Towers on the hill: The dwindling life of Rochdale's 'Seven Sisters'

How an eccentric experiment in social housing ran out of road

By Joshi Herrmann

The Quinns moved into their flat in the summer of 1970, straight after they got married. Karen was 18 and Kevin was 23.

They decorated it "quite wild — quite young," says Karen, and in the fashionable colours of the time. The doorframes were purple, and the wallpaper was orange. And that wallpaper was on the doors. "We had this crazy idea that it would be too boring and conventional to paint the doors and wallpaper the walls so we did it the other way round," says Kevin. In a washed-out picture from the time they pose in front of one of the offending doors, grinning at the photographer, Karen in black and Kevin wearing a wide moustache and a turquoise shirt with a matching turquoise tie.

Karen got the 7.30 bus every morning from Rochdale to Manchester, where she worked as a comptometer operator at G.B. Ollivant on Whitworth Street, a Unilever subsidiary handling imports and exports to and from Africa. Kevin had just started a new job teaching at a primary school in Chadderton. He got the bus too, until the couple had saved up enough to buy a second-hand Triumph sports car.

The flat was on the fourteenth floor of Holland Rise, one of the so-called Seven Sisters — the tower blocks that dominate the centre of Rochdale from College Bank. "It was our own home in the sky," says Kevin, who always knew what time it was from the clocktower of Rochdale's beautiful gothic town hall in the valley below. Their council rent was £4 a week, cheap enough that they could save for a deposit for their first house.

"It gave us a good start in life," says Karen. "We were happy there. In those days, lots of flats were over shops or had bad landlords or they weren't very pleasant." The flats in the Seven Sisters were spacious and up to date — they had been built in the mid-Sixties. "We thought this was great, being able to get a flat with all these modern conveniences," she says, referring to the underfloor heating that kept the flats beautifully warm. Lots of the other tenants were like them — young people who were making their own lives for the first time.

In the evenings they went to the ABC Cinema, which is now a very popular Wetherspoons, or the nightclub in the Wellington Hotel. It was easy to walk home to their town centre flat, except when national events intervened. During the miners' strike in the winter of 1972, when pickets at the power stations led Ted Heath to ration energy, they would sometimes have to walk up fourteen flights of stairs if their area of Rochdale was scheduled to be without power. "It was a bit like the Covid tiers," says Kevin, "You would be assigned Rota A or B. You might be on Rota A today, so you had a six-hour power cut."

The entrance halls to all seven blocks had murals by a local artist. "It was quite posh at the time," says Karen. "We were quite proud to bring people there. Our friends thought it was wonderful!" The flats were "beautifully kept," — with a caretaker's flat on the ground floor. "It never ever felt unsafe," she says. "I never felt intimidated at all."

Why would she make a point of the fact that she never felt unsafe? Because the reputation of the towers is very different now. Kevin and Karen were part of a radical experiment in social housing, one that reflected the ideals of the postwar era, and that rapidly ran out of road. Their story illustrates how things have changed at the Seven Sisters — and how things have changed in British society too.

The blocks are darkening

As it stands, the Seven Sisters are set to become three sisters. Four of the blocks are earmarked for demolition, on the basis that updating all seven of them will cost too much — £90m is the figure quoted. Instead, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), the cooperative housing association that took over the council's housing stock, wants to upgrade just three of them, and replace the others with a different mix of homes. There are currently 473 tenants and 32 leaseholders in the Seven Sisters, as well as 17 flats being used as temporary accommodation. And then 241 flats are empty.

The regeneration plan has caused a bitter row in Rochdale. 57 of the town's 60 councillors have signed a letter opposing the plan to demolish the blocks and threatening to take them back under council control by forming a cooperative with the residents. There is a strong campaign led by residents who say they really like their flats, and just want them to be better maintained. An assortment of minor celebrities have joined the cause too, with film director Ken Loach and ex-Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall signing a letter calling for an "immediate and indefinite" halt to the demolition plans.

How can any council permit the destruction of perfectly adequate housing when it has almost 7,000 residents on its housing list, opponents ask? And that's before considering the environmental cost, and the loss of some of the town's most distinctive buildings. Plus, isn’t high-rise living proving rather popular over in Manchester?

Nevertheless, week by week the blocks are darkening. Fewer windows light up at night now than they did a year ago. One of the towers, Mitchell Hey, is now 71% empty, as residents are encouraged to leave by the housing association. "Paid off" and "bribed" are the words used by residents who are refusing to go.

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"I'm not prepared to deal with them," says Robin Parker, who bought his flat for £23,000 in 2005 (“Them” are RBH). Other leaseholders have been offered amounts between £50,000 and £80,000 to leave, and council tenants have been paid figures closer to £5,000. "A lot of the young people have taken the money and run," says Parker, who is 76 and has lived in his flat for 31 years. He takes part in regular Zoom calls with other residents who are fighting the demolitions, all dialling in from their flats in the sky. There were about 20 residents on the last call a few weeks ago. "It's not what I need at this time of my life," he says. "For no good reason be told that I have to leave my home."

Others on the estate — and recently-departed residents — are more amenable to the idea that there are good reasons. The blocks are no longer a warm and inviting place to live, they say, and have attracted low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. You don't have to spend much time on College Bank to hear those kinds of stories. One woman told me about people trying all the doors on her floor, terrifying her elderly neighbour. Another mentioned people doing Spice in the building.

Are these problems the fault of the design of the blocks themselves, or the result of chronic under-investment? That debate has been had thousands of times in this country since the 1970s, as the products of the post-war boom in industralised high-rise building have fallen into disrepair. But the Seven Sisters have a very different story to most of those council estates — one that is very far removed from today’s ideas about public housing.

The experiment

"Housing experiment in a town's centre," reads the headline of a Guardian news story, published in October 1966. "Seven tall blocks of council flats, each with its own penthouse 'common room' for tenants' meetings and parties, have been built at Rochdale to bring life back into the town centre," the newspaper reports. The blocks were erected on a former slum area known as The Paddock and represented Rochdale’s step into modernity. "They have cost £3.5 millions, and have begun to attract families from all parts of the North-west,” the story says.

The new blocks were not supposed to deal with Rochdale's council house waiting list, which then stood at 2,000. In fact, they were unaffordable to most of the people on the list, with rents that were up to twice as high as regular council homes. The town centre flats "met a need in attracting professional people to Rochdale," the reporter explains, and were mainly funded by a government subsidy. The tenants included Mr Tony McCormick, an art student from Hemel Hempstead, who planned to set up a gallery in the town and had moved in with his wife.

"They built them to bring more professionals into the town, and that's how I came in," says Robin Parker, who rented one of the flats in 1974 when he took up a job as a social worker in Rochdale. "They were built to a far higher standard than other homes," he says. Kevin Quinn remembers that you didn't have to be on the regular council house waiting list to get one — it was a separate, shorter list. "We put our name down and got one a few months later," he says.

There was a sense that the community was young and hip. He remembers that a Liverpool footballer used to be spotted turning up on College Bank to visit a girlfriend in one of the blocks. "People tended to stay two or three years," says Kevin. "They were kind of a young professional transit camp." Then they were called flats, but nowadays they would definitely be marketed as apartments. "50 years on, young people like us would probably be renting a flat in Castlefield or the Northern Quarter," he says.

And yet, these were council blocks. "It was a really weird thing to do from Rochdale," says Jonathan Schofield, a writer who lives in the town. "You've got to admire the optimism." As the mills closed, building high quality, aspirational council flats in a prime location in the town centre represented an effort by the town's leaders to forge a new future for Rochdale.

In some ways, it reflected the vision of Nye Bevan and the immediate post-war Labour government that council housing should serve general needs and house a cross-section of the population — like the NHS and state schools are supposed to do. It was a much more ambitious and expansive conception of the welfare state, and one that largely didn't come to fruition as subsequent Conservative governments encouraged voters to aspire to property ownership rather than relying on the state.

"You don't see that implemented very often — and certainly not at a large scale," says John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. "The idea of building city-centre flats for an essentially middle class population is pretty unusual." The other example that comes to mind is the Barbican in London, and the New Towns, where housing was built for a wide variety of social classes. "In that sense, the Seven Sisters stand out as something quite enterprising and different," says Boughton.

The architecture critic Phil Griffin says the blocks are a relic of a period of municipal ambition. "Let's commission some artwork for the murals. Let's make these really well," he says, guessing what the council's leaders were thinking. "There was that high northern ambition not to be daunted by London. If they can do that at Golden Lane and the Barbican, we can do that for our folk."

He calls it "a terrifically good" development that "manages to achieve some quite fantastic bits of architectural panache." "It was actually created with vision - with civic vision," he says. Richard Brook, from the Manchester School of Architecture, says the scheme “points to a strong local authority, able to make their own decisions and control their own destiny.”

Newspaper clippings from the time show that the experiment was paying off. Lots of professionals like Kevin, Karen and Robin moved in. One marriage announcement lists the nuptials of a town planner and a clerk and says their home will be in Underwood, one of the towers. Another heralds the wedding of student nurse Miss Vivien Bee to a man who works on the advertising staff at the Heywood Advertiser and says they will move into the Mardyke block. A third says a system analyst and a nurse will move into the tower called Tentercroft.

‘This is what this building does to you’

It's two weeks before Christmas, and a harsh December wind is blowing off the moors and slicing between the blocks and through my winter layers. Two women and a man are standing outside the tiny corner shop at the bottom of Tentercroft, which is one of the four blocks set to be demolished. "They left us living for a month without a main entrance door," says Debbie, who recently moved out of the Seven Sisters. "The homeless were living in the bottom," she says, "Oh it was awful."

"We get people sleeping in the bin shoots and all sorts," says her friend, who still lives in one of the flats upstairs. "Getting wrecked in the building. And it's not their fault at the end of the day, some of them are homeless. But some people do purely come in to take drugs."

So it's not good to live in the ground floor flats, I ask them? "It's not good to live in any of them," says the second woman. "It was hangin'," says Debbie, "It was vile." She's now renting privately nearby. "We need more secure doors and things," says her friend. A neighbour of hers on the 16th floor calls when she gets frightened because people are trying to break into the flats. "Someone was trying all the doors on her floor, and she came to me," she says. A few residents cornered the man in question. "We held him hostage until the police come." They both laugh.

"This is what this building does to you," says Tahrir, their friend, who runs the shop and is also standing in the sheltered doorway, with Tentercroft extending above his head into the grey sky. "You get that angry with it," says Debbie, who says people have been ripping the copper boilers out. What was it like ten years ago? "Alright," says the woman who still lives in the block. "It weren't that bad." Tahrir points at the pedestrian area around us and up at the block. "All this place used to be busy man," he says, speaking passionately. "Every flat used to be out. Christmas trees from the bottom all the way to the top. Decorations, it used to be a beautiful time. Not anymore."

He invites us into his shop — me and The Mill’s photographer Jack Brooks. Tahrir has been running it for three years. His brother had it for five years before that, and his uncle for about a decade. Since RBH began moving tenants out of this block and the ones neighbouring it in preparation for demolition, his business has collapsed. "My shop once upon a time used to be busy," he says, emphasising the word "busy" again.

He starts pulling out his bills and receipts from the wholesaler, which he keeps in white plastic bags behind the till. He's just borrowed £500 from his brother to pay the rent and can only afford to keep one fridge running. His request for a rent reduction was declined, and now the RBH representative he meets just tells him to hand in his keys if he doesn't want to run the shop anymore.

In the past three years, he has seen the demographic of his customers change as the last representatives of the original renters have left one by one. "Barbara, Dougie - all my elderly customers, they were fantastic," he says. "They used to come down and buy the newspapers, cigars, drinks, cigarettes. They used to spend £25." Those residents began to thin out a few years ago. "They got rid of them and put them all in care homes. In return, they put refugees there - Polish, Romanians, Africans."

As we chat, a short ginger-haired man in a grey tracksuit comes in and buys two bottles of Frosty Jack's white cider. He greets us and smells of booze. Another man — stocky and with a shaved head — pays for his cigarettes entirely in 20p coins. He counts them out and pushes them across the till. Tahrir says he can’t break even from the kind of business he gets nowadays and doesn't expect to survive until next Christmas.

Outside we meet a man called Nicky, who lives in Mitchell Hey, one of the condemned blocks. He had a few spells working for the Rochdale Observer in the 1980s, including covering crime and the courts, until he had a nervous breakdown. He makes fun of me for writing my notes in long-hand and grabs my pen to squiggle something in the shorthand he learned as a reporter.

Now 59, he lives alone on the fifteenth floor and keeps the curtains closed most of the time, to make it easier to heat the flat. Does he have friends nearby? "What are friends?" he asks, grinning. He talks to the friends in his head, he says, because at least they can put up with him. "I think it's ridiculous," he says of the plans to demolish his block and the next three along. "There's nothing wrong with them."

‘I never liked going to the flats’

Kevin and Karen Quinn left the Seven Sisters in 1973, after three years as tenants. All their friends were buying houses and they worried that the rapid price inflation of the early seventies would price them out of the market. "So, with some regrets, we scraped the deposit for the cheapest new build semi on the market," says Kevin. They were sorry to leave Holland Rise and look back on that time fondly.

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About two years after they left, they got a letter from the council offering them a refund on some of their rent. It had become illegal for councils to charge some tenants higher rents than others, and the law was being implemented retrospectively. Suddenly, the flats in the Seven Sisters became part of the regular council housing stock, made available for anyone on the waiting list. The "experiment" had lasted less than ten years.

By the mid-Eighties, Karen had a job with the Rochdale Observer, supervising the delivery boys and girls. She had to knock on doors in the Seven Sisters to check if the papers had been delivered. It was just over a decade since she had lived happily in Holland Rise, but now she was wary of visiting the blocks on her rounds. "I never liked going to the flats," she says. "It had that feeling... I didn't know who was going to open the door." She used to read about crimes reported in the paper, usually drug-related, "and the address would by Mardyke or Mitchell Hey."

Robin Parker served for 20 years as a councillor in Rochdale before becoming its mayor in 2008. When he got his first flat in the Seven Sisters as a social worker in the Seventies, "there was no antisocial behaviour," he says, "None whatsoever." He knew a few other social workers living in the flats, but their work took them to other council estates - the normal ones. "The [Seven Sisters] properties weren't being used to re-house people who had exhibited antisocial behaviour," he says. "We didn't have security on the doors because we didn't need security."

When he moved back in the 80s, into the flat he bought and lives in today, "there was more antisocial behaviour going down," he says. "They had re-housed lots of different people." He blames RBH for neglecting the properties and making them unpopular "by their utter stupidity." What does he mean? "I'm afraid they have put people in who are not suitable for high-rise living," he says. "Homes have been set on fire because of bad behaviour and drug use, and fuel poverty and the use of candles." He says there has also been begging for food. "It's not about not having young people in, it's about responsibility and how you behave," he told me.

By 2010, this area of Rochdale was attracting the attention of the national media for the wrong reasons. A study found that the neighbouring Lower Falinge estate had the highest unemployment rate in the country. Reporters turned up early in the morning to count how many residents left to go to work and write disparaging stories about the area's "almost total worklessness."

Even as their character changed, the blocks have offered good homes for people at times in their lives when they really needed them. “I really loved my little flat there,” says Sarah Feven, who got a bedsit in Dunkirk Rise in the late 1980s when she was a 19-year-old single mum who worked in a pub nearby. She remembers fellow residents on her floor looking out for her and helping her with her new baby. “There was vandalism like graffiti and broken windows in the phone box,” she says, “but I generally felt very safe thanks to my neighbours.”

Rochdale's former MP Simon Danczuk lays the blame for the estate's recent issues at the door of RBH. He says he used to field endless complaints from constituents about the upkeep of their housing, including at the Seven Sisters. "They have literally run the blocks into the ground," he says. "It's no way to run public housing." Griffin tends to agree with that assessment, assigning "98%" of the blame for the decline of the flats to poor maintenance. RBH didn’t speak to The Mill for this story.

But it's hard to divorce that analysis from money. The flats were built with a massive subsidy from central government, but as so often with public housing, the money was there for the building but not for the much-needed management and after-care. "That was mostly the problem," says John Gold, an expert on council house construction.

The one great failure of the welfare state

In a sense, the story of the Seven Sisters is emblematic of what's happened to social housing in this country more generally. Their trajectory has been more extreme, of course, because of their unusual start in life as housing specifically intended for professionals. But across the country, the post-war vision of the state providing decent and affordable housing at huge scale to a broad cross-section of society gave way in the latter decades of the twentieth century to a much narrower idea: accommodating the worst off.

And many of those people can't get a home now, either. As the best properties have been sold off under Right To Buy and councils have been starved of the cash needed to build more, waiting lists have lengthened out again. "Housing seems to have been the one great failure of the welfare state," writes the journalist Lynsey Hanley in her book Estates: An Intimate History. "It is the one area where public investment intended to narrow the gap between rich and poor eventually served to create a firm and visible wall between them."

She notes that by 1995, 95 per cent of those housed by local authorities qualified for some form of means-tested state benefits and that the least popular estates had largely emptied out, "except to those who were statutorily homeless: the mentally ill, hard-drug addicts, ex-cons and those who had never worked and could expect never to work."

Or as Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard put it in their 1998 book A Class Act: "Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find a poor family, you had to ring a number of door bells of typical council flats before you found one. Today, arrive at a council estate, ring any bell, and you have probably found one." In most areas of the country, the dream of people from all sorts of backgrounds and incomes sharing blocks and streets like they share hospital wards and classrooms is so remote that you have to remind yourself it was once a key aspiration of the architects of the welfare state.

Some of the residents I spoke to for this article are ambivalent about the plans to demolish four of the blocks. Many have taken the pay-outs and voted with their feet. And some bitterly oppose the idea and say they will fight the plans to the end. "We have 7,000 people on the waiting list in Rochdale, and RBH are holding 200 flats empty in just this development," says Mark Slater, who has lived in three different flats in the blocks since the 1970s. "It's a social crime," he says. RBH says that the flats were unpopular and difficult to rent out long before they produced their regeneration plans.

Robin Parker has been banned from the consultation meetings RBH holds with residents because he almost came to blows with a man who had told a TV reporter that the towers "reek of social isolation." He has a heart condition and says he won't leave his flat. "I couldn't move now," he says. "It would kill me."

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