“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,


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!


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!