Hydro #2

So, last weekend saw our Multi-Story Water performances happen around and about Shipley and Saltaire. Thankfully, the weather held out for us – with glorious sunshine on the Saturday, and only drizzle on the Sunday afternoon… A few hours later, the north of England was hit by what the Met Office has called “the worst September storms for 30 years”. So I guess you could say we got lucky! And the feedback on the weekend has mostly been very positive (more on that in a subsequent post).

Predictably enough, our scene discussing plans for the hydro-electric screw on Saltaire weir – at the outset of our Green Route walk – proved the most controversial part of what we presented. Indeed Rob Martin, chair of the Saltaire Village Society, was prompted to write to the Telegraph and Argus with the following letter (original link is here):

SIR – It was a pleasure to take part in Multi-Story Water over the last weekend in Saltaire. The boat ride with singing by Eddie Lawler and two walks along the River Aire up and downstream from Saltaire provided lots of information in an entertaining way. Some information, however, was not correct. At one point, the audience stood on a slope in Roberts Park at the site of a proposed turbine house for a hydro power scheme. We were told that once installed it wouldn’t be noticeable. In fact, the slope with four mature trees on which we were standing would become the flat roof of the turbine house, with a railing to stop us falling off. The audience was also told that local people are against generating hydro power from that weir. This is untrue. Saltaire Village Society opposes siting a scheme on the Roberts Park side, but advocates it for the opposite bank, where water power once drove large water wheels for Dixons Mill (where James Roberts built the New Mill).

Rob Martin, chairman, Saltaire Village Society, c/o Albert Road, Saltaire

Unfortunately, however, Rob is himself guilty of misinformation here, not least the claim that New Mill was built by James Roberts. (Titus Salt constructed it in 1868.) The claims he makes about our performance, moreover, are simply untrue. As I have noted in a response to the T&A (remains to be seen whether they publish it), “the performance did not, in fact, make either of the claims that Mr. Martin suggests. He writes: ‘At one point, the audience stood on a slope in Roberts Park at the site of a proposed turbine house for a hydro power scheme. We were told that once installed it wouldn’t be noticeable.’ Nothing of the sort was said. We stated that ‘some have argued that the hydro installation will spoil the view’, but also that ‘the scheme is designed to enhance the visitor experience’ (which it could hardly do if it wasn’t noticeable!). Secondly, Mr. Martin claims that ‘the audience was also told that local people are against generating hydro power from that weir’. Plainly this is not the case, not least because many local people are in total support of the scheme. Our script stated simply: ‘some have argued that this modern installation is inappropriate in a Victorian heritage site’ – a statement which neither side of the argument could dispute!”

In the interests of full disclosure, I am pasting in, below, the whole script for this section of the performance. However, in this fuller blog-post format, I also just want to query Rob’s suggestion that “the slope with four mature trees on which we were standing would become the flat roof of the turbine house.” The particular spot we were standing on, just downhill of the footpath leading to the bridge, clearly remains – in the architect’s drawings of the scheme – a piece of grassy slope with trees:

Our scene was placed to the left of this image, on the slope just behind where the lone figure stands at the railings. Actress Lynsey Jones gestured towards the area next to the weir where the turbine house would stand, according to the plans, and pointed out that “currently there’s just a lot of overgrowth” along that stretch of the river’s edge (again, a point which is difficult to dispute). In short, unless the plans for the scheme have been radically revised since the July 5th public consultation at which this and other images were displayed, I would defend the accuracy of our script. It is perfectly reasonable to disagree with our position on the hydro scheme (it’s fair to say that the performance struck a position broadly in favour the proposals), or to dislike the playfully theatrical tone in which we presented the scene (which, I can now see, could be considered insensitive to the very real pain that the arguments have caused for some in the Saltaire area). But that does not mean that anything we said was, per se, untrue.

OK, honour defended, here’s the script section I promised. Judge for yourself:

LIONEL: Time flows on…

ALISTAIR: …metaphorically, like a river. But also cyclically, like a wheel!

DOROTHY:  Now water power is making a comeback here…

LIONEL: In the form of a hydro-electric power generator…

DOROTHY:  An Archimedes screw!

DOROTHY:  Here on Saltaire weir…

LIONEL:  Here on the Roberts Park side, because Bradford Council owns the park –

ALISTAIR:  And it’s Bradford Council that’s proposing a screw in the river.

DOROTHY:  Now, this is proving to be quite a controversial. Some have argued that the hydro installation will spoil the view…  although if you look at the designs, the placement would be here, where currently there’s just a lot of overgrowth…  (pointing it out)

ALISTAIR: You see, the scheme is designed to enhance the visitor experience.

LIONEL: Some have argued that this modern installation is inappropriate in a Victorian Heritage Site…

ALISTAIR:  In that case, so is the weir. Take it down!

DOROTHY:  (ignoring him) … but the CWHPHACIEESS proposes a more embracing, encompassing understanding of heritage.

LIONEL: Not frozen over, but flowing on into the future.

[There then followed a reproduction of sections from an interview with Neill Morrison, of Bradford Council. Admittedly, it was less than “even-handed” to include Neill’s position without presenting a counter-argument, but this part of the script is more interested in the wider “climate change” argument than the hydro scheme per se…]

REPORTER: According to Bradford Council, the future could be stormy.


REPORTER:  Said the signage at the recent public consultation about the proposed hydro installation.



SIGNAGE 2:  The weather in Bradford is changing. We must adapt our property, communities, and lifestyles for more extremes of weather, such as..

SIGNAGE 1: frequent floods

SIGNAGE 2: severe winds

SIGNAGE 1: heavy snowfalls

SIGNAGE 2: heatwaves

SIGNAGE 1: droughts.


REPORTER: (to herself)  Crikey!  (beat – then, to the public…) We spoke to Neil Morrissey.

NEILL: Morrison,

REPORTER:  Neill Morrison…

NEILL: I get that all the time.

REPORTER: Energy Management Officer for Bradford Council…

NEILL:  You look at how the weather’s changed over the last thirty years… we’re getting more extreme weather, more often. Every year it’s the wettest June or the driest January … This year we’ve had this weird situation where the rivers were really dry in March and April, when they should  be stonking – and then in June when they should be at base flow and nothing spare, it was pumping out here for weeks… I kayak for a hobby so I notice it. And down in Calderdale, they had the worst flooding in recorded history…

REPORTER: But is it Bradford’s responsibility to solve climate change?

NEILL: (a small sigh) It’s everyone’s responsibility to solve climate change.  There is no, ‘whose responsibility is it?’ That’s part of the problem, that’s why stuff doesn’t get done – everyone’s blaming someone else.  You can’t use that as an excuse any more. You have to – do something!

REPORTER: But surely something like this hydro is just a drop in the ocean of what’s needed.

NEILL: Of course. But you cannot have one thing that will fix the situation. You’ve got to have lots of schemes, lots of technologies, and they’ve got to complement each other.  So you start by looking at what we can do in this district – and at the assets we have. We have waste, which we’re working on… we have wind, but frankly the argument over wind will make this look like a storm in a teacup. Imagine what the Bronte Society would say if we said “oh we want to put wind turbines on Top Withens.” You cannot blend them in! But we think we can blend this in…  With hydro, there’s a chance here. It’s about making the best of what you’ve got.

[extract ends]

Anyway, I hope that puts the record straight. But perhaps, considered in the great scheme of things, this is all just (as Neill put it) a “storm in a teacup”… We have bigger storms to worry about.



The hottest water issue in Saltaire at present (sorry, no pun intended) is Bradford Council’s proposal to install a hydro-electric power generator — an Archimedes screw – on the River Aire at Saltaire weir. The controversy raging is around the fact that the site proposed is within the grounds of Roberts Park, which Bradford Council owns, but which it is by no means free to do with as it wishes. The argument against the installation can be simply summarised as follows: “the project changes the use of a recreational park space, and has no place in a protected park, in a protected conservation area, in a protected World Heritage Site.”

Those words appear about half-way through a document titled “Reasons to be Doubtful”, which has been carefully prepared by “a group of concerned villagers” (no author is identified). The latest, September version of this document (it continues to evolve as more information becomes available) was the key persuading factor in the decision last week by the Saltaire Village Society to come out in opposition to the proposals. (See news report here.) A copy was provided to me by Rob Martin, chair of the SVS, and also coincidentally one of the performers in our Blue Route canal tour. His fellow performer on the boat will be Eddie Lawler, who remains in favour of the hydro proposals — just one small indication of the way that this plan has divided the local community. It’s a very sensitive issue, with strong arguments on both sides.

So what’s the argument in favour? At a public consultation about the proposals at Saltaire’s URC Church on July 5th this year, the signage on the way into the church’s basement exhibition space made the Council’s case pretty unambiguous:

Technically, of course, building a renewable energy plant constitutes “mitigation” of climate change rather than “adaptation” to it. That is, it helps reduce carbon emissions (all other things being equal), but does nothing to prepare us for adverse or extreme weather… Most scientists are now in little doubt that we need to be doing both, so the hydro plan is part of Bradford’s response those uncomfortable realities – and at least it is doing something! The Council’s main persuasion tactic seems to be to appeal to the green sensibilities of the local population: Shipley ward elects the only Green councillors on Bradford Council, after all (even if the MP, Philip Davies, is a climate change sceptic!).

Presumably we could add “Support renewable energy schemes in your area” to the bottom of that list… But what the Council have not done very clearly here is link this notion of global change, global responsibility, to the particularities of a local place. And it’s often difficult for people to see what difference small, local changes will make to the big, global picture (even though a lot of small changes might add up to a big one!).

It seems to me that the Council could have been much more explicit about admitting that the choice of Saltaire weir for this hydro scheme is as much a symbolic one as a practical one — that it’s a showcase scheme designed to draw public attention to the wider need for a switch to renewable energy. The objections to the scheme in the “Reasons to be Doubtful” document mostly relate to the inappropriateness of placing a power plant in a recreational park: indeed the authors make the point that such usage may contravene the terms of the deed of gift by which the Roberts family gave the park to the City in the 1920s. But if the hydro is constructed and displayed in such a way as to add to the interest value of the park for visitors, then the installation would presumably be enhancing the park’s “recreational and amenity value” rather than detracting from it. And clearly that is the intention here… You only have to look at the aesthetically rendered visions of the hydro installation on display at the July 5th consultation…

This diagram image, and its keenness to interpret and explain, seems to reflect a key aspect of the hydro plan — i.e. that it should serve as a pleasantly-designed educative exhibit, as well as a working power generator. None of this seems to me inherently objectionable in a conservation area or World Heritage Site, especially given that the return to “water power” signalled by the hydro installation also symbolises a cyclical return to the site’s own history. The weir is here in the first place because it once served a water mill – Dixons Mill – that stood on the southern bank before Salts.

In point of fact, even the protest lobby against the scheme seems to be aware that the hydro installation might add to the amenity and visitor value of the park. How else to explain the last point on the placard below? (sited at the ‘picket’ point outside the July consultation)

That final point suggests that increased traffic congestion might result from the added ‘attraction’ value of the showpiece hydro installation. And yet at the same time, there’s the assumption that it will be a burden (“Saltaire bears the brunt”) and an eyesore (obscuring views). The argument is somewhat self-contradictory, and perhaps somebody pointed this out to the ‘No’ campaign: it’s telling that the “traffic” objection is nowhere apparent in the September “Reasons to be Doubtful” document.

I have to say that I’m not convinced, either, about the suggestion that ‘iconic’ views will be spoiled by the installation: if you go down and look a the proposed site at present, the views from it are already partially obscured by self-seeding riverside foliage growing out the banking. Purely in aesthetic terms, the designs for the installation would appear to be an improvement, visually. The “Reasons to be Doubtful” document does mention that pulling out trees (presumably these ones) is an environmental no-no. Yet a much more substantial swathe of riverside greenery was pulled up during the Lottery-funded improvements to the park only a few years ago – precisely in order to clear the views from the cricket pitch to the bridge, Boathouse and Salts Mill…

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to the key argument. If one accepts the proposition (and plenty of people don’t!) that a hydro of this sort is a kind of showcase exhibit, with a symbolic and educative value beyond its purely practical, energy-producing function, then most of the objections in the “Reasons to be Doubtful” document fade away pretty quickly. “There is only a modest green gain.” Well yes, nobody ever said water could be harnessed to enormously powerful effect (there’s a reason we once switched to steam mills from water mills!). The point is not that this one hydro would generate huge amounts of energy, but that many similar, small-scale schemes up and down our river catchments (coupled with other schemes to create power from wind, waves, waste, etc.) might start to make a difference to our fossil-fuel dependency. “This scheme represents poor value for money.” Perhaps, but by the “Reasons…” document’s own reckoning, the additional cost in comparison with – say – the hydro at Hirst Mill being proposed by Sustainable Saltaire, is mostly caused by the need to make the installation appropriately presentable in a protected heritage context. Again, that price might well be worth paying for the public showcase value. And besides, Bradford Council’s figures, even at the conservative end, indicate that this hydro would pay for itself within a decade or so.

The “Reasons to be Doubtful” document does, however, ask a few searching questions about the green credentials of the scheme. Has anyone calculated what the actual carbon expenditure would be to install the hydro in the first place? Because without such an estimate, we can’t be sure what the net energy savings would really be of such a scheme, as opposed to the gross power generated. Not only that, the document refers to this proposed hydro as a “token gesture”… If it is to have symbolic value as a public exhibit of the virtues of green energy, it needs to be evident that it not tokenistic, but one scheme among many (the showcase scheme among many) that Bradford Council is developing. Otherwise it really would be just window-dressing, or “greenwash”. So there are still questions that need to be answered persuasively by the Council.

And perhaps the most persuasive argument on the “anti-” side is simply that the gestural value of installing such a showcase turbine does not stack up against the potential inconvenience value to the local community… Roberts Park was largely closed off for redevelopment work only a few short years ago, and although nobody disputes that the result is a vast improvement on what was there before, the prospect of part of it being dug up again so soon is understandably off-putting. This is the point that Rob Martin emphasised recently in a piece for the Saltaire Sentinel: “[visitors] would be walking next to a building site for the 14 to 18 months, and it will be even longer before the site resembles anything like the artist’s impression of the finished article. It seems to be very high price for a little bit of sustainable energy.” The counter-argument here, I suppose, is something along the lines of “you don’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.” So again, it all comes down to a question of how much you want that omelette.

There are, as I said at the outset, strong arguments on both sides here – although it’s probably clear which side of the debate I favour (and hey, I can afford to: I don’t live in Saltaire and won’t live with the inconvenience of the construction). What I find disturbing in this, however, is the insularity of the way the debate has been framed by some on both sides. The anonymous “concerned villagers” behind the “Reasons to be Doubtful” document seem to have forgotten that they don’t actually live in a “village” entire unto itself, but in a district of Shipley, which is a district of Bradford… But look again at that placard I photographed above – “in our park,” “we” shouldn’t be having to export energy “across Bradford”. Whoever wrote that needs to ask themselves where they get their “own” food, clothing and energy from. Saltaire village is not yet a self-sufficient co-operative. But equally, the Council pitch on July 5th seemed to be pandering to the same presumed, insularised village mentality. Check this out:

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this “harsh urban edge of Coach Road”. In fact, the Coach Road housing estates, lying on either side of the park, were carefully planned by Shipley Urban District Council, back in the 1950s, precisely in order to preserve the “rural aspect” of the surrounding area (Shipley Glen, Baildon Moor, Hirst Wood…). You can see that especially with the very sensitive design of the Higher Coach Road estate (which will shortly be the subject of another blog posting). Unfortunately, the words “harsh urban edge” seem here to function as code for “those people over there in the housing estates” – wouldn’t it be nice to “screen” them off from “our” park? Well, folks, those people (many of whom are very lovely people, by the way) live in this area too, and the park is on their side of the river.

As park-keeper Martin Bijl is keen to emphasise, the policy of Roberts Park is – quite rightly – to be inclusive and inviting for people from both the north and sound of the river, and indeed from much further afield. In a World Heritage Site, we need to be thinking in terms of a global village.

Rights of Way

One of the most intriguing questions to explore in the Shipley area, in relation to the river and canal, is the question of public rights of way. Over hundreds of years, certain riverside tracks have developed a status as public footpaths which is now legally enforcible. “Once a highway, always a highway,” is the old adage – according to Bradford Council’s rights of way manager Danny Jackson. Except of course, as Danny’s the first to acknowledge, there are exceptions to that rule. In the 19th Century, after buying a huge swathe of land to the north of the river, all the way from Milner Field to the west, down to Lower Holme in the east, Sir Titus Salt succeeded in having pedestrian access rights moved away from the riverside and onto his new Coach Road. Originally, Coach Road was a private road for vehicles, but a public one for pedestrians. The same went for the Victoria Road bridge at Saltaire: pedestrian access rights were moved to this bridge, and Salt took away the ancient river crossing consisting of stepping stones! In the 1960s, when the road bridge had to be demolished as unfit for vehicular traffic, a new footbridge had to be built by law, in order to restore the public right of way!

Anyway, Sir Titus’s legal footwork explains why, today, there is no official riverside path on the north of the river betwen Baildon Bridge and Hirst Wood. Once you get to Hirst Wood, it reappears: there’s a lovely walk up to Dowley Gap and beyond. But the path running east from Baildon Bridge towards Charlestown (featured in my recent “Lower Holme – picture story” posting), is in a much more precarious state. Though utterly neglected, it’s still there – having survived all the mill demolitions going on around it. But in places the path is very narrow and even treacherous underfoot. Riverside rights have clearly not been at the top of the planning agenda in that area…

Recently, I took a walk with Danny Jackson along a stretch of river path that Bradford Council are paying particular attention to at present. This stretch, also ancient right of way, runs along the South side of the river, between Salt’s Mill and Baildon Bridge. With us on this stroll was my 7-year old daughter Eleanor (seen here outside Saltaire’s gorgeous URC church), who was entrusted withthe task of photographing whatever she thought was worthy of note along the route. The images below are a child’s eye view of the path and its various delights…

Danny and his colleagues have been charged with opening up and improving access along this stretch of path, because it links Saltaire to the recent residential conversion at Victoria Mills. In order to secure planning permission, the Victoria Mills development had to agree, under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990, to commit funds for these ‘highway’ improvements (it’s all detailed online here). The irony, though, is that there is currently no demand from the residents of Victoria Mills to use this riverside path – and the gate that would provide access to it is normally padlocked for security reasons. Instead, the residents tend to use the nearby canal towpath for walking. So what would really encourage use of this rather run-down path?

We began on the canal towpath outside Salts’ New Mill, since the mill itself prevents any direct access along the riverside at this point. It’s tempting to blame Titus for this too, but in all likelihood the path would always have bent around the water mill (Dixon’s) that was on this site before Salts. Eleanor’s picture highlights the rather unkempt, overgrown state of the path even in this World Heritage Site section.

When you cut down towards the river though, things rapidly become much less inviting…




The river path is slippery with moss in numerous spots…

… and decorated with charming touches (though Eleanor felt this could be a place to hang art work!)


Time to let Eleanor’s eye do the talking…




Eleanor liked these thistles a lot… They’re wild flowers, of course – ‘weeds’. As I discussed with her, letting things grow, or ‘letting things go’ isn’t always a bad idea. The thing she liked most on this walk were the little blue flowers on this plant (and others like it) growing unbidden out of the perimeter wall at Victoria Mills… It’s a cliche to say it, perhaps, but nature will find its own right of way….