In December we welcomed back Unit 38 Architects to work with members in two of the key neighbourhoods where we are carrying out long term community organising, Hulme, and central Rochdale.
Working together with wide groups of local residents, we are developing community plans to support local members in the intensive organising projects which have been going on for several years; the Rochdale campaigns to Save the Seven Sisters on College Bank, and halt the demolition of Lower Falinge, and the Block the Block campaign, for the old Gamecock Pub site, on the Aquarius Estate in Hulme.
Unit 38 are architects that offer design services to working class communities who are usually excluded from processes of urban change, such as migrants and refugees, low-income communities, and social tenants threatened with social cleansing from their neighbourhoods.
They have been supporting the Block the Block campaign, which is over three years old, since November 2022, when they were brought in to help the community create a positive vision for the area to take forward, rather than just being a campaign that was about saying No to the oversized Purpose Built Student Accommodation being proposed by greedy developers.
They wanted to cram a 13-storey block into a tiny footprint, overlooking and overshadowing nearby Hopton Court and its communal gardens on the one side, and Cooper House on the other, with no car parking on site, and no thought for the impact of another student block on the settled community, and long term residents of these two buildings, let mostly to people over 55.
Instead, these residents and neighbours in Hulme, working with GMTU and Unit 38, came up with some alternative proposals to ensure that they could offer a more appealing vision for the future than the now derelict Game Cock pub, which would be of benefit to the existing community, including a meeting and social space, and extracare and age friendly accommodation on a much small smaller scale, in keeping with the current look of the area.
After the major success in Rochdale of getting the RBH board to agree to halt the demolition plans for College Bank's iconic Seven Sisters tower blocks in May this year, the idea of trying to attempt a similar project on a grander scale, to take a more positive route forward with our campaigning on College Bank, and beginning to take a positive approach to saving and improving the homes on neighbouring Lower Falinge was discussed by GMTU members in Rochdale, and we looked at what Unit 38 had done in Hulme.
After the Inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak and some fierce campaigning by his family, the Manchester Evening News and GMTU, former CEO Gareth Swarbrick was sacked last November, and for a while there seemed like there were many open doors for us, as RBH scrambled to salvage their tattered reputation, and a series of senior management figures left or were sacked.
Subsequently, the entire board of RBH has been replaced, and the Interim CEO Yvonne Arrowsmith met with us and agreed to a 'fresh eyes' review on the regeneration plans, which have been halted, and RBH has committed to a Passivhaus Retrofit of the Seven Sisters blocks of College Bank, which is moving towards securing the final funding. The project manager for this is Dick Mortimer, who has agreed to incorporate our input into his plans going forward.
Despite this good news, RBH continues to exhibit poor management, and has carried out some questionable works on both estates, including poorly fitted fire doors in College Bank, and cutting down garden fences, unnecessary balcony changes and superficial and unsuccessful damp and mould work on Lower Falinge. Alongside this, RBH have pushed through governance changes removing powers from tenant representatives on the mutual body, and seem to be reverting to command and control tendencies.
We are determined to continue our positive new plan to involve the whole community in College Bank and Lower Falinge in designing a plan for their future which puts their wishes at the heart of whatever comes next, and we will take on the issues we are campaigning on now with poor and unnecessary works, and unwanted changes to the area as part of our organising strategy, and bring more people into the campaign and the union to deliver a positive outcome.
The money to fund the work on the Seven Sisters and Lower Falinge was released following a vote by our membership at the 2023 AGM in November, allocating funding from our membership subs income, which had been accumulated over the previous two years; a clear example of our democratic decision making in action.
In early December Unit 38 and GMTU members booked out the Unitarian Church and held a day of drop in workshops with other local residents in Rochdale, and in the evening, held a meeting as the community outlined their visions for the neighbourhood. It was a big success. The following day in Manchester, there were a similar series of meetings held in Hulme that worked on the community plan for the Gamecock site.
With each meeting in Hulme, the plans have become more developed, and the Block the Block campaign now has a great set of proposals to take to power holders in the city, with some of the local housing providers expressing an interest in delivering the proposed age friendly housing and a community space.
For Rochdale Branch and the residents of the RBH homes on College Bank and Lower Falinge, the community plan gives everyone an exciting and positive project to direct their energy to deliver a better future for their community in 2024.
By providing a positive outlet for the collective energy of determined residents, and providing them with the professional support to turn their wishes into a concrete proposal, Unit 38 are helping Greater Manchester Tenants Union support these communities to fight for fresh start and ensure that they are in the driving seat of the next chapter of their campaigns as they take back control of the decisions about where they live.