25-02-2022

Wythenshawe

The estate of Wythenshawe became a politicised landscape in 2007 when David Cameron visited the southern tip of Manchester. It became an enclave, signalling all that was broken in Britain, with the Conservative leader exhibiting a characteristic naivety to the issues facing working-class communities.

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Cameron’s call to ‘hug a hoodie’ was poorly received; politicians had been using estates as a backdrop for decades, with Tony Blair visiting London’s Aylesbury Estate in 1997, claiming ‘there would be no more areas of no hope and no more forgotten people’. A decade later, the issues facing people living on estates still loomed heavily above their communities.

“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”
From Municipal Dreams by John Boughton

In 1926, Ernest Simon purchased Wythenshawe Hall and 250 acres of land from the Tatton Family, donating it to the city of Manchester with the stipulation that it ‘be used solely for the public good’. Nearly a decade later, Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health condemned 30,000 inner-city homes on the outskirts of the city centre as unfit for human habitation, as the First World War slum clearance programme was brought into fruition. The City of Manchester urgently needed to house the thousands of families whose homes had been deemed unfit.

A plan was developed for Manchester's first overspill town, inspired by Ebenezer Howard's approach to ‘the garden city’. The vision devised by Alderman Jackson, Ernest and Sheena Simon and Barry Parker (renowned architect, urban planner and co-designer of Letchworth Garden City) was to create a new town across the Mersey, south of the city centre with 17,000 new homes. With close attention paid to Howard’s approach, the collective of planners sought to establish a ‘beautifully wooded' estate that would "form one of the finest garden cities in the United Kingdom, creating a residential district for the working classes of Manchester." Countering the trend of the time, Jackson opposed the modernist approach of most other cities in their provision of social housing and so chose to use a cottage type dwelling. In developing the agricultural land to the south of the city, Jackson and his collaborators would be creating ‘country conditions’, those that ‘preserve life’, seeking to avoid ‘the tendency of town conditions’ as these ‘depress vitality’. 

Barry Parker accepted the responsibility of overseeing Wythenshawe’s development in 1931. This afforded him the opportunity to build upon the garden city concept, experimenting by adding a parkway and seeking greater protection for green spaces. A parkway, a concept seen in other new towns of the 20th-century was utilised in ‘motorised America’. Intending for ease of transport in an age before widespread car ownership, Wythenshawe’s parkway would eventually be consumed by the M56, yet the principle of preserved green space has been closely adhered to. Parks and woodland still form a significant area of the Benchill ward’s boundary.

The rear of Wythenshawe Civic Centre (Image c/o Wes Foster)

By 1939 the estate housed over 40,000 people in more than 8000 houses. The post-war expansion increased these numbers further, however it would not be until 1963 that the town would get a Civic Centre and later still for the addition of a shopping centre and leisure facilities in the 1970s, 30 years after the initial families moved in. The lack of local amenities in the early years made life difficult for residents. Associations that were set up to address these problems failed to make meaningful progress. Wythenshawe locals had to travel to nearby Northenden to utilise a shopping area as local shopping arcades were consumed by the M56 bypass in 1973. 

After gradually acquiring the amenities that were missed from the initial plans, the community in Wythenshawe was able to build around new schools, shops, pubs and churches. When a library, swimming pool and theatre opened within the Wythenshawe Civic Centre in 1971, the district was well-positioned to provide for the people who called it home. Great focus had been placed on the provision of housing, the aesthetic and quality of the dwellings, as well as the municipal ambitions of the early plans. Shena Simon claimed that the estate was ‘the boldest [scheme] that any municipality’ had ever conjured up. It was ‘the world of the future - a world where men and women workers shall be decently housed and served’, where health, work and leisure could be enjoyed to the full. Despite the vast ambitions for life within the new settlement, rent prices meant that Wythenshawe was only affordable to those who were better-off working class. The leafy environs that encased the ward promoted exclusivity, with residents displaying great pride in living there via an annual flower and vegetable show. Notions and behaviours associated with the rural idyll were on display, only a few miles from the city centre.

A new style of housing, the cottage-type dwellings were a profound influence in a behavioural shift for working-class residents. A cultural transition; the domesticated focus on home and family took the place of neighbourly affections. Residents were fond of a new existence ‘where people kept themselves to themselves'. 

The residents of Wythenshawe have formed part of a red blockade for decades, one of few resistant to the sweeping wins of the Conservative government at the 2019 General Election. Neighbouring Altrincham and Sale, Tatton and Cheadle are staunch supporters of Conservative policy, further removed from the issues facing inner-city communities. These issues include employment and opportunity, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, 43,000 people work in the area, within which many people are employed at Manchester Airport and Wythenshawe Hospital. The head offices of Timpson Ltd, Virgin Media and Vodafone provide employment for local people but attract skilled workers from further afield. The breadth of available jobs within the ward, as well as improved travel infrastructure, contributed to a pre-pandemic surge in popularity for prospective home buyers.

In 2015 property prices on the estate increased by 60 per cent within 4 months, second only to London’s Chelsea in a list of the country’s most desirable postcodes. The increase in property prices can be attributed to the so-called ‘Metrolink effect’, the period in which Manchester’s Metrolink tram network was extended through Wythenshawe to Manchester Airport. Research suggests living near a tram station can add an average of £8,300 to the value of a home. This modern inflation of Wythenshawe’s price and popularity began with the improvement of services at the start of the millennium.

The tramway that connects Wythenshawe with Central Manchester (Image c/o Wes Foster)

Infamous as the filming location for Shameless, this association contributed to the belief that the estate housed a generation of delinquent adolescents. Yet from within their number, the residents of Wythenshawe have influenced sport, the arts and in the case of Marcus Rashford MBE, sweeping societal injustice. Rashford was born in Wythenshawe and so too was two-time world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, a man who has divided opinion because of derogatory comments made about minority groups, but furthered the conversation around mental health stigma.

Fury trained at Jimmy Egan’s Boxing Academy in Wythenshawe. Despite evident barriers to success for young people living in the area, this gym has produced 33 national champions on an evidently tight budget. Since 1980, the gym has been forced into moving on 13 different occasions; the inevitable wave of gentrification consuming vital community resources. An earnest coach and mentor, Jimmy Egan’s serves as a focal point within the community for a number of young people. When visited by prime minister Boris Johnson, Egan explained that with investment his staff would be able to help more children than the existing agencies. After writing to Johnson in the wake of their pandemic struggles, the prime minister is yet to reply.

The accompanying images for this article were provided by Wes Foster, a photographer who within his series ‘Barry Parker Utopia’, has conducted a visual analysis of the Wythenshawe of today. His photographs capture the green spaces, the greyfield sites and the remnants of an arguably utopian housing vision. Through the overgrown grass and hedgerows, the man-made landscape of southern Manchester is shown to be empty, desolate. However, the uniformed homes, modernist churches and dilapidated tower block facades exhibit a life of use. Pride in place is captured in this series. Despite being devoid of beings, Foster’s photographs show human presence. It takes little imagination to dream of the personal conversations and loving moments that have taken place in the homes; the goals scored on the large playing fields in Sunday league football matches; the difficult conversations faced by business owners who have been forced to cease trade, thus making a workforce redundant.

Foster was most intrigued by the notion of utopia, harking back to the vision of Parker et al. His own words challenge whether a utopia can exist, so idealistic are these notions that complex human behaviour cannot be marshalled into concepts conjured up by planners. Instead, the imperfections of a place like Wythenshawe, which was slowly developed, suffered from downward social mobility and struggles to shake the rhetoric of past governments, should be celebrated for its uniqueness. 

Wythenshawe is resilient.

Contribution

Images for this article were provided by photographer Wes Foster. His work and the series 'Barry Parker Utopia' can be viewed, in full, on his website: https://www.wesfoster.co.uk/

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