Seven: unlucky
for some

A regeneration battle is brewing in Rochdale over plans to demolish some of the town’s estates

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Like many residents of Rochdale’s College Bank high-rises – the “Seven Sisters” that dominate the Greater Manchester town’s skyline – Audrey Middlehurst got a shock on 24 June when she visited a workshop put on by the local housing association.

The event was the latest in a series organised by the landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), to discuss the future of the Sisters and a neighbouring estate, Lower Falinge.

Last November, RBH warned “some demolition” of both estates was possible. Waning popularity, it said, means flats cost more to maintain than they are bringing in in rent.

The issue of whether people want to be rescued is a bone of contention

Options subsequently presented to residents included minor or more widespread redevelopment, as well as refurbishment. As late as 31 May, the housing association was insisting “no decision” had been made.

But by the time of the workshop three weeks later, it had produced information boards advocating that four of the Sisters and most of Lower Falinge be torn down and replaced in a 20-year scheme. Other options, RBH said, were unsustainable.

“We were horrified when we went in that day,” says Middlehurst, a retired teacher, from the two-bed flat where she’s been since 1989. She’s fond, she says, of her home’s spaciousness and the views from the steeply sloping site. At 82, she now faces an uncertain future.

Middlehurst and her neighbours are not the only ones. College Bank and Lower Falinge are among 105 English estates to which the government awarded cash from the new Estate Regeneration Fund earlier this year.

Unlike some previous government programmes, such as Labour’s Pathfinder, in which saw thousands of mostly privately-owned terraces razed across the North and Midlands, this money isn’t directly funding wrecking balls.

Instead the relatively small pot – £32 million in grants plus £140 million in loans – is mostly paying for consultations, neighbourhood “masterplanning” and hiring in other expertise to help smooth schemes’ progress.

But back in January 2016, when then PM David Cameron unveiled the initiative, its overarching intent was clear. Writing in the Sunday Times, he referred to bulldozing “sink estates” of “brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers”.

The government’s money – plus, crucially, private finance to do the heavy lifting of redevelopment – Cameron said, would help rescue people from places where those “who could afford to move have understandably done so”.

As it has been elsewhere in the country, the issue of whether people want to be rescued is a bone of contention on both sides of Spotland Road, which separates the Seven Sisters from Lower Falinge’s deck-access blocks.

In March, RBH produced a set of charts apparently showing finely balanced opinions on College Bank between refurbishing all the blocks and the “rethink” option that is being pursued. Similar graphs for Falinge seem to demonstrate support for widespread demolition.

But RBH’s director of communities Clare Tostevin admits only about 300 residents have had their say, across two estates comprising 1,200 homes – though she says that’s not for lack of trying.

As well as the consultation events, Tostevin says people were invited to feed back “via our website and Facebook page, or talk to us in person”.

Government guidelines published last year recommend seeking majority resident approval when neighbourhoods are to be redeveloped. But they only advocate a formal ballot when the entirety of an estate is to be knocked down.

Robin Parker, Rochdale’s former mayor and, like Middlehurst a long-time College Bank resident, calls the consultation a “fraud”. The phrasing of questionnaires produced by RBH were “geared towards [answers] they wanted to hear – and even so people didn’t give them that”, he adds.

A petition started by Parker and other members of the Save Seven Sisters group he founded has attracted well over 500 resident signatures. The group argues that the towers provide “excellent quality” homes and just need a bit of investment and imagination to revive their fortunes.

It’s a slightly different story over on Falinge, where Andy Littlewood, chair of the local residents’ association, says an informal survey of 200 residents he carried out resulted in a 56 per cent yes vote for major demolition. He mentions problems such as damp and mould, which have made homes unpopular, and says RBH has been “open and above board”.

But Andy Roche, who used to be a tenants’ rep too, says Falinge has been allowed to deteriorate. He points out the differences between 10 blocks that have been recently done up – and will be retained – and the rest, where railings are unpainted and old cable boxes dangle from stairwells.

The costs of fixing things on the estates – which, RBH warned, could result in higher service charges for residents – is one reason given for considering demolition, although it has not released detailed figures.

Emmett says the Rochdale housing association must “present a watertight case for demolition”

Welfare reform is another factor. Housing benefit changes, such as the bedroom tax and the incoming cap on how much under-35s can claim, have given social landlords major headaches over what homes they can offer to whom. These obstacles mean many people can no longer afford the rents and flats are left empty. As this article was being written, several flats on Lower Falinge were available on a “first come, first served” basis on RBH’s Homechoice website.

It was however the carrot of outside investment that accelerated the decision in June. Tostevin has previously expressed a desire for the regeneration to plug this part of Rochdale into Manchester’s boom, generating jobs, diversifying housing and attracting newcomers to an area that’s been a regular target of “welfare ghetto” headlines in the tabloids.

She says: “Market testing showed that a big, bold approach would deliver the most new homes, and the best quality homes for existing and future residents.”

The shape of those new homes and who will live in them is still uncertain at this stage. But those factors, and the likely reduction in social tenancies, are concerns. Roche says he fears tenants being “pushed out” of familiar, secure homes close to town.

Back at College Bank, Parker adds that because the three Sisters set to be retained will be redesigned inside, every resident of the towers will have to move – something RBH will neither confirm nor deny.

Last month, Parker presented his petition to Rochdale Council. Neil Emmett, cabinet member for housing, says the housing association must “present a watertight case for demolition” at College Bank and Lower Falinge, which used to be council-owned. “I don’t believe they’ll be able to do so,” he adds.

Over the coming months and before formally seeking any planning permissions, RBH will be visiting everyone on the estates to discuss the details of its plans further. “These meetings will also help us to tailor accommodation for tenants and leaseholders should they need to move, and ensure that their needs are met,” Tostevin says.

Relocating people won’t come cheap. Even before any demolition costs are factored in, RBH must pay tenants who move £5,800 compensation apiece.

People who have bought their homes, meanwhile, will be offered the market value plus 10 per cent. Questions remain over how much choice – even in Rochdale, where housing is cheap – that will give them over finding somewhere new. But for some, it’s clear the money isn’t the sticking point.

“I’m 73 now,” says Parker. “I intended to die in here and that’s what I’m fighting for.”

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