Revolutions can't be fixed in stone

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The Independent Online

The controversy over proposals to expand Port Sunlight, the philanthropic village that William Lever built 120 years ago, pits a predictable cast of villains and heroes against each other.

The controversy over proposals to expand Port Sunlight, the philanthropic village that William Lever built 120 years ago, pits a predictable cast of villains and heroes against each other.

In one corner are the villagers apparently defending their rural idyll. In the other are men in suits clutching their plans, bent on sacrificing the spirit of the place to maximise profit. We have echoes of this drama played out in countless television soaps and films, and there is rarely any doubt which side we are expected to support.

But before we start cheering the brave hobbits of Port Sunlight as they take on the grim developers of Mordor, it is worth noting how ironic this turn of events really is.

William Lever, Port Sunlight's founder, was a true radical who would have been horrified at the thought of building a museum or a throwback to an imagined past. His was a modernist dream, breaking with England's feudal past and ancient hierarchies. Based on developing a new way of housing the working classes, it was egalitarian in inspiration and conception.

That this exciting social and architectural laboratory has become as much a part of our "heritage" as Hampton Court, to be maintained against all innovation and change, would probably amaze him. So would the type of people living there, some of whom are far removed in spirit and income from those original slum refugees.

No one wishes unsympathetic change on Port Sunlight, and the residents are right to demand a say. But it would be a pity if a community that was founded on such daring principles should consider it a victory to end up in charge of a mausoleum.

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