Dreamstreets: a journey through Britain’s village utopias

Dreamstreets: a journey through Britain's village utopias

by Jacqueline Yallop

Coincidences are interesting. Between buying Dream Streets, Jacqueline Yallop’s vivid description of the Utopian villages built in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and reading it I came across the Bata Estate in East Tilbury, South Essex.

The Bata Estate is a company town, started in the 1930s. It was built around a shoe factory that was for several decades a key feature of the Tilbury economy. The estate includes housing, schools, shops, sports facilities and a theatre. It was in many ways a twentieth century version of the developments that Yallop describes, most of which were built for a combination of commercial and philanthropic motives.

This coincidence is interesting because I discovered Bata while working with the councils in South Essex on how they can use the current devolution opportunities to enable economic growth. The key barriers to growth there are similar to those in many other places – a shortage of appropriate housing and skills that do not match employers needs.

These were the same challenges that faced the characters whose stories Yallop relates. Yet people such as Richard Arkwright and William Madock  did more than raise these issues as requiring attention. They acted. They built houses. They built schools.

The protagonists of Yallop’s stories were active when the role of the state in areas such as  housing and education was embryonic and contested. Yet today, when the role and scale of the state is once more under review, perhaps there are lessons for industry from what happened  in places such as New Lanark, Port Sunlight and Nenthead.

Yallop brings a novelist’s eye to the stories she tells, firmly grounding her description of these innovative settlements in the their geographical and social contexts. The stories are important in their own right. But perhaps they are more relevant to the challenges we face today than we might think.

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