Saab owners stir new discord in Arcadia: Tom Hodgkinson finds rebellion in Lord Lever's old fiefdom

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The Independent Online
DARK CLOUDS are gathering over Port Sunlight, the model community built on the Wirral in 1888 by the autocratic philanthropist William Hesketh Lever to house workers from his Sunlight soap factory. The village, described by one early historian as a 'new Arcadia, ventilated and drained on the most scientific principles', is suffering an identity crisis.

Unilever Merseyside Limited (UML), a subsidiary of multinational detergent company Unilever, is at odds with an upstart body called the Port Sunlight Village Society. The row is over a patch of grass the size of a football pitch, rarely used except by dog-walkers. UML wants to sell it to developers who want to build a block of sheltered housing, carefully designed to fit in with the character of the village. The society opposes the plan. Designs have been submitted and resubmitted, public and private meetings have been held. Planning permission was rejected, an appeal lodged. Now the village is waiting for a final decision from the Department of the Environment, due later this month.

Lord Lever, as he became, had been appalled by the slums of Liverpool. In Port Sunlight he aimed to provide a pleasant environment for his workers. The village is built in English vernacular revival style - in other words, the house designs are borrowed from a wealth of styles from Tudor to Gothic, Flemish to Arts and Crafts. Timber rubs shoulders with pebbledash, fairytale towers with lead-lined windows.

Weedless flowerbeds decorate every corner, filled with tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. The streets are wide and quiet, there is a sunken garden, three bowling greens and plenty of open space. But it is rare to see anyone wandering around. An air of self-conscious perfection hangs over the place - as does the spirit of Lord Lever: there's the Lever Club; Lever House; the Leverhulme Memorial; Lady Lever Art Gallery. A central flowerbed features a giant mosaic proclaiming 'Lever'. When the wind changes, the smell of soap from the nearby factory fills the air.

Until 1980 every house in Port Sunlight was owned by Unilever and occupied by a present or retired Unilever employee. A Sunlighter could lose his job - and therefore his house - if he misbehaved. If a child picked a corporate daffodil it could result in a knock on the door and a reprimand from one of Lord Lever's managers.

Then, in 1980, the estates manager started selling houses on the open market. Saabs and BMWs began to appear. The newcomers, not content to accept Lever's paternalistic legacy, are leading the rebellion against UML.

'We want to take effective ownership of the village away from UML and to the people who have bought in,' said Dr Paul Fitzpatrick, a planning consultant who bought a house nine years ago. He has orchestrated a leafleting campaign and successfully persuaded many of the old Sunlighters to join his cause. Many villagers, accustomed to feeling grateful for living in the village, seem to be enjoying their new-found voice. Dr Fitzpatrick's wife, Suzie, remembers an early meeting where one old Sunlighter asked if Levers had given their permission for the assembly.

'UML are astonished by the outcry, because they've never been used to people saying no,' said Dr Fitzpatrick. Many second- and third-generation Sunlighters are fiercely opposed to the building project. 'You can't trust UML,' they say. 'They just want to make a lot of money. If they sell this land, who knows what will happen to the rest of the open spaces in our village? Lord Lever would be turning in his grave if he heard what UML were doing.'

Peter Hodson, estates manager for UML: disagrees. 'I think he'd be delighted at the way we've made his experiment survive so successfully,' he said.

Ironically, it was Mr Hodson who took the decision to start selling Port Sunlight houses, so allowing the likes of the Fitzpatricks to move in. More than half the village is now privately owned. Mr Hodson has difficulty containing his anger when discussing the Village Society. 'They have hijacked the older residents' fear of change for their own ends,' he said. 'There are no plans to develop the other open spaces. The fact is the Village Society has become a self-appointed custodian of the village open space.

'While we have the responsibility for providing the finance to sustain this village, we'd rather like to retain the decision-making process. He who pays the piper calls the tune.'

At a planning meeting last year, when permission for the scheme was rejected, Dr Fitzpatrick had successfully imported a busload of Sunlighters, who hollered at suitable moments during his speech: 'The open spaces are as important as the buildings themselves and must be protected - (hear hear]) . . . the design is a weak assembly of off-the-peg builders' merchants' components - not of the quality demanded by Port Sunlight (Hooray] Hoorah]).'

Rob Burns, planning officer for Wirral Borough Council, backed the scheme, but councillors ignored him, so he hopes the DoE will uphold the appeal. 'I want to allow Port Sunlight to develop,' he said.

Perhaps a century of suppressed resentment against The Landlord has been released. 'Ooh, that Peter Hodson,' said one Sunlighter. She pointed at my tape-recorder. 'I won't tell you what I'd like to do to him while that thing's running.'

(Photograph omitted)