Seven Sisters

A LOCAL councillor in Rochdale called for someone to ‘take responsibility and resign’ after the seven high rise blocks were found to have a range of fire safety issues.

Earlier this month, it was reported that ‘extensive investigations’ at the blocks by landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) – which included examining the inside of walls – had found ‘serious problems dating back to work carried out in the late 1990s’ relating to compartmentation. While there were no issues between flats on different levels, residents might ‘be asked to leave if there is a fire on a floor immediately below or above their apartment’.

In response, RBH put a waking watch in place to monitor the towers, with one block in particular - College Bank – having ‘serious structural problems’, necessitating a change from stay put to “get out”. Assessments are usually undertaken at that block annually, and due to the number of properties empty in the seven blocks – and plans to demolish four – more intrusive work could be done.

Of the 772 flats across the seven blocks, 500 are occupied and most by a single tenant, with RBH finding that the compartmentation issues affect all the homes at College Bank, ‘regardless of which building or floor they are on’. As a result, it is looking into ‘what work will need to be carried out to make the buildings safe in the longer term’, and residents – as well as being told to ‘get out’ – have been asked to alert neighbours as they leave, and exit using the stairs ‘not the lift’.

The waking watch will be in place for ‘an initial three months’, with costs not passed on to residents, with a letter from RBH to residents stating: ‘Our investigations have found that there is an issue with the external panels that might increase the potential for a fire to spread to other homes on the same level, rather than being contained as it should be.

‘This is known as a problem with ‘compartmentation’ and appears to have been caused by inappropriate work carried out on the buildings in 1998, before the formation of RBH. As ever, our residents’ safety and wellbeing is our number one priority.’

Manchester Evening News has now reported further on the issues, with RBH confirming that the problems related to panels installed in 1998, which was ’14 years before it took control of the council’s social housing stock’. Councillor and scrutiny committee chair Danny Meredith is calling someone in RBH’s ‘top brass’ to ‘fall on their sword’ over what he described as a ‘serious failing’, though he praised RBH for its work supporting communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He went on to note that it was not ‘good enough’ for RBH to ‘shirk responsibility’ with the reference to the panels being installed before it took over the blocks, adding: ‘If this is coming out now it’s a failure of them taking responsibility for those flats way back in 2010, when there were structural surveys done on those flats.

‘The problem I see is that for years this has been neglected, recyclical maintenance has not been done properly. If something this big has been missed by RBH, someone along the line needs to take responsibility for it, because this is a complete disregard of people’s safety. Someone senior should be resigning for the failings of RBH. It’s a serious situation that could cost people’s lives, especially given what happened at Grenfell.

‘Those panels do need replacing, either as cyclical maintenance or as soon as possible for the safety of the residents in those flats.’

RBH responded that ‘far from being negligent’, it was ‘acting in the spirit’ of the Hackitt Review ‘rather than waiting for new laws to come into force’. A spokesman added: ‘We acted decisively as soon as we became aware of the issue. We have implemented additional measures to keep residents safe, and we have commissioned formal reports and advice from independent and accredited experts so that we can provide a long-term solution.

‘Our focus has been, and continues to be, on our residents and their safety. As we are currently taking legal advice relating to the warranties made at the point of transfer of these blocks to RBH, it would not be appropriate to attend a council meeting at this point.’