Save the Seven Sisters

Rochdale Council’s housing stock was transferred to Rochdale Borough-wide Housing, set up as a mutual, in 2012. Tenants voted by 3 to 1 in favour though the turnout was only 56%. RBH has proposed a ‘regeneration’ for the College Bank site which involves the demolition of four of the seven tower blocks, known as the Seven Sisters. Tenants who live there set up the Save the Seven Sisters campaign to oppose demolition. Mark Slater (pictured), chair of the campaign, explains the back ground. We also include some comments from Ben Clay from the Tenants Union UK, which is supporting the tenants, and Councillor Danny Meredith. Ben is also Chair of the Labour Campaign for Council Housing.

It was probably Beryl that did it for me. She was 82 years young. She knocked on my door early one evening in 2016, holding a petition opposing the demolition of our homes. Beryl, like me was a tenant of College Bank; 7 tower blocks of mostly social housing that have become iconic as far as the image of Rochdale is portrayed. Having been made aware of the landlord’s plans to demolish 4 of the 7 blocks, and in fact having attended some of the sparsely attended “consultations” that had taken place, I was happy to pledge my opposition, and in doing so became a friend of Beryl.

The petition generated some 600 signatures from an estate of approximately 750 households. It was presented to full Council and got great support from across all parties. Such council support for our campaign remains to this day.

The cold facts of this project are that the suggested demolition would mean the loss of approximately 480 homes with the remaining 3 blocks (270 homes) being “reconfigured” with tenants being told to move out while this work is being carried out.

There would be a minimum of 480 homes lost to a Community that has over 7,000 people on the waiting list for a home. There have been no plans presented, even to Council, for what would replace the blocks. There is no visible funding in place for either demolition or development. There has been no reference at all to the environmental cost of the demolition and subsequent new build. Yet even given all this RBH has been pressuring the occupants of the first targeted block to relocate.

In February 2020 a report was published by “FutureGov” which stated that “Rochdale Housing services are at a tipping point, where demand is increasing for Social Housing and temporary accommodation”.

Let’s just talk about who these people are. The blocks are located in the Town Centre, with ramps at all entrances so the access to shops couldn’t be better for individuals with mobility issues. Hospitals and Doctors surgeries are within easy reach so it is probably no surprise that there is a large elderly part of the community. A few of these have taken advantage and purchased their homes. This is, or was to be their “forever” home whether owned or rented. If they are in the position of owning then they are, at their age, faced with limited options

  1. Take the c£50,000 on offer and try to buy something equivalent locally, which is not realistic in any way
  2. Use the £50,000 as a deposit and fund or get a mortgage on a new home. Bearing in mind most of this group are retired and some in their 90’s, this again is not viable, or
  3. Go into a rented home with an additional drain on their income.

The support networks of friends, families, neighbours, carers etc. would be completely disrupted. Then there are a group of people that are vulnerable, some with mental health issues, some with substance abuse issues, that are taking their first steps to becoming a valid part of society again. This group are also under the same pressures to uproot with a sometimes devastating impact on their lives. There are also a proportion of refugees who have found peace and sanctuary on the estate and finally members of the Community that are families and hard-working individuals.

So, in summary, the Seven Sisters are under pressure at a time when social housing is very much in the headlines as being in desperate need nationally. Individuals are being promised that they will be found suitable homes with ongoing support but finding the reality is far from that. Members of our borough wide community are living in cramped overcrowded conditions, with relatives, sofa surfing with friends, in bed and breakfast or hostels, or indeed genuinely homeless and on the streets. While this is the situation for many thousands of people across the borough, on College Bank alone there are c 300 empty and perfectly viable home, approximately 1,600 in the Borough overall. Rochdale in fact had the biggest rise in empty homes across the whole of Greater Manchester to 2020, up 68%.

On the estate elderly and vulnerable individuals are being forced to uproot their whole lives against their wishes. This situation cannot be described as anything but inexcusable, unacceptable and disgraceful. Losing Social Housing can NEVER be the solution.

Back to Beryl. Beryl was a very active member of our campaign, canvassing, leaflet dropping and encouraging us all. She made us laugh out loud and smile whenever she was with us. She told us of a nightmare she had, waking in the middle of the night she had to jump out of bed and go to the window to check that the block opposite hadn’t been demolished; always thinking and worrying about her home, the estate overall and the campaign. Sadly at the beginning of December 2019 Beryl suffered a stroke and died. Her last years, which should have been quiet and peaceful, were torn by worry, stress and upset about her home.

There are many Beryls on our estate. It is for them and the members of our wider community that we will continue the fight against this disgraceful and anti-social project.

Mark Slater

Chair, College Bank Support Group

A policy of managed decline

Ben Clay said:

“The estates are a pretty good place to live. The idea of College Bank or Lower Falinge being a sink estate, it’s just nonsense. The regeneration is part of naming areas as failed and failing. It’s a policy of managed decline. There are windows that’ve been left broken on the estate. If you leave somewhere to become untidy and rubbish strewn it reflects on the area and it brings people down and encourages certain types of behaviour.

It has attracted teenagers to throw stones and people are still living there and they’ve felt scared. I believe the plan has always been about demolishing parts of the estate to do a gentrification process. They’ve ridden roughshod over the feelings of local people.”

However, documents from resident consultations show that in the first event they held with people in February 2017, most said they preferred the option of refurbishing the tower blocks, compared to other options involving demolition. In the second consultation the following month, refurbishment of the flats without demolition was the option with greatest consensus among residents, with 67% of them either liking or feeling neutral towards it.

For Ben Clay such consultations are mere window dressing:

“It’s a bit like Goldilocks. The presented options were preserve and modernise, build brand new after knocking all down, and somewhere in the middle. They present people with three options, three bowls: this bowl is too hot, this bowl is too cold and this one is just right. And based on their [RBH] evidence, people think it’s a compromise and that knocking down the whole estate would have been worse, but RBH wouldn’t have got funding for that. RBH has got a sword of Damocles held above the heads of people who’ve been living on the estate for 30-40 years or longer. It’s totally unacceptable and inhuman.”

Broken promises on social housing

Fears about the loss of social housing have precedent in previous regeneration schemes RBH has carried out in the Rochdale borough. In 2017 RBH bulldozed thirteen of seventeen blocks at the Angel Meadow flats in Heywood, leading to the loss of 158 social rent homes. At the time RBH said that it intended to replace these flats with 50 family homes. But councillor Daniel Meredith says RBH have failed to keep their promises on affordable housing in such schemes:

“RBH knocked down social housing in my area before and the houses were never rebuilt. I always had a bugbear with them for that. We’ve seen housing got rid of in Heywood and we’ve not seen regeneration plans put in place. Councillors agreed for housing in Heywood to be knocked down because they thought they would get more social housing and better housing, but it hasn’t happened.
I’ve spoken to people who have been forced to moved back in with their parents. It’s horrible to see what happened in Heywood and I don’t want to see the same happen in College Bank and Lower Falinge.”

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