Rochdale, Seven Sisters at College Bank

When Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) announced its simultaneous proposals for the regeneration of College Bank and Lower Falinge, on the 24 June, they were presented as the only solution and as somehow being radical. The proposals are certainly radical in terms of demolition. There will be an estimated loss of 720 primarily social rent properties under these proposals, with no guarantee of the number of social rent homes to replace them in the proposed 680 new build properties. The plans are being presented as a benefit to the community, but many residents disagree and are taking a stand against them.

Members of Rochdale borough council are also speaking out against the proposals. Neil Emmot, council cabinet member for housing, says the proposal “smacks of social cleansing” and was appalled at how presentations given by RBH “focused on how many people are on benefits and how many people are poor round that area”. Emmot went on to say:

“We’re all in favour of regeneration but regeneration should be for everybody, regardless of income, regardless of background. We’re not going to have proper regeneration simply by sweeping people on lower incomes under the carpet.”

The current regeneration proposals will see four of the seven tower blocks, known locally as the Seven Sisters, being being demolished. These four 21 storey blocks at College Bank containing a total of 476 flats, will be replaced with 120 new homes. Lower Falinge will lose around 244 flats in four storey deck access blocks, with up to 560 new homes being built in their place. This leaves a loss of around 40 homes, yet RBH have mysteriously claimed the proposals “could result in a net increase of 500 homes”.

Rochdale Borough Housing are particularly vague on the type of housing that will be built, stating on their website for the development “We would aim to provide as many housing options as possible for residents, including homes for social and affordable rent and affordable homes for sale.“

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.

Community benefit or corporate strategy?

A document, recently used as part of a presentation to sell these proposals to tenants, was catchily entitled “Developing the Next RBH Corporate Strategy- April 2017-January 2018- developing a ten year vision for RBH”. The thoughts of the board presented here are significant. These include, “…re-imagining existing provision for new markets” and “…to create more stable, economically mixed communities by re-configuring the housing offer…”with last but not least “…to focus on delivering high quality, affordable homes for the people of Rochdale.”

Although RBH attempts to position itself as somehow unique, as a co-owned mutual housing society, it is the board who are driving this process, which is clearly about profits and presenting an attractive prospect to potential investors.

These proposals are part of a £250 million Rochdale Council regeneration strategy, which involves investment in infrastructure and in new shopping, leisure and commercial areas, all part of the core strategy and locality plan. All ten Greater Manchester boroughs have these local plans, in addition to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which is presently receiving an overhaul at the behest of Mayor Burnham.

The housing element of the Rochdale Locality Plan, the part that RBH is expected to deliver, favours demolition over refurbishment, despite refurbishment often being preferred by the residents affected. In the case of College Bank and Lower Falinge demolition is presented as the only alternative. The level of consultation has so far been inadequate, The former Mayor of Rochdale Robin Parker said of it, “the consultation was a fraud, RBH had their agenda from the start.”

Regeneration failures

Similar development schemes in Greater Manchester do not inspire hope. Regeneration plans for Broughton, Langworthy and Lower Kersal in Salford, which have similar levels of deprivation to areas like Lower Falinge, were not successful in reducing their scores in the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2015 (IMD). In fact Lower Kersal was the worst performing ward in Salford, dropping five places in the rankings since 2004, despite being part of the New Deal For Communities £53 million regeneration program.

Ordsall ward, which includes Salford Quays, did improve its score in the IMD 2015. But this was not due to improvements in the life of local people, it was down to the “massive influx of young professionals” according to the Salford Star. For all the investment on the supposed ‘regeneration’ in Salford, the IMD 2015 shows that Salford is the 22nd most deprived local authority area in England.

In the same index Rochdale was ranked just below Salford, so slightly less deprived, with 38 of its neighbourhoods in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in England. Lower Falinge is the 33rd most deprived area in England according to these indices, out of 32844 neighbourhoods.

London has many examples of failed regeneration projects. One of the worst is Woodberry Down in Hackney, a public/private partnership with Hackney Council and Berkeley Homes, which has caused chaos for the previously settled working class community, who have been peremptorily moved in favour of more affluent residents.

Financialisation of housing

The government’s Estate Regeneration Strategy (ERS) has provided the initial cash for the consultations currently taking place, a total of £563K. The ERS is the culmination of, then PM, David Cameron’s announcements in 2016 to ‘blitz’ poverty by bulldozing the homes of the poor. He used the derogatory term of sink estates to describe estates such as Lower Falinge, demonising the areas and there residents.

The strategy includes a document concerned with resident engagement and protection, which states that training that enables residents to engage with all the technical and financial information they need to make informed decisions should be made available. In this case they haven’t. The residents have been given incomplete guidance thus far, with refurbishment mentioned but not presented as an alternative. And the guide to finance and delivery lays out plainly the profit motive underlying this:

“….Historically estate regeneration schemes have almost always relied upon government grant funding.A major ambition of the new approach to estate regeneration, is to explore and promote innovative methods of financing estate regeneration that encourages greater private investment and reduces reliance on the public purse….”[emphasis added].

The proposals are for 120 properties to be built on the College Bank site, and up to 560 on the Lower Falinge site. These are likely to be ‘rent to buy’ and ‘affordable’, in line with government strategy, although RBH are vague on the exact figures, which will probably become clearer when planning permission is applied for.

Looking at the proposals in the context of the government’s estate regeneration strategy, it is clear that these proposals are not about providing high quality social housing for people in need. The cutting of grants to local government, which in turn has led to the continuing cuts in essential services, including adult care, care for the elderly, waste collection, roads, is another crucial factor here.

The strategy of building properties at a higher rent and a higher council tax band may increase council tax take, but at the expense of poorer and more vulnerable tenants who will inevitably be priced out of their communities.

Future prospects?

There are encouraging signs that significant numbers of people living in both communities aren’t happy about the proposals as they stand. An action group opposing the proposals has already been formed by residents of College Bank, and the formation of a similar group is also underway on Lower Falinge.

A public meeting at local community church St Mary’s in the Baum on the 8 September, facilitated by Greater Manchester Housing Action, drew a heartening number of people from across the highly diverse communities involved. This struggle is one that is likely to be repeated all over Greater Manchester as people fight for the future of their communities, and the existence of social housing.


David Fenwick-Finn

Featured image: Flickr

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