On top of the world
Tower blocks are not typically home to extra care schemes. But Helen Clifton finds out how one arm’s-length management organisation is giving older residents a room with a view
From the 16th floor of Whitebeck Court extra care sche-me, you can see five counties - and, on a good day, Mount Snowdon in Wales.
The aptly-named Sky Lounge is the perfect place for resident Susan Lacken, 59, to share a bottle of wine with friends and ‘put the world to rights’. ‘I have never laughed as much as I’ve laughed in here,’ she says.
Yet, until recently, the 1960s tower block, owned by Manchester Council and managed by arm’s-length management organisation Northwards Housing, was a vacant eyesore. It became increasingly difficult to let its 91 flats and the last tenants moved out in May 2006.
‘It was in a hideous, horrendous state,’ says Greig Lees, head of regeneration at Northwards, which has managed 13,000 council homes across north Manchester since December 2005. ‘Because it is isolated off the main road we had a lot of issues with vandalism. It was pigeon-infested, and thieves had stripped the building of lead and copper.’
In 2007, Northwards was awarded £4 million from the Housing Corporation’s northern housing challenge fund to refurbish the block. But the funds were insufficient and the ALMO was forced to turn down the money.
The cost of demolising the building, one of a group of six tower blocks in Charlestown, north Manchester, was a prohibitive £500,000. Selling it to a private developer looked like the best option.
But in early 2008, the government launched an £80 million fund for extra care housing. Designed to support those with dementia and long-term illnesses to live independently, extra care schemes provide self-contained homes with onsite care services.
Northwards put together a joint bid with Manchester Council to turn Whitebeck Court into a state-of-the-art extra care scheme. The council contributed details of the health needs of residents living in north Manchester to the bid document, while Northwards employed cost consultants and architects to provide financial and technical information necessary to show how the refurbishment would work.
‘We approached [architects West & Machell, and cost consultants Faitful & Gould] to do it “at risk” - for free - on the condition that we would employ them if the bid was successful,’ Mr Lees explains.
Change of fortunes
In July 2008, the joint bid won £6.54 million from the £80 million pot. This was £2.36 million shy of the £8.9 million needed to refurbish Whitebeck Court. Half of this shortfall was made up by £1.2 million from Northwards. The remaining £1.16 million came from the council via savings made by it closing two day care centres.
‘There was a strategic need from the council,’ Mr Lees explains. ‘North Manchester - and particularly Higher Blakeley and Charlestown - has the highest proportion of elderly people in the city, but at the time there was no extra care provision in the area.’
Today Whitebeck Court is fully occupied. Twenty-three couples live alongside 68 single residents. Flats are allocated according to level of need by a panel made up council and Northwards management staff. The ALMO is paid around £11,000 per property per year to manage the scheme on behalf of the council.
It costs tenants £77.47 per week to rent a two-bed property and £66.67 to rent a one-bed. Residents also pay a £18.35 weekly service charge.
Private company Carewatch provides support between 6pm and 10am. It costs £10.71 per hour and residents only pay for what they use. They choose who provides their care the rest of the time - be it medication support or personal care. Most residents choose Carewatch and if they want, they can buy extra care. In addition, one of the two scheme managers employed by Northwards Housing visits residents once a week to ensure they are happy.
‘People may have low needs when they move in. But they can continue living here as those needs change,’ says Vanessa Bryan, Northward’s retirement services manager.
But how did frail and elderly residents feel about moving into a high rise? ‘Some people were a bit sceptical,’ admits Mr Lees. ‘But now people say they feel like they are on holiday.’
Each of the 91 apartments in Whitebeck Court have been completely rebuilt. Balconies were demolished during the refurbishment to create more space, new windows fitted, and solar panels installed. A new storey was built to house the Sky Lounge. The ground floor houses a council-run day centre with a TV lounge, cafe, IT suite, beauty salon and a room used by visiting GPs and a chiropodist.
Every floor has a unique colour scheme to help dementia sufferers recognise where they are. Wet rooms were installed for those with mobility problems, lifts were fitted with seats, and the communal gardens are kitted out with an outdoor gym, giant chess set and greenhouse.
‘We wanted to make it as attractive as possible so that people would want to live here, and free up some family homes,’ explains Mr Lees.
Mrs Lacken and her husband James, 70, rent a two-bedroomed apartment on the 13th floor. ‘It was taking me three days just to do the back garden in our old three-bedroomed house,’ says Mr Lacken, who has had two heart attacks, reflecting on why the couple moved to Whitebeck Court from the home they rented from Mosscare Housing Group in Openshaw, east Manchester. ‘This is just right. You look out there and it takes your breath away.’