Video report by Granada Reports journalist Emma Sweeney
Rochdale’s so-called Seven Sisters tower blocks could yet be saved from demolition after the council announced it was to explore the possibility of buying back the landmark high-rises.
The College Bank flats have been owned and managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) since the local authority transferred its housing stock to the landlord in 2012.
However, relations between the council and the housing co-coperative have become increasingly strained over recent years, with RBH's proposals to drop four of the Seven Sisters as part of a regeneration ‘masterplan’ being fiercely criticised by councillors of all stripes.
RBH has previously said it would be ‘willing to facilitate the council taking on responsibility’ for the Seven Sisters, if it came forward with ‘a realistic alternative plan to generate the £90m-plus needed to fund the works to all seven blocks at College Bank’.
But now, in a surprise move, the government has given the council permission to again open a Housing Revenue Account (HRA) with no ‘legacy debt’ - opening the door to the council again owning and managing its own social housing stock.
It will now commission two reports - one that will explore the possibility bringing the Seven Sisters back under local authority ownership, and a second that will look into building council houses in the borough for the first time in 20 years.
Councillor Danny Meredith, whose motion - together with former councillor Sultan Ali - led to the decision, described the news as ‘absolutely amazing’.
He said: "When I saw that I was jumping for joy, the highways and housing chief told a meeting of the full council on Wednesday night.
"I’m so excited by what the borough can do in the next five to ten years and hope I can continue to do this portfolio for a number of years to bring this project forward."
Coun Meredith said it would be a six-to-12 month process that would also explore the possibility of the council taking on existing social housing that was ‘not being managed properly’.
"It is a radical step and, like I keep saying, it’s a very big step for the council,” he said. "But at least we’ve got the tools to do it now."
He continued: “I’m really excited by it. I think it’s going to provide a future for Rochdale borough residents - not just in Rochdale but in Heywood, Middleton and the Pennines as well. Moving forward, we can provide homes for people [who are currently living] in temporary accommodation and hostels or are sofa-surfing.
"It’s about providing decent homes for the people that live in Rochdale borough.”
Coun Meredith said the council was as yet ‘not committed’ to taking back the Seven Sisters and would await the findings of the officers' reports before deciding how to proceed.
But he believes the news will give ‘a little bit of hope’ for Seven Sisters residents, many of whom have been profoundly affected by the plan to demolish their homes.
His sentiments were echoed by resident Mark Slater, chair of the College Bank Support Group.
He said campaigners were ‘delighted’ that the local authority was now ‘taking action’ to bring College Bank back into its ownership.
“We have always maintained that the RBH proposal to demolish the blocks to ‘diversify the housing mix’ was wrong,” added Mark.
“We welcome the fact our council recognises that social housing should be about need, not profit. With 8,000 households and 19,000 people on the waiting list looking for homes, it was morally indefensible for any organisation that purports to serve tenants to propose the demolition of these iconic buildings, and destruction of a settled community.”
The group is now calling on RBH to honour its offer to hand College Bank back to council control in the event it came forward with a realistic plan, and also to ‘review their current activities, including threats of eviction, pressurising vulnerable residents to move out’.
Campaigners say RBH’s claim refurbishing the Seven Sisters would cost £90m is based upon a ‘totally unnecessary’ internal rebuild of each property, rather than continuing with the ‘cyclical renewals’ the homes have historically enjoyed.
“With this very positive news from Rochdale Council, College Bank must now begin to receive the care and attention which this community deserves,” Mark added.
“Rochdale council can look forward to rehousing many people from expensive and inappropriate temporary accommodation, or unsuitable damp and dilapidated private homes.”
The College Bank Support Group has now urged RBH to work with the council ‘to ensure that the iconic Seven Sisters will continue to stand tall and proud on the Rochdale skyline’.
However RBH says that despite councillors talking about an alternative funding approach for College Bank for two years, nothing has come forward.
A spokesperson said: "It is misleading and unfair to the remaining residents to suggest that there is an alternative plan to invest what is needed to keep the blocks safe and decent, when no plan is forthcoming.
"If the council does have any viable and funded alternative proposals, then these need to immediately be shared with both residents and RBH."
The landlord says it wants to work alongside the council and other housing associations to increase the supply of social housing in Rochdale - and its offer of meeting the support group 'remains open'.
However, a spokesperson added: "We are sad and disappointed that once again unsubstantiated and false accusations have been made against RBH team members.
"Our team members working to support residents to move are hard-working, dedicated, caring, and professional.
"The blocks at College Bank were designed and built to standards typical for the 1960s, and as a result share many of the same problems associated with blocks of this age.
"Across the country many similar blocks have been demolished - including blocks owned by both local councils and housing associations."
RBH stresses it has been working hard since 2019 'supporting residents' to move from the blocks earmarked for demolition - with Mitchell Hey and Town Mill Brow being 90% and 70% empty respectively.
The mutual says is currently 'working hard' on proposals for the multi-million-pound refurbishment of the Underwood, due to start on site next year.
"This refurbishment has a budget of £12m and will ensure this block can provide good quality, sustainable homes at College Bank for current residents and future generations," an RBH spokesperson added.