Back in 2007, the Wythenshawe Estate became the poster child for ‘Broken Britain’. David Cameron had visited the estate to make his call to ‘hug a hoodie’. But whatever love Cameron was offering didn’t appear to be reciprocated.
It was ironic that Wythenshawe should be singled out in this way, tragic that the ideals and vision which had built the estate had been so signally eclipsed.
Lest we forget, the story begins with a level of overcrowding and human misery that is – thankfully – almost unimaginable in Britain today. In 1935, Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health condemned 30,000 (of a total of 80,000) inner-city homes as unfit for human habitation; 7000 families were living in single rooms.
In contrast, it was the garden city movement of Ebenezer Howard which provided the other major element in Wythenshawe’s genesis. Howard and his followers advocated a utopian ideal of economically self-sufficient communities, cottage dwellings in parkland surroundings – the polar opposite of the Broken Britain of that day.
In Manchester, these currents coalesced in the drive and vision of three people: Labour alderman WT Jackson and then Liberal husband and wife team, Ernest and Shena Simon.
Jackson rejected the modernism that attracted some as a solution to the slum problem: ‘We are not emulating Vienna and I have not been there…In general we favour the cottage type of dwelling’. For Ernest Simon ‘the tendency of country conditions [was] to preserve life…the tendency of town conditions [was] to depress vitality’. The solution they envisaged lay in large-scale development of agricultural land to the south of Manchester beyond the city boundaries.
Simon purchased Wythenshawe Hall and 250 acres of land in 1926. He donated them to the city, directing only that they ‘be used solely for the public good’.
Jackson for his part persuaded the city to buy 2500 acres of surrounding farmland in the same year and secured the incorporation of the future estate within city boundaries – against horrified opposition from Cheshire locals – in 1931 by private act of parliament.
Jackson visited the garden city showpiece of Letchworth in 1927 and brought in Barry Parker – its co-designer – as planner of the new Wythenshawe Estate. Building began the same year. Parker was given sole control of the project in 1931. Parker built on the garden city ideal by adding two new features.
One was the parkway – a concept borrowed from the more motorised America of the day – intended to smooth transit but, more importantly, to prevent ribbon development and preserve open space. The scenic route Parker created – the Princess Parkway – is now the M56. Perhaps not quite what he had in mind.
His second innovation was neighbourhood units set around green spaces and tree-lined roads with, in this instance, Wythenshawe Hall and Park preserved at their centre. This principle has been better honoured – some 30 areas of park and woodland remain.
Development was rapid. By 1939, the estate boasted a population of 40,000 and some 8145 dwellings, now described waspishly in Pevsner as ‘conventional, Quakerishly undecorated’. Parker was a Quaker so this plain and simple approach reflected his ideals but it fulfilled more strongly Shena Simon’s wish that the estate have a ‘cottagey’ feel.
If the housing was modest, the ambition which underlay the project wasn’t. For Shena Simon, the estate was the ‘boldest [scheme] that any municipality has yet embarked upon’. To the local Cooperative Women’s Guild, it was nothing less than (1):
the world of the future – a world where men and women workers shall be decently housed and served, where the health and safety of little children are of paramount importance, and where work and leisure may be enjoyed to the full.
This future world was a place in which ‘every working mother [would enjoy] a clean, well-planned home which will be her palace’. If this seems a stereotyped view of a woman’s role today, let’s note their rider: these were homes ‘so well and wisely planned that [a mother’s] labour will be lightened and her strength and intelligence reserved for wider interests’.
Who got to enjoy this brave new world? Rents were typically between 13s and 15s a week (65 to 75p) at a time when the average working wage stood at around £3. Ernest Simon calculated this was just affordable – provided there was a ‘willingness of the wage earner to be content with a very small amount of pocket money, and competent and economical management on the part of the housewife’.
In reality, the estate was principally confined to the better-off working class as this oral testimony suggests (2):
Not everyone could get a house in Wythenshawe. Before we got one an official from the Town Hall wanted to know all about us…We had to prove we were good tenants. We…heard that some people were from the slums but we never met any of them.
Despite – more probably because of – this exclusivity, there was great pride in the estate. Local activists were committed to making ‘Wythenshawe worthy of the time and money spend on it’. A ‘Wythenshawe ethos’ grew which enjoined a ‘common bond’ predicated less on shared recreation than on notions of self-improvement.
As with Becontree (see my previous posting on that London County Council estate), gardening was a particular locus of this and the annual flower and vegetable show an important event in the local calendar.
Many residents also spoke favourably of a world where people weren’t forever popping round for a chat or – worse still – on the cadge, ‘where people kept themselves to themselves’. All this has upset some later commentators who see in it some corruption of working-class community and ideals. But maybe we shouldn’t pay too much heed to this liberal academic nostalgia for a world they never knew and tend now to romanticise.
That there was a shift – to a more privatised and domesticated focus on family and home – is undeniable. But I see it less an example of malign social engineering or embourgeoisification, more as an opportunity working people desired and acted upon, one that – in key ways – they created.
Practically, as so often, execution failed to fully match conception. Shops, community facilities and employment followed belatedly on housing and population growth. There was an incomplete and dormitory feel to the estate in its early decades though the Second World War and 1947 Town and Country Planning Act were to give a boost to further ambitious growth. New industrial zones were completed in 1950s. Higher density housing was planned and built. The population grew to 100,000.
The shopping centre – confusingly called the Civic Centre – was finished in the 1960s. An actual civic centre – the Wythenshawe Forum incorporating leisure centre, library, theatre and meeting rooms – was finally opened in 1971.
By the turn of the century the Wythenshawe infrastructure was largely in place. So what went wrong? In the aftermath of the hoodie affair, a New York Times journalist, visiting the ‘endless housing project’ of Wythenshawe (’pronounced WITH-en-shah’ she added helpfully), noted bleakly ‘the absent fathers, the mothers on welfare, the drugs, the arrests, the incarcerations, the wearying inevitability of it all’. (3)
And it’s true that levels of deprivation on the estate were significantly higher than the Manchester average, twice as high as the national average. In 2000 Benchill was named the most deprived council ward in England.
This doesn’t seem to me to reflect some original sin in the conception or design of council estates. Rather it speaks of crushing realities that would hobble the ideals and potential of any community. Criticisms of estates as single-class and socially isolated have merit but they lack historical perspective – specifically an understanding of the ‘respectable’ and aspirational foundations of social housing and the massive demographic shift that has hit it since the 1980s.
Council estates, which were once a symbol – a site, in fact – of upward mobility, now represent downward mobility or social stasis; this reflecting not some moral failing on the part of social housing’s poorer tenants but the hard fact of economic changes that have all but destroyed traditional working-class livelihoods.
However, this depressing perspective should not be the final word. There has been huge investment in Wythenshawe in recent years. The shopping centre was substantially renovated between 1999 and 2002. (In a sign of the times an Asda store with multi-storey car park replaced the old Coop.) £18m has been spent on the Wythenshawe Forum to modernise and extend its facilities which now include additionally an adult learning centre, nursery, café and health centre.
A lot has been done by central and local government and community organisations and activists to shift realities and – perhaps almost as importantly – perceptions. There’s no need to sugar-coat here: significant and real problems remain but the estate deserves to be more than a caricature. And the ideals which inspired it should be valued, maintained and fulfilled.
(1) This and most of the foregoing quotes are taken from Andrew Davies, Workers’ Worlds: Cultures and Communities in Manchester and Salford, 1880-1939 (1992)
(2) Quoted in John J. Parkinson-Bailey, Manchester, an Architectural History (2000)
(3) Sarah Lyell, ‘How the Poor Measure Poverty in Britain…‘. New York Times, 10 March 2007
Pagan555’s Wythenshawe images can be found in his Flikr photostream and are used with his permission.
Andrew Davies, cited above, offers an excellent social history of the estate.
Articles by David Ward and Owen Hatherley in The Guardian provide some contemporary views and this article by Mark Hughes in The Independent will update you on the young man greeting Mr Cameron in the opening image.