Water margins

I’ve been continuing, in recent weeks, to nose around Shipley and Baildon to get more of a sense of how the Boxing Day floods affected people in different areas. Come September, at Saltaire Festival, we’ll be presenting a new storytelling piece called Wading Home for Christmas that will seek to capture some of these accounts in an engaging and pointed way. Last weekend I paid a visit to Aire Way, one of the streets off Coach Road which opens out onto the flood plain area east of Roberts Park. What the residents here told me really underlines just how narrow the margins can be in terms of who gets hit by flooding and who doesn’t.


These are the houses on Aire Way — the gap in the middle is where the road comes in for car access — with the odd- and even-numbered houses extending from either side of this entry point. Here we’re looking west, in the direction of the park. If you imagine taking the photograph above, and then turning through about 180 degrees, this is what you would see looking the other way….


The line of trees in the distance marks the edge of the River Aire, with the large buildings all being on the other (Shipley) side of the river. Here you see one of the several cricket pitches that populate the local flood plain areas… But what’s amazing to contemplate is that this corrugated tin cricket hut was — according to the residents — completely under water on Boxing Day. I said, what, completely? You couldn’t even see the ridge of the roof? They said that’s right. Back in 2000, when the last major flood hit, you could still see the roof — but not this time.


Taking a closer look at Aire Way, we can see a waterworks manhole in the grass just in front of the houses. This, I was told, is the point that the floodwater got to back in 2000. Just shy of the final slope. On Boxing Day 2015, though, the water came right up and into people’s homes — filling the ground floor and flowing out of the back. It also came up through the foundations of the houses — quicker, in fact, than it arrived at surface level. Residents had to wade out of their homes, and some have only recently been able to return. But look at this…


To the right in this picture is the most westerly house on Aire Way, and to the left is the most easterly house on Tennis Way (the next street opening off Coach Road as you head towards the park). As you can see, there’s just a slight rise in the banking between Aire and Tennis, but this extra bit of height made all the difference. The homes on Tennis Way remained unaffected by the flooding — safe as houses.

Incidentally, the other people who were safe as houses were those living upstairs on Aire Way — who had a grandstand view of the flood from their balconies. These houses are actually split-levels, with the upstairs apartments being accessed by stairs leading straight up from front doors on ground level. So the worst the upstairs residents got was some damage to their stair carpets, but by all accounts, Bradford Council paid out its £500 per household in flood relief to anyone on this stretch who asked for it, regardless of whether they were upstairs or downstairs. One might question whether this money was really going where it was most needed.

If the level of the water made a big difference, depending on where exactly you live along here, it’s also worth noting that seemingly small differences in residential status also really made a big difference. Aire Way and Tennis Way are still mostly (if not all) social housing stock — run by InCommunities. Among the residents I spoke to were Kenneth, who is a regular tenant with In Communities, and was really happy with the help that he received from them in the wake of the flooding. He was back in his repaired house by mid-March, and has no complaints. His only problem is that — like a surprising number of people living near the river, it seems — he had no contents insurance for his belongings, and so has had to fork out for an entirely new set of furniture.

However, just along the street from Kenneth is Chris. He did have contents insurance, but he also has his home on a 99-year lease from InCommunities (he’s sort of halfway to being a home-owner). Being a leaseholder meant that Chris found himself right at the back of the queue in terms of getting the flood damage repaired. InCommunities were still responsible for sorting it, since ultimately they are the property owners, but they were apparently in no hurry to do so. Perhaps they were working on the basis that Chris can’t move anywhere else because of the length of his lease. So Chris literally just moved home two weeks ago — mid-May — after nearly five months being put up in Abbey Lodge guest house, up on Kirkgate in Shipley. He was still unpacking boxes when I met him…

Speaking of which, here is Margaret Wright — an old friend of this blog. She normally lives on Lower Holme, off Otley Road — near the new Wickes. But I took this photo in April, when she was still living in a room at Shipley’s Ibis Hotel (just by the canal).

IMG_0874Margaret finally moved home on April 28th — after being stuck in the Ibis for four months, without even any self-catering facilties. Her housing association, Accent, gave her and her grandson James a daily allowance of £25 between them to feed themselves … which, needless to say, doesn’t go far when you’re eating out all the time. Even so, this and the hotel bills do add up, and as Margaret points out, you would think it was in Accent’s interests to have got her back into her home quicker than this! And unlike InCommunities, it was not even as if Accent had the excuse of having a lot of clients to deal with after the flooding. They admitted to Margaret that they had just one other property in the area — in Bingley — affected by the floods. But this very lack of impact on them as an organisation seems to have led to a general lack of concern.

The particular irony is that the water didn’t even reach Margaret’s house at ground level. It’s set back far enough from the river that the only impact was from water coming up through the basement. Margaret’s neighbour Lynda had exactly the same situation, but remained safely in her home throughout (despite losing power for six days around New Year). However, where Lynda’s ground floor had apparently been reinforced on some previous occasion, Margaret’s had not. Yet another small difference that made a very big difference… Margaret’s kitchen and living room floors were undermined by the flood water, and caved in. It then took four months for Accent to get it fixed — although the actual working time, Margaret says, was a matter of only three weeks. The rest of the time was simply taken up with interminable bureaucratic delays, for the visits of loss adjusters, surveyors, and God knows what. And no doubt for the paperwork to sit around on a pile for a while, until it got attended to. Margaret had been almost six weeks in the Ibis before anyone even began to do anything to the property…

Fortunately, Margaret is able to joke about her experiences as a kind of black comedy — but the strain on her has been clear to see. She’s in her later sixties, and suffers from arthritis – and you would think that, as a resident of 33 years, Accent had a duty of care towards her. Instead though, their attention to the house has been all about the “margins”… Costs have been cut at every opportunity, especially on the finish, so that Margaret has had to vociferously complain about idiocies such as an ugly gas heating pipe being run along her living room wall above the skirting board. (If you know how beautifully she has always kept her home, you know just how much of an insult this is.) The final straw, though, was when she discovered that her living room window blind — one of those nice, wooden-slatted ones that cost well over £100 — had mysteriously lost its draw-string and so been rendered useless. A workman eventually admitted to having cut it off so he could use it as a plumb-line. This completely unnecessary bit of criminal damage resulted in Accent having to pay out for a brand new blind. As Margaret remarks, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” It’s all about the margins…

If you leave Margaret’s house, at the bottom of Lower Holme, and walk the short path down to the river, this is what you’ll come to…

IMG_0912The brand new flood wall on the right, installed just last year before the Wickes opened, was overtopped on Boxing Day. The debris still caught in the trees (and this photo shows just one sample of a problem all along this stretch) indicates just how high the water came, but also just how long it’s now been left unattended to… This is the stretch of river that became nationally visible at Christmas, when the TV news played cameraphone footage of a caravan being smashed into the footbridge at the bottom of Lower Holme. But most of the rest of the time, this is a pretty neglected stretch of river. Out of sight of the general public, out of mind of the authorities… It’ll take a volunteer effort, in all probability, before this lot is cleared.

Floods, it turns out, can make you cynical.


How is this a Strategy, exactly?

So yesterday I popped into Kirkgate Centre in Shipley, where a drop-in consultation session was being held by the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council (CBMDC – or “Bradford Council” to most of us) on its new Local Flood Risk Management Strategy. To read the document in question, click here


These are some of the lovely people gathered at the consultation to chat with people popping in — Vicki and Karen from Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support in the foreground, as well as reps from Bradford Council and the Environment Agency. When I popped in shortly after the session started, though (it ran from 2.30 to 6.30), there was a bit of a shortage of public being consulted. Maybe it picked up later on.

The personal advice and support being offered, on the day, seemed to me to be rather at odds with the very impersonal, rather unhelpful contents of the actual strategy document. I’ve read through it all now and I’m actually struggling to know what the strategy is, to be honest. And I don’t think this is just me being dense.

Let’s break it down. The document, nicely illustrated by pictures of floods, is in 9 sections, plus appendices. These 9 are:

1. Introduction. Which tells us that there have been floods and will be more floods and that this is natural, as well as caused by climate change (which is caused by us). It also tells us that Bradford Council is designated by law as the Lead Local Flood Authority for the district (and lists the laws in question). So. No strategy yet then.

2. CBMDC Powers and Duties. A list of statutory duties for Bradford Council. Still no strategy.

3. Risk Management Authorities. A list of authorities with a remit on flooding in the area — mostly Bradford Council, plus ‘strategic oversight’ from the Environment Agency (which, confusingly, is placed at the top of the diagram above CBMDC, as if they have ultimate responsibility, even though CBMDC is the “Lead Local Flood Authority”… Is someone passing the buck here…?). Btw, still no strategy…

4. Spatial Extent of Strategy. Which means, “here is a map of Bradford District”. The River Aire is named, as is the River Wharfe at the northern edge of the district. Mysteriously, no sign of Bradford Beck or any other river in Bradford itself… And still no sign of a strategy.

5. Sources of Flooding. A list of ways to get flooded and things in the district that are likely to flood. Thanks for that.

6. Historic Flooding within Bradford District. Tells us about flooding that has happened before. Mostly since 2000. Which, again – thanks for that – but this is not a future strategy.

7. Climate Change and Flood Risk. One paragraph on climate change being risky. “It is imperative,” it says here, “that plans and schemes are developed to better manage and adapt to any increased risk of local flooding.” Good. Where are they?

8. Objectives and Measures for Managing Local Flood Risk. This seems to be the bit that comes closest to any kind of strategy objectives. But everything here is couched in maddening generalisations which don’t appear to add up to very much of anything…

CBMDC wants to “improve understanding of flood risk”, we are told. It wants to “communicate flood risk to partners and stakeholders” (although many of the people at risk already know they are at risk, given that we just had Bradford’s worst flooding in living memory). CBMDC also wants to conduct “targeted maintenance”, but it doesn’t say where this maintenance should take place, and you would have hoped that they were doing targeted maintenance anyway..?

The crux of the matter is that they want to “reduce the impact of flooding”, “ensure appropriate development in Bradford District” (e.g. not building on flood plains), and “improve flood response and post flood recovery”. All of these are admirable goals, but they are just that — broad goals. There is absolutely no detail in this so-called “strategy” about how any of these generalised ambitions might be developed or pursued in future, in relation to specific locations or communities in the district.

9. Funding for Strategic Measures. A list of funding sources for when things need to be done, even though we have no idea what things might need to be done from this document.

So to sum up… there is no strategy here. There are lists of basic facts and existing circumstances, and there are some vague generalisations about intentions that could have been written any time in the last 20 years. None of which gives this reader any confidence at all that Bradford has anything resembling a plan to tackle flooding.

In my day job, at present, I am marking a lot of student essays. If I were grading this strategy document, it would get a very poor grade. Somewhere in the low 2.2 zone, perhaps, or maybe even third class. There’s a recitation of some basic facts, suggesting (as I often say to students in this area) “a very limited amount of research”. There’s also “a serious lack of critical thinking” in response to the facts gathered.

Go back. Revise. Resubmit.



HCR Dragons take on Bradford!

I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t been keeping the blog up to date much, but it would be remiss not to give a (belated) salute to all the good folk who participated in the Lord Mayor of Bradford’s annual Dragon Boat races last Saturday, May 7th. (apparently the biggest such mayor’s race in the country) The event took place on the River Aire beside Roberts Park, on the stretch of the river coming down from Hirst Mill. Here you can see some of the action on the riverbank in the park (looking across to the Boathouse and Salts Mill…).IMG_0880

This year, for the first time, there was a “home team” fielded by residents on the Higher Coach Road estate — which part of the course passes beside on its way to the park. The appearance of the “HCR Dragons” was thanks to the dogged determination of resident Ruth Bartlett (aka Eliza Ronksley), who persuaded the race organisers that there should be a place for a community group boat alongside all the boats from local businesses and others who had the money to pay the sizeable up front entry fee. She worked out a special arrangement that can hopefully set a precedent in future. IMG_0879

Here’s Ruth plotting race strategy with the HCR Dragons’ secret weapon, Mark Edwards — who like a few others in the boat is a “friend” to the HCR residents rather than actual resident himself. Mark lives up on Hirst Mill Crescent, and is a rowing coach with the Bradford Rowing Club. So he knows a few things about boat races, though he’s more used to travelling backwards than forwards… Note the team’s choice of colourful headgear to mark them out from the rest of the crowd…

IMG_0883And here they are getting ready to race! Love that headgear…


The race is on, coming round the bend by the cricket pavilion!

IMG_0885Here come those Dragons!


Nearly there!


The team gets its breath back after the mad paddling! There’s Ruth in the red life jacket, perhaps wondering why she started all this! But well done the Dragons.

IMG_0888For a team of almost complete novices, most of whom had never got in a boat like this before the day of the races, they did really well! The final scoreboard puts them 16th out of 45, a very respectable showing! And more to the point, everyone had fun…

IMG_0889Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be there on the day myself — a shame because I was hoping to do a bit of paddling myself. But it sounds like everyone had a blast. The photos above were all taken by John Milner and posted to the HCR Residents’ Group Facebook page — I hope he doesn’t mind me pirating them for this post. Well done everyone and onwards to next year! And hats off – especially – to Eliza Ronksley.