Rochdale, Seven Sisters at College Bank
Rochdale councillors have risen-up against a regeneration scheme by Rochdale Borough Housing which threatened to demolish over 700 social rented homes, with no promise as to the number of social rent homes to replace them.

The councillors and residents of the College Bank and Lower Fallinge estates are calling for the demolitions to be halted.

When Mark Slater moved into his flat in one of the skyline dominating “Seven Sisters” tower blocks in Rochdale five and a half years ago, the furniture he brought with him extended to a camp bed and garden chair. Having fallen on hard times, prior to securing the flat he had been sleeping on his dad’s floor for six months. Today, the 67-year-old credits the socially rented flat there for helping him build his life back together and set up his now thriving kitchen business.

So when in 2017 he received a knock on his door from a group of local residents asking him to sign a petition opposing Rochdale Borough Housing’s (RBH) proposed demolition of four of the seven blocks, he was more than happy to add his signature. Soon after he joined Save College Bank, a residents group set up to save the towers on the estate and began knocking on neighbours’ doors himself, encouraging them to add their names to the petition.

Four of the Seven Sister’s tower blocks are marked for demolition: Town Mill Brow, Mitchell Hey, Tentercroft and Dunkirk Rise. The remaining three towers, Holland Rise, Underwood and Mardyke, would be refurbished under the current plans.

Mark Slater of Rochdale
Mark Slater

Mark, who lives in Mardyke block, is just one resident on the College Bank estate who has been fighting against the proposed regeneration plans since they were announced in 2017. And after years of feeling like they’re on the back foot in their battle with the housing association, their campaign is at last breaking through. At the end of March 2020, 57 of Rochdale’s 60 councillors put their names on an open letter demanding RBH halt demolition of College Bank and neighbouring Lower Falinge until residents’ concerns have been met. Then last week 56 academics, artists and campaigners, including film director Ken Loach, issued a letter backing the councillors’ demands and mirroring their concerns.

Rochdale, Regeneration and RBH

RBH has managed the College Bank and Lower Falinge estates since 2012 and first announced its proposed regeneration of the two estates five years later. Slickly designed documents explaining the plans for College Bank from 2017 promise ‘a better mix and quality of homes’ and show photos of light, modern homes RBH proposes to replace the four tower blocks with, complete with parking spaces and back gardens.

The three tower blocks which are being kept are promised new balconies, windows and kitchens. These documents were used during consultations with residents about the plans in 2017 and with their pretty photos and promises of “positive changes in the lives of residents,” it’s easy to see the attraction of the regeneration proposed by RBH.

When it comes to the number of homes and the type of tenure that will replace the demolished homes, RBH are much harder to pin down.

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To replace the reported 528 flats to be lost under the proposed  tower block demolitions and refurbishments at College Bank, RBH has said it will build 120 new homes on the site.

At the Lower Fallinge estate, primarily composed of four storey deck access blocks, 244 flats in 16 blocks lost to demolition are to be replaced with 560 new homes, the Manchester Evening News reported. Five of these blocks have already been demolished and construction has only started on 55 of these new homes so far.

In total 772 mainly social rent homes are at risk of being lost under RBH’s current plans, with no promises as to how many of the new builds will be at social rent. RBH have previously stated that they “aim to provide as many housing options as possible for residents, including homes for social and affordable rent and affordable homes for sale” without providing any figures for the different types of tenure.

Affordable rent homes, and affordable homes for sale, are charged at up to 80 percent of the market rate. Social rent homes can be significantly cheaper, down to 50% of the market rents in some cases, and also have more secure often life-long tenancies.

Back in October 2017, RBH said that their plans “could result in a net addition of around 500 new homes” across the two estates – but they have so far failed to account for the figure. Even if the proposed 560 new flats at Lower Falinge and 120 homes at College Bank were built there would still be a net loss of 92 homes.

Nor has RBH guaranteed that residents with social tenancies who are forced to move will be able to keep the same tenancies in their new homes. Rochdale’s social housing waiting list is growing by 15O households per week according to the open letter signed by councillors. Meanwhile 28% of households in the borough are living in temporary accommodation, three times the national average of 8%.

Faced with losing over 700 social rent homes (some of the 772 homes are privately owned due to Right to Buy sales), residents like Mark and councillors are alarmed by the fact RBH hasn’t said how many new homes on the site will be for social rent.

Housing opportunities

Mark fears that the loss of social housing on the estates, which the regeneration proposals in their current vagueness risk, could deprive Rochdale locals in the future of the opportunities his flat gave him. He said:

“Before I moved into my flat, I was technically homeless. I was living on my dad’s floor and I was just so grateful to get this flat. It helped me build my life again. It gave me an opportunity that so many other people have had because of the existence of these flats.

“Before Mardyke I was pulling the cushions off my dad’s sofa so that I had something like a pillow when I slept on the floor. I moved into this flat with a camp bed and a garden chair. If this was taken away from the community that sort of opportunity for people would be gone for good.”

At 67 years-of-age Mark has been living in College Bank for 12 years, in three separate stints. He moved into his current flat in Mardyke block over five years ago. In 2016 former prime minister David Cameron dubbed neighbouring Lower Falinge a sink estate that he pledged to bulldoze.

Many residents –including the 600 who signed the petition against the regeneration plans – like living on both estates and have done so for years. RBH says the high-rise flats are not appropriate for housing families with children – a sentiment it says the local council shares.

However, when the flats were built at College Bank in 1965, they were designed for families who had previously lived in Victorian housing on the site known as The Paddock, as part of the government’s post-war slum clearance policy.  Mark has many reasons for wanting to stay in his home:

“I love my flat… Everybody on the estate loves their flats. The Seven Sisters mean a lot to me. It’s more than just memories. When you come down back to Rochdale, you can see the Seven Sisters from the moors and you know you’re coming home to Rochdale.

“My motivation to fight for the flats is a lady called Beryl, who used to live on the estate. She was 83 years old and a staunch advocate of the campaign to save the flats. She would go to campaign meetings and she was so stressed by the campaign and the possibility of losing the flats. She ended up having a stroke and died. She used to have nightmares that the flats had gone. She would wake up from them and look out of the window to see if any of the buildings had got knocked down.”

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Decline and gentrification

Ben Clay, 43, is a board member of Tenants Union UK, a group which has helped residents opposed to RBH’s plans organise their campaign. He accuses RBH of pursuing a policy of “managed decline” on College Bank to justify the need to demolish the four tower blocks and gentrify the area. One of RBH’s justifications for the demolition scheme is that the blocks are in such bad condition they don’t have the money to refurbish all of them, saying it would cost more than £90 million, having previously quoted Rochdale council £70 million. Ben, who is also a Labour councilor for Burnage in Manchester, 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.”

So far RBH have not provided a breakdown of the £90 million figure, despite being asked for one by councillors, including Daniel Meredith, 28, who is chair of Rochdale council’s scrutiny committee for regeneration. RBH justifies the proposals by saying it conducted “hundreds of face-to-face and online conversations conducted with the local community” prior to the demolition scheme being announced.

Daniel Meredith Rochdale councillor
Daniel Meredith

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.”

Rochdale Borough Housing responds

A spokesperson from Rochdale Borough Housing responded to The Meteor’s questions regarding the concerns raised in the councillors’ open letter to them:

“We understand and appreciate the concerns raised in the letter and welcome any constructive discussion about the future of the town centre and its residents. We have been working with the local community and Rochdale Council since 2016 and recently met with senior Councillors to work together on an assessment of proposals.

“We have carried out extensive and comprehensive engagement with the community since 2016, although we are aware of a small but vocal group of residents and outside activists who claim to speak for the entire community.

“There are currently no homeless families from Rochdale Borough in Bed and Breakfast accommodation, with all homeless families currently housed and supported in furnished homes or our specialist homeless families unit.

“RBH, the community, and the Council all agree that both the quality and the mix of homes in the town centre do not meet the needs of current or future residents. Our proposals are about increasing the overall number of genuinely affordable homes in the town centre. We are investing in existing homes to make sure they continue to be safe and decent, and we are building new homes, including the family houses with gardens, which the community have told us are desperately needed.

“On our latest development of new homes in Lower Falinge, which started on site in March, all 55 homes are for rent at genuinely affordable rent. The rents for the new two bedroom houses with gardens are lower than the rents for a two bedroom flat in College Bank.”

Previous 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.”

The future of RBH’s plans for College Bank and Lower Falinge may now hinge on its willingness to comply with demands set out in Daniel Meredith’s open letter, co-signed with other councillors. The letter asks RBH to stipulate the number of socially rented homes it will build on the site and to guarantee that those forced to move can keep their social tenancies. If not, the council will investigate taking the two estates back from RBH and running them in a co-op model with residents.

The council has not yet said how it would fund such a model, but Daniel Meredith says it can only do that when RBH provides a breakdown of the £90 million refurbishment figure and release details about maintenance of the tower bocks. RBH has so far refused to provide that breakdown.

With 95% of Rochdale councillors coming out against the regeneration, and growing concern over the chronic loss of social housing and its knock on effect on homelessness and poor private rental sector housing conditions, RBH’s plans to destroy hundreds of social rent homes without any promise to replace them may have to be reconsidered.

Robert Firth

Read The Meteor’s article on this issue from 2017 – ‘Rochdale regeneration or profit before people?

This article is part of the ‘Raising the Roof on Housing‘ series. The housing investigation theme for this series was voted as the winner of a shortlist by Meteor Community Members

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Featured image: Flickr

Article amendment 12 May 2020: the article originally stated that RBH had not responded to The Meteor’s request for comment at the time of publication. They had replied but this had been missed in the editorial process. RBH’s response has now been added in full.

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