Model village split over embracing the developers' shilling

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The Independent Online

For many, the architectural beauty and homogeneity of Merseyside's Port Sunlight make it peerless among the model factory villages built by philanthropic Victorian factory-owners for their workers. It was the only such village to be operated at a loss, because William Hesketh Lever did not want the children of his soap-factory workers to grow up "knowing nothing of God's earth, of green fields, of sparkling brooks, of breezy hill and springy heather".

For many, the architectural beauty and homogeneity of Merseyside's Port Sunlight make it peerless among the model factory villages built by philanthropic Victorian factory-owners for their workers. It was the only such village to be operated at a loss, because William Hesketh Lever did not want the children of his soap-factory workers to grow up "knowing nothing of God's earth, of green fields, of sparkling brooks, of breezy hill and springy heather".

But 120 years after the village was built in the distinctive Arts and Crafts style, the Lever dowry is running out and its trustees face a dilemma: whether to take the developers' shilling and build new houses and apartments to increase the village's size by 20 per cent, or to preserve the place just as Lever built it.

At a stroke, the development would solve the substantial financial problems of the Port Sunlight Village Trust, which include a stock market downturn which, since 2000, has limited income from a lump sum provided by the Lever estate.

But it is hard to overstate the level of friction the idea of new houses and apartments has caused at the village, on the Wirral peninsula. Ben Chapman, the MP for Wirral South, is "incandescent" about the plans, which he recently raised at length in the Commons. Wirral Council has called a public inquiry on the subject next month.

Mr Chapman claims the Trust is failing in its duty to conserve the village in perpetuity by building on the unused site of a former maintenance depot backing on the Unilever factory. "The size of the redevelopment increases the village's scale in a way that changes its nature," said Mr Chapman. "The design is inappropriate and I simply don't accept that the Trust's financial position can form part of the consideration in planning terms."

The style of the planned development, as well as the 200 new people it will bring, is causing alarm for many of Port Sunlight's existing 1,000 residents and has also prompted objections from the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE). Port Sunlight was unique, combining the philanthropic improvement of the working class with the visual tradition of the sylvan suburb. But a proposed three-storey, plate-glass and aluminium edifice in an "Edwardian industrial" architectural style may be out of place.

The Trust's chief executive, Lionel Bolland, said: "The residents [also] took strong exception when we announced a new heritage centre although it was for the good of the whole village. We need to develop the land for financial reasons [but] we are in a polarised camp on this subject."

The Trust says the corner of the village under examination is not entirely within a conservation area, which makes it one of the few areas with development potential. The controversy has been looming since 1999, when Unilever decided to divest itself of responsibility for the village by handing it over to the then new Trust. There is a widely held view that the financial settlement accompanying the handover was inadequate.

This might not have been a problem, had Port Sunlight developed its potential tourist potential in the manner of other model villages. Saltaire, the village built by Sir Titus Salt for his woollen-mill workers north of Bradford, and New Lanark, Robert Owen's 18th-century cotton-mill village in southern Scotland, are major tourist attractions and have been designated Unesco world heritage sites.

Saltaire includes Salt's Mill, three floors of public space with art galleries, restaurants and shops, and New Lanark's visitor centre includes an audio-visual theatre show and millennium "time-machine" ride.

Port Sunlight has the Gladstone Theatre and the superb Lady Lever art gallery but entry to the gallery is free, so it provides no source of income. The village has been slow to capitalise financially from its appeal, and even the post office has closed. A £1m heritage centre, to be built with English Heritage and European grants and updating a centre opened two decades ago, is yet to open.

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