A 52-year-old water main failed and left 2,000 people without heating and hot water. Is privatisation to blame?
Plus, Garfield the Park Hill cat
Good afternoon readers — and welcome to our Monday briefing.
Acts of God have an unfortunate habit of coming along just at the wrong time. The fact that an unprecedented “gas flood” has taken place just as temperatures in Sheffield have plummeted feels like particularly bad luck. But is it just misfortune or is something more fundamental going on? Yorkshire Water has been criticised recently for failing to invest in the water network, something that critics say is the cause of the astonishing amount of water they waste though leaks every single year. Today we look at what caused the catastrophe and whether a political decision taken more than 30 years ago could be to blame.
As well as that we have a fantastic “psychogeographic map” of Sheffield, a dream house in Beauchief and a special matinee performance from everyone’s favourite ukulele band.
Don’t forget 🎄 We’re sending a free copy of North Country: An anthology of landscape and nature (worth £14.99) and a personal Christmas card from the team to anyone who either buys an annual gift subscription or buys an annual membership by Thursday (December 15th). The book contains pieces by writers from across the North including our regular contributor Dani Cole, Sheffield’s Sally Goldsmith and the “Bard of Barnsley”, Ian McMillan.
Catch up and coming up
For our weekend read I went to Barnsley to ask why figures show the South Yorkshire town is one of the most anxious and depressed places in England. You can read that piece here.
Last week we sent out two great newsletters to our 981 paying members. In the first, former Sheffield Telegraph journalist Ian Soutar set himself the challenge of finding people in the city who had migrated from as many countries competing in this year’s World Cup as possible. And in the second, Harry Shukman tried to find out why former Sheffield Hallam University academic Dr Shahd Abusalama no longer worked there. Did she jump or was she pushed? An extract from that first piece is below.
Karim Akbari Ghalehnovi combines his role as pastor of the Iranian Church in Sheffield with running the Persian Bakery on Ecclesall Road. As a Christian he is resigned to being an exile from Iran under the current regime — but he sees hopeful signs in the current protests that things might change. “The people are tired of this regime run by old Mullahs,” he tells me. “It is young people, especially women and girls, who are leading the discontent. I am sure this is not just a protest but a revolution.”
This week we’ll send out two more. In the first we’ll be asking our regular photographer Andy Brown to tell us about a selection of the favourite shots he’s taken over his career. And the second will be a piece by our regular contributor David Bocking about Sheffield’s terrible record on road safety, especially for children. To help fund a new way of doing journalism in Sheffield focused on serving readers rather than shareholders, please consider subscribing using the button below. It costs just £1.34 a week if you pay for 12 months up front.
Editor’s note: Thank you to everyone who has joined The Tribune in the last few months. You’ve given us a real boost just when we needed it. If you want to join our ever-growing band of paying members and be part of something that is changing the way journalism works, not only in Sheffield but across the country, we’d love to have you on board. Thank you.
The big picture: Winter wonderland ☃️
Sheffield’s beautiful Botanical Gardens in Broomhall looks stunning in the snow in this shot by benayozbayy on Instagram.
This week’s weather ☀️
Our weather forecast comes from dedicated Sheffield weather service Steel City Skies, who say the cold and icy conditions will continue along with the odd flurry of snow to begin with, before sunnier weather takes over from midweek.
Monday ☁ Some brightness but generally cloudy with the odd wintry flurry later. Light winds and very cold with highs of 0°C.
Tuesday ☁ Little change with potential for an early icy dusting before another often cloudy and cold day. Highs of 1°C.
Wednesday ☀ It is expected to be much brighter as cloud and flurries become restricted to coasts. A little breezier with 2°C the high.
Thursday ☀ Similarly sunny to Wednesday with many parts dry after a hard frost early and late. Highs of 2°C.
Friday ⛅ Start with some sun, though chance of increasing cloud from the west later on. Highs of 3°C.
Outlook: Slowly turning less cold (though still chilly!) for the weekend with low confidence on any wintry precipitation.
The big story: A 52-year-old water main failed and left 2,000 people without heating and hot water. Is privatisation to blame?
Top line: As the final few hundred households are finally reconnected to the gas system in Stannington and Malin Bridge, questions are turning to how we can ensure something like this can never happen again. Is Yorkshire Water’s lack of investment in the water network to blame?
‘Gas flood’: Thousands of people in two parts of Sheffield have been left without heating and hot water for over a week after an unprecedented “gas flood” 10 days ago. At 11pm on Friday, 2 December, a water main on Bankfield Lane in Stannington failed, tearing a hole in a nearby gas pipe and causing hundreds of thousands of litres of water to flood into the area’s gas network.
As well as cutting off gas supply to around 2,000 homes, the water burst gas meters and came out of household appliances, causing water damage to people’s homes.
Since then, a huge humanitarian operation has been underway in the affected areas to get food, electric heaters, and blankets and warm clothes to those who need them.
What caused it? In truth, we don’t yet know, although much attention has been focused on the failed water main, an “asbestos-cement” pipe which was laid way back in 1970. Asbestos-cement pipes, also known as transite, were phased out in North America in the late 1970s after they were found to be “soft and brittle”, particularly under impact loading from moving traffic. In an open letter to Yorkshire Water, Stannington Councillor Penny Baker said burst pipes had been an “ongoing nuisance” in the area for several years. She wrote:
This situation has been extremely upsetting for the residents of Stannington, and many of them have contacted me asking how this emergency was allowed to happen […] I believe this incident was not unforeseeable, and that if leaks in Stannington had been dealt with proactively the current emergency would have been avoided.
Is privatisation to blame? As with previous stories about leaks and sewage discharges into rivers, many have pointed the finger at the 1989 decision to privatise the industry. Privatisation was meant to ensure the water network would get the investment it needed. But this month, regulator Ofwat named Yorkshire Water as one of the six worst performing water companies in England and Wales.
This year, as well as posting profits of £242m, Yorkshire Water also paid £45m in dividends to their shareholders.
However, company director Neil Dewis said that they had invested £15m into Sheffield’s network to reduce leaks.
Our take: Yorkshire Water has featured a lot in The Tribune recently, with many of the stories focusing on what critics say is their lack of investment in the water and sewerage network in the county. While we still don’t know exactly what caused this leak, relying on 52-year-old technology that is known to be inadequate seems less than ideal. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that more than 70% of the water industry was owned by foreign firms and private equity. Public ownership campaign group We Own It said the revelation proved that the water industry was currently run in their interests rather than ours.
Home of the week 🏡
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom barn conversion in Beauchief dates back to the 1700s and is situated in around 17 acres of communal grounds. It is on the market for £475,000.
Tribune Tips: If you want to tell us about a story or give us some information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to speak to people off the record in the first instance, and we will treat your information with confidence and sensitivity. Get in touch.
Public service announcement 🐈
Many thanks to the Steel City Snapper for Tweeting about Garfield, the Park Hill cat. Garfield (not his real name), does have an owner who lives nearby, but what he really enjoys is basking in the sun on a patch of grass near the tram tracks. However, as people often assume he is a stray, his real owner has to keep retrieving him from the vets. If you see Garfield, please leave him where he is. He is very happy switching between his very loving home and his favourite spot outside the flats, where he is spoiled rotten by the residents.
Our media picks 🎧
Why Mud’s Good 🥾 A good piece on our regular contributor David Bocking’s personal newsletter about the importance of being conscious of where you go in the Peak District during the wetter winter months. People’s tendency to avoid puddles and mud at this time of year has the effect of widening footpaths and reducing the amount of space wildlife has to thrive. Paths and trails with a rocky or firm base should be the aim after heavy rain.
The people’s map of Sheffield 🏙️ The StoryTrails event came to Sheffield last summer, and now organisers have used the interviews they conducted and 3D technology to create a “psychogeographic representation” the city. The beautifully-produced film features a love letter to Arbourthorne, reveals the secrets of the Tiger Works toilets, and tells the story behind one of the most colourful Bears of Sheffield. It’s well worth 17 minutes of your time.
Wild Medicine 🪴 Another very well put together bit of media this week is this podcast all about nature in Sheffield. Wild Medicine has a unique “slow radio” style featuring ambient musical textures, site specific field recordings and a rich variety of spoken word recordings from stories and drama, to interviews and poetry. Contributors include Sheffield-based poet Sally Goldsmith and Steven Slack, who is currently writing a book about Edward Carpenter.
Things to do 📆
Film 🍿 Many thanks to brilliant listing website Our Favourite Places for pointing out that is-it-a-Christmas-film-or-isn’t-it Die Hard is on at three places in Sheffield this December. From 12-14 December, Bruce Willis’ John McClane can be seen taking on Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber at The Light on The Moor, followed by a screening at Sheffield Students’ Union on 16 December and another on 17 December at Sheffield General Cemetery. Yippee Ki Yay!
Carols 🎺 The Sheffield carol season is now well underway and this week you can join in with a special performance by Stannington Brass Band at the Punch Bowl in Crookes on Wednesday, 14 December. The band began performing way back in 1881 and this year won a national competition that will allow them to play in the brass band “Premier League” next year. I saw them at Grafters Bar in Kelham Island last week and can wholeheartedly recommend them.
Music 🎸 Sheffield legends Everly Pregnant Brothers have added a matinee performance at The Leadmill on Friday, 16 December after their evening show on the same day sold out. For anyone that doesn’t know (how could you not?), the ukulele supergroup perform special Sheffield versions of popular songs (e.g. No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley becomes No Oven No Pie and Yellow by Coldplay becomes Hendo’s). As you might expect, it’s hilarious.
‘En plein air’ 🥶
We love this picture of a science class being taken in the bracing winter air in Sheffield way back in 1935. The image is taken from a French photo archive and comes with the caption: “Une institutrice britannique donne un cours sur la structure du flocon de neige à sa classe en plein air, sous la neige le 23 février 1935 à Sheffield, Royaume-Uni”. Which, as I’m sure you all know translates as, “A British schoolteacher teaches a lesson on the structure of the snowflake to her classroom outdoors in the snow on February 23, 1935 in Sheffield, UK.” If any of our very knowledgeable readers knows which school it is, we’d love to know.