadable audio guide Salt’s Waters — which takes listeners on a walking tour that literally loops all the way around Milner Farm (starting from Salts Mill, you go beside the Aire through Roberts Park and the HCR estate, before exploring the tributary streams Loadpit Beck and Little Beck, on a journey to the ruins of Titus Salt Junior’s Milner Field House… before heading down Primrose Lane to the canal and back east towards Saltaire…).

I wrote about the Milner Farm development plans in my last blog post, on the day that Bradford’s planning officer came out in opposition to the scheme. It seemed clear then that the writing was on the wall for the applicants — so it’s hardly surprising that they have indeed now withdrawn from the battle. Technically they could still resubmit a revised application, but after a public online consultation in which objectors outnumbered supporters of the proposals by 1370 to just 6, it seems likely that they will finally back down and walk away. The concerted opposition that has defeated the proposals was, I think, another local expression of what Vicky calls “team spirit and a love of our area.”

We shouldn’t under-estimate just how significant a victory this is. Because the applicants represented a consortium of quite powerful business interests. Powerful enough, at least, for them to presume that they could talk aggressively and dismissively about opposition to the plans when addressing Bradford Council’s executive officers. Just check out the wording, below, of an email written back on 17th March by David Halliday of Halliday Clark Architects — representing the applicants — to Julian Jackson, Bradford’s Assistant Director for Planning and Transport, and sits alongside key corporate partners on the Steering Group of the Bradford Property Forum):

“The applicants and the wider investment group are now extremely concerned at what appears to be . . . continual resistance to this planning application. . . . My Clients are finding it extremely frustrating that your Officers are stepping out of their remit as Statutory Consultees to question the financial stability, business acumen and business strategy with regard to the proposal for a Business & Innovation Centre on this site. The worldwide profile and status of the 3M Corporation is unquestionable as well as the support of Bradford University, Huddersfield University and the Hartley Property Group. We now believe that these U-turns and continual resistance to the application now need addressing at the most senior level with a meeting held between yourselves, the Case Officers, the Chief Executive of Bradford Council and the Leader of Bradford Council, together with representation from the Client Group and ourselves as Agent, to simply address the question as follows. ‘Do Bradford MDC encourage external investment in innovation and resultant job creation or not?'” 

The answer to this rhetorical question is of course intended to be “yes, obviously”. As far as the applicants are concerned, it should be self-evident that corporate investment needs to be gratefully welcomed by the local authorities. The council officers who are resistant are thus “stepping out of their remit” — so let’s go over their heads and talk to the headmaster! The arrogance here is self-evident. But it turns out that there is also a big fat fib in amongst the bluster. Dogged campaigner Les Brook went as far as contacting representatives of the 3M corporation, who confirmed that they had very little to do with the application and really shouldn’t be invoked as evidence of the consortium’s “business acumen”. As they explained: “3M has an indirect two per cent beneficial interest in the [Milner Field] project [but] is not involved in nor has any influence over day-to-day operations or decision making on this matter, and therefore our position on the proposal is one of neutrality.” Ouch.

The most spectacular case of the applicants shooting themselves in the foot, though, came with the small matter of Fisherman’s Bridge (and here’s my “water story” for today). Seen in the video pasted above, this is the single-lane bridge across the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, just west of Dowley Gap locks, at the bottom of Primrose Lane… Since the road entrance to Milner Farm is off Primrose Lane, just uphill from the canal, anyone trying to approach the farm from the south (i.e. from Bradford!) needs to cross the canal here. The new “Innovation Centre” development would, self-evidently, have added to the volume of traffic coming across this bridge (the name alone tells you that people would be coming and going a lot — researchers, inventors, investors, you name it…).

Now the developers, of course, tried to claim that the increase in traffic would only be minimal — a mere 3% increase on existing levels. It’s one of the many questionable claims of low-to-no environmental impact that they tried to put forward in defence of building on greenbelt land. But in support their own claims, they had a traffic consultancy (the beautifully named “Paragon Highways“) make a film of peak hour traffic flows across Fisherman’s Bridge. That’s the film pasted in above. And anyone viewing it objectively can immediately see just how potentially dangerous that bridge is! Droves of schoolchildren cross it, mere inches away from the traffic and with no elevated pavement to protect them… The fact that there have been no reported accidents on the bridge is surely more a matter of luck than judgement — it literally looks like an accident waiting to happen — and so Bradford’s Highways Officer opposed the Milner Farm plans simply on the grounds that the bridge is already dangerous enough. The consortium ignored that argument, with the Paragon report translating cars and pedestrians into a series of innocuous-sounding numbers and conveniently avoiding the glaring question of child safety on this bridge… Yet their own video is enough to set alarm bells ringing. In short, the applicants seem to have allowed personal business interests to blind them to the evidence of their own eyes…

The failure of the Milner Farm scheme is evidence, then, that concerted public action (driven by tireless campaigners such as Les Brook) really can make a difference in a world that so often seems to be dominated by an unholy alliance of political and business interests. And the success of this particular campaign, I think, lay in the fact that it drew together people from right across the political spectrum. The motives of the “no” campaign seem to have been many and various. Some wanted to support the interests of the Downs family — the working tenant farmers for whom Milner Farm is home. Some were concerned about conservation – in the small ‘c’ conservative sense of leaving the landscape exactly as we find it (an admirable position in some ways, but ultimately quite difficult to defend: for instance, the Higher Coach Road estate itself would never have been built if a concern to protect green fields was always the primary consideration in any planning decision). Others again simply distrusted the claims of the developers that their impact on the landscape would be minimal… and as an employee of a University I can certainly vouch for the fact that Universities will very rarely leave any land available to them untouched over the longer term…

In my own view, a development at Milner Farm could have been the thin end of a wedge that might ultimately have led to Coach Road itself being extended right through the farm’s landscape to connect up with Bingley … thereby bypassing the problem of Fisherman’s Bridge and creating another Aire valley road link of the sort the authorities so often seem to dream about… Bradford Council’s officers ultimately came out against the scheme on this occasion, but they were certainly encouraged to do so by the concerted public outcry.

It won’t have escaped your notice that Britain goes to the polls again in less than a month, for another general election. At times like this it’s as well to remember that — much as we might sometimes doubt it, we really can make a difference. Let’s all do our homework carefully, and — whichever way we vote — vote wisely…

Just Say “No” to the proposed Milner Farm development

[note: this piece was originally posted on 5th May, but for technical reasons has had to be removed and reposted. The text remains as was.]

Ten days from now — on May 15th, from 10am — the Regulatory and Appeals Committee of Bradford Council will hold a public hearing to discuss proposals for an “Innovation Centre” to be built on the footprint of the existing farm buildings of Milner Farm, Bingley. We are all invited to turn up and register our views on the planning application, whether pro- or con.

Here is a short, musical message for the Committee’s consideration, recorded the other weekend at the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group’s “1950s picnic”, for Saltaire’s World Heritage Weekend:

The words to the song, in case you can’t make them out from the video, run as follows:

“Welcome to our Airedale home / We’re glad to see you all here,

We’ll go and put the kettle on / If you’ll just sit yersen in a chair

There’s allus a welcome around, IF / You leave the place as you found it

Cos we’ll not stand no muckin’ around with / Our ‘andsome Airedale ‘ome.”

And then there’s a verse, newly composed, which you can make out for yourself…

“Welcome to Our Airedale Home” was written by singer-songwriter Eddie Lawler, “the bard of Saltaire” (seen here on the far left of the frame) way back in the 1970s, as a contribution to the road protest movement against plans to drive a dual carriageway straight down the Aire valley. That plan, which would have been disastrous for the local environment, was fought off by concerted community activism (and some famous fisticuffs at Shipley Town Hall). Eddie dusted the song off this year in the hopes that this latest plan to mess with the greenbelt could also be sent packing…

The Higher Coach Road Residents Group is one of a number of local groups (including the single-interest Milnerfield Action Group) that have consistently opposed the redevelopment plans. Milner Farm lies directly to the west of the HCR estate, past Bradford Rowing Club. The farm’s fields come down a gently sloping hillside, and stop close to the banks of both the River Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal (which cross over each other at the Seven Arches aqueduct).

This farmland, and the woodland to the north which contains the ruined remnants of Titus Salt Junior’s country mansion, Milner Field House, was once all owned by the Salt family. Today, it belongs to the Hartley Property Trust, which has entered into a consortium with partners including Bradford University, to propose a development that it claims will be a “beacon of excellence” for Bradford.

The public, however, is overwhelmingly underwhelmed by these claims. An online consultation which closed a couple of weeks ago attracted a grand total of 1355 statements of opposition to the plans, and only 6 in favour (a truly pitiful total by any standards – do the developers have no friends at all??). And just today, a statement released by Bradford’s Planning Officer indicates that the official recommendation to the councillors on the Committee will also be one of opposition — on the basis of harm to the greenbelt. The statement is as follows:

The committee is asked to consider a planning application, ref. 15/05538/MAF to develop an Innovation Centre (sui generis use) on the site of Milner Field Farm, Gilstead, involving the demolition of certain existing farm buildings, refurbishment and change of use of other existing farm buildings and construction of new innovation centre buildings, the formation of a new car park and the undertaking of ancillary landscaping, drainage and access works and landscaping works to the wider farmland to provide for enhanced public access, including to the remains of Milner Field House, and ecological enhancement. The application is an EIA application, within the meaning of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations and is accompanied by an Environmental Statement.

The proposed development is inappropriate development within the Green Belt. Although the development would be likely to result in significant economic benefits, and additionally some public and biodiversity benefits associated with proposed woodland planting and increasing public access to the site, including to the remains of Milner Field House, it is considered that these benefits do not clearly outweigh the harm the development would cause to the Green Belt.

The development would also cause other harm, in terms of substantial harm to the Saltaire World Heritage Site and erosion of its Outstanding Universal Value, harm to the historic landscape associated with Milner Field House, harm to the particular character of the local wooded incline landscape, potential harm to the integrity of the adjacent Trench Meadows SSSI and harm through a reduction in road safety at the canal bridge on Primrose Lane. When these other forms of harm are considered in combination with the harm the development would cause to the Green Belt it is considered that the benefits of the development/ other considerations put forward by the applicant clearly do not outweigh this cumulative harm.

Let’s hope the councillors feel inclined to listen to their officers and to the public.

Do no harm.

 

An Alternative Take on World Heritage Weekend

It’s been a crazy busy week, so I’m only just now catching up on here on the blog — to say a few words about last weekend’s events in the Saltaire area. It was the Annual World Heritage Weekend celebrations for Titus Salt’s Victorian mill village — part of a worldwide celebration of UNESCO-designated heritage sites. Saltaire has been participating for 5 years now, but this was the first year when the Higher Coach Road estate was officially ‘on the map’ for the Heritage celebrations (as you can see from this map, from the WHW leaflet)…

Higher Coach Road falls comfortably within the “buffer zone” which restricts planning within sight of Saltaire (subject to UNESCO approval), and of course the whole area that the estate is built on once belonged to Sir Titus Salt. But the residents chose to mark the occasion by celebrating their own “heritage” as a post-war council estate by hosting a 1950s picnic … for themselves, and anyone else who wanted to join in….

The 1950s picnic was initially the brainchild of resident Ruth Bartlett, pictured below in this rather curious picture that appeared in the online version of theTelegraph and Argus

Ruth is pictured here having (no) tea poured for her by myself, Steve Bottoms. The T&A photographer, having turned up at the very beginning of the 12-4 slot during which we’d said the picnic events would occur, found that not that many people were there yet (because, seriously dude, who turns up at a party in the first minute?), and so asked those of us who’d dressed up to pose with embarrassed grins for the camera…

Ruth and I are seated here in the “outdoor living room” that was Multi-Story Water’s contribution to the festivities. Cleverly assembled by Anna Parker from visits to a string of charity shops, this installation of 50s furniture and nick-nacks was well populated over the course of the afternoon, as people came and sat down on the surprisingly comfortable furniture to enjoy the sunshine. (it was behind a cloud when the photographer came, naturally…)  That blue folder poking out from under the coffee table contained a selection of stories I had prepared about the area and its community and watery histories. I read these on request, in response to people picking titles from a menu we provided… such as “The Malicious Mr. Pickles”, “Higher Coach Road in the Ice Age” and “Ten Minutes of Madness (The Derwent Avenue Murderer)”. This was our “streaming service” for an age when most people didn’t have television yet… and it seemed to go down remarkably well! Some of the stories prompted considerable discussion. One resident, for example, shared her memories of working at Salts Mill in the 1970s — because she remembered as a co-worker the victim of the murder in my “ten minutes of madness” story (a black tale for a sunny day – it proved an unexpectedly popular choice!).

Ruth and I had also collaborated on writing this leaflet, launched on this occasion as a joint effort of MSW and HCR Residents Group (the image shows the inside of the ‘gatefold’). In this slightly-tongue-in-cheek “heritage” leaflet, which will also be available from Saltaire Visitor Information Centre, we wanted to make the case for this estate as “Saltaire’s Other Model Village” — a development planned to blend in with its green and pleasant environment, which residents still take great pride in.

Here’s another of the shots from the T&A, with Saltaire’s towers visible in the background. Dressed in their versions of the 1950s are the current and recent chairs of the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group — Pam Ruppe and Stewart Gledhill — who are flanked on either side by Kat Martin (left) and Lyze Dudley (right), both part of the Multi-Story Water team who dressed up for the day.

Now, it does rather look from these pictures as if nobody else was there… which is not in the least bit true. I’ll post other shots from the day as soon as I have access to them. [editor’s note: sure enough, other pics can be found here and here]. It was a perfect day for sitting out in the sun, for a chat with neighbours — whether enjoying food from the sandwich and cake stall masterminded by Irene Townend and other HCRRG members, or a little storytelling, or listening to music. We had “the bard of Saltaire”, Eddie Lawler, playing live on his acoustic guitar, and also a collection of old 78 rpm records from the 1950s that we played on the little machine pictured below (with which I was asked to pose for the most embarrassing photo op of the afternoon…). The most popular tunes turned out to be Cliff Richard‘s “Please Don’t Tease” and Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” (which several picnickers seemed to know word for word by heart, and sang along…). Admittedly both those tunes were actually released in 1960, but what’s a year between friends? This is when a lot of people would have been moving onto the estate anyway: construction began in 1957, but continued until the early 60s.

After the picnic wound down, and we’d packed up the outdoor living room, Kat and I made our way to Fanny’s Ale House, for the first of three Saltaire-area performances this weekend of This Island’s Mine — the short play celebrating the history of Dockfield, which I discussed in detail in my last blog post. Again, it was nice to be complicating the “official” heritage story of World Heritage Weekend, by drawing attention to another, less celebrated Shipley neighbourhood. (In Dockfield’s case, the major developments occurred not in the Victorian or post-WWII periods, but at the beginning of the 20th century, when Shipley Council built Dockfield Road, Dockfield Terrace, and local works for gas, electricity and sewage). And on Sunday afternoon, in the bar of Salts Sports Association (just across the river from the Coach Road estate), it was a particular pleasure to perform the play for an audience made up of members of the Higher Coach Road Residents Group…

This Island’s Mine ends with a speech from Kat (based on interviews with Dockfield residents) about how, for all the improvements in living conditions we have nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost something of the sense of close community that was experienced by many local residents growing up (in the years when this was still very much an industrial town). This was a sentiment that I recall being expressed particularly clearly to me by some of the people sitting at this table — Stewart and Pat, Irene and Barry — when I first met and interviewed them back in 2012. So it was a particular delight, with Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group having become such a dynamic source of community identity over the last couple of years, to be sharing this story with them. It turns out that, just because something seems to have been lost, doesn’t mean it can’t be rediscovered with a little goodwill and ingenuity — because that sense of community may well still be there, lying dormant, and ready to sprout again…

That’s Barry in the middle of the shot above. He grew up in Dockfield, and has lived on Higher Coach Road since the 60s. He contributed some great new additions to the collection of memories we’ve been gathering around this little play. And on the right in the image below is Steve, one of the most active current members of HCRRG, who went straight off from Salts to visit one of the older residents on the estate — as part of a “befriending” scheme that the group has started, to tackle the problem of isolation experienced by some. HCRRG is doing some amazing work now… I salute you all.

And so, back to Fanny’s Ale House, and the last of our scheduled performances of This Island’s Mine this weekend. For an audience that included Rob Martin and Molly Kenyon, the dynamic Saltaire duo who really got the World Heritage Weekend celebrations established as an annual thing these past five years (this year they’ve finally been able to step back a bit and let others take the lead). So it was great to share this with them too! That’s Rob’s knees in the bottom right of the shot below — after Kat had managed to attack them by accidentally knocking Rob’s pint off the table with one of her props… The perils of live theatre! Fortunately nobody was hurt, and the show continued once the glass was swept up by Fanny’s quick-reacting staff…

A particular highlight for me of this last performance was the way that the audience took it upon themselves to animate some of our table props… Below is one spectator’s interpretation of a story Kat tells, at the end of the piece, about canoeists being attacked by swans on the canal outside the Amber Wharf flats… So OK, it’s geese not swans, and a skateboarding lego man not a canoeist, but that is the spirit of improvisation!

Happy World Heritage Weekend everyone. A great celebration of past, present, and – perhaps – future…