Discover more from The Mill
Burnage Garden Village is at war - and the stakes couldn't be lower
My return to a collectivist utopia
By Sophie Atkinson
Three years ago, I started working on a story that would be fun and simple to wrap up. I wanted to write about the fact that South Manchester is home to one of the country’s oldest garden suburbs — a housing model blending the urban and the rural, and in this case, where residents buy shares in the society and pay a vastly reduced rent for their home.
The piece would basically write itself! I would interview Manchester Tenants Limited, the housing association behind this idealistic community, Burnage Garden Village. Then I would chat to the residents, who I imagined would give me pert, upbeat quotes that I could weave into a story about a historic housing co-operative thriving in a country better known for private property and profit. I was a freelance journalist at the time and my first piece for The Mill would be a thoughtful feature that would only take me a few days work. Wonderful.
But almost right away, minor frustrations snowballed. The housing association seemed evasive for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. I didn’t need to interview them, they wrote — why not interview a historian instead? When I pointed out I already had plenty of history and wanted a present-day account of the village, they said they’d seen me asking for interviews in the Facebook group dedicated to Burnage Garden Village, “which you are more than welcome to do”. The message had the flavour of a brisk scolding, but I couldn’t quite understand what I’d done wrong.
On the Facebook group, residents preferred to message me privately rather than comment below my post, and seemed anxious about having their real name attached to their comments, even if they were sending me the most faultlessly positive stories about living there. Those who I approached for interviews seemed tortured about whether they were sufficiently well-qualified to be an interviewee — one resident declined a chat, telling me: “Im still looked on as a new comer after 5yrs lol”.
I was struggling to make much headway when one night, I received an anonymous phone call from someone who told me that it might be a difficult time to find people willing to talk about the village; there was some sort of issue. When I pressed them, they clammed up, but told me they would connect me with someone who could tell me more. After fleeting contact with the second person, they also went quiet.
After weeks of this kind of very low-level journalistic carry-on, I called my editor Joshi and told him we didn’t really have a story. There was something going on in Burnage Garden Village, but we had no specifics about what it was. And the positive story I had set out to tell was impossible to pull off because everyone in the village was on edge — perhaps they suspected that I did know what was going on and might be on the brink of exposing it.
As I’m writing this now, I’ve been working with Joshi for two years — as The Mill’s senior editor, I sit opposite him in our newsroom in the Royal Exchange building three days a week, endlessly discussing and debating stories. Back then, we had only spoken once on the phone, and I had no idea that the impasse in my first Mill story was exactly what made it right up his street. He loved the weirdness; the sense — as I put it in my eventual piece, that we were dealing with a story that read like “anti-detective fiction” — novels that present the reader with a mystery but offer no solution.
“This sounds amazing,” he said over the phone and asked me to bash out 5,000 words. That’s when I got my second taste of what it’s like to work on stories with The Mill: everything — for some reason — has to happen incredibly late at night. Joshi largely ignored my draft until we met in person in Manchester, and then that night he started sending me dozens of questions, edits and suggestions until we had a piece. Not, let me be clear, the piece I had in mind when I first pitched the idea, but something we both felt was insightful about the dynamics of communities and the tradeoffs between privacy and community in how people choose to live.
That long read was published in November 2020 under the headline: “Idealism, secrets and paranoia in Burnage Garden Village.” The subheadline captured the original premise of my reporting, and also the sense that this was a place that didn’t welcome scrutiny. It read: “The community was built on utopian principles and has a long waiting list. But it doesn't welcome prying eyes.” It quickly became one of The Mill’s early hits — one of the stories that established us as an organisation that was going to publish local journalism that didn’t feel anything like local journalism (it was also probably the reason I ended up working for this company). If you haven’t read it before, that’s your first task. Then come back here, because ever since it came out, I’ve been wondering what on earth I had missed in Burnage Garden Village.
Burnage Garden Village is smaller than you’d think: just 144 houses (or 136 — records vary), set off the western side of Burnage Lane, all encircling a bowling green, tennis courts and a club house. The thing that strikes you, visiting the handful of streets it’s composed of (largely a road that forms a loop, but is divided up into compass points — North, West and South Ave), is just how quiet it is. By contrast, the birdsong sounds deafening.
The houses are mostly white, striped with red brickwork, and semi-detached, with the sort of features you’d associate with the arts and crafts movement, like catslide roofs (a roof that extends closer to the ground on one side). They are nice, but not excessively so. Honestly — as exciting as I find the idea behind the village, the homes themselves are only remarkable in how unremarkable they look to my untrained eye, which might be because local architects, Gustave Agate and J. Horner Hargreaves, designed them following the ideals of Edwardian suburban housing.
Over the past two years, I have fielded intermittent messages from those who either lived in the village or used to live there. They made claims — unpublishable here, since those making them tended to abort messaging so quickly I gathered little-to-no evidence for the stories they told. The messengers seemed to share a common concern: that life would be unbearable if anyone knew they were saying anything negative about the village — that is, if anyone guessed who they were, even if I quoted them anonymously.
Bit by bit, I gave up on ever writing on the subject again, since everyone seemed too antsy on the subject. Presumably, it was one of those tight-knit communities where “tight” meant suffocating. But one day last summer, Joshi received a phone call on his mobile: two villagers wanted to meet me. They explained that someone had given them a print edition of The Mill — a one-off edition we published as a marketing push in late 2021 — in which my long read about the village appeared. I liked the idea that in this community, it wasn’t online that they had come across my article but via a print edition delivered by someone from the outside world. They had found Joshi’s contacts from there.
We met in an out-of-the-way pub. The two villagers asked me not to identify them or even say their gender, so I’m not doing so, and they wanted to meet at a place where they wouldn’t be seen by anyone they knew. When we got to the pub, they started talking and didn’t stop for an hour — I frantically made notes and recorded the meeting, but there were so many different names and plot points and nuances, I couldn’t make much sense of it. Later, they would connect me with a third villager, X, who became my main point of contact for this story.
Unlike the other messengers over the years, X had evidence in spades, giving me a 176-page-long dossier, of minutes from meetings, correspondence, screenshots of Facebook group posts and comments below it and more. The more I spoke to X, the clearer it seemed that they wanted someone who was not involved in the village to act as a sort of neutral arbitrator of what had gone on there. To get to the bottom of things, to uncover the truth and to publish it, so those in the village could decide for themselves who had been in the wrong and who had been in the right, and peace could be restored.
But what had taken place in Burnage Garden Village around the time I was reporting — was it an act of violence, an assault or a murder? Was the village in thrall to some sort of cult or harbouring an organised crime ring? The real issue was both far, far smaller and more sprawling than I had ever imagined. Smaller because the stakes were tiny, but larger since it sounded like virtually everyone who lived there was involved. Emotions had reached an operatic frequency, and rightly so. The village was in the grip of an ideological civil war.
The committee war
It all started with Alison McCarlton. She’s a secretary who has worked for the elected committee that runs the village for approximately 15 years. In summer 2020, she had claimed she was being bullied by the chairman of the committee, Cyril Glennon. This claim was repeated by two other employees after the fact — a second secretary, Lee-Anne Scanlan, and an estate manager, Alan James. X was sceptical about these claims — it seemed convenient that they coincided with a significantly higher workload due to new health and safety requirements the same committee led by Cyril had introduced. (I wanted to put these allegations to Alison over the phone but she declined to be interviewed.)
X said there was a protocol for how Alison should have reported this — there was a protocol for almost everything in the village, I realised, on reading the rulebook I’d been supplied with, along with the dossier — but instead of raising it in her yearly review, she confided in one of the committee, John Wijnhoven, in private. There was also (naturally) a protocol for how John should have investigated these claims, but he had jumped ship on the rules and taken it upon himself to investigate the bullying claims on his own.
When this came out, all order broke down. John was kicked off the committee for disregarding procedures (ironically, he countered by saying the way he’d been kicked off the committee contravened procedure — too long to go into), and rumours began to spread about the committee in power.
Some of the committee subsequently felt bullied by the rest of the village — and there are a number of painful emails in the dossier, recounting various circumstances that sound unpleasant if you’ve ever lived in a claustrophobically small location: people hurling nasty remarks at one another over fences — some of which are expressed, or at least remembered, in language that feels distinctively archaic (“Are you not speaking to me?” — and in response: “I don’t talk to tripe”); accusations of committee family members getting special treatment compared to non-elected plebs; an email from the former chairman, Cyril, reporting his family life was being eroded by the situation — he was under pressure and suffering sleepless nights, but he wasn’t able to talk to them about what was happening due to a confidentiality agreement that all committee members have to sign; screenshots of tense Facebook exchanges (with some attempt at diluting the tension via generous sprinklings of the crying-laughing emoji).
An insurgent group calling themselves “the Undersigned”, led by John, started trying to wrestle power off the committee, and things got even more colourful. The Undersigned illegally held a meeting during lockdown in the village hall, and the official committee reported them to the police. The Undersigned demanded an election; the committee countered by proposing a postal vote, given the constraints of Covid-19; the Undersigned argued this was a ploy to hold onto power.
The story continues: it’s pretty involved, and it winds on and on and on, and eventually the Undersigned manage to get elected, allegedly due to some clever manoeuvring — strategic resignations by the part of their allies, forcing a second election. Then there were claims of fairly low-level financial corruption (£300, which the original committee claimed was stolen to pay for the considerable printing costs of sending endless passive-aggressive letters protesting the original committee’s behaviour to the entire village — one can’t help but wonder what will happen to the paper industry when the village learns about the pioneering new technology that is email). This claim was investigated and debunked by an accountant, though he quit the account a few months later, which felt fishy to the source we are calling X — the accountant had been responsible for that account for at least 15 years.
After spending days reading through the dossier a couple of times and shooting off emails and phone calls and questions to X, I started to feel less preoccupied with making sense of what had gone on — incident A leading to incident B — and more preoccupied with a sort of creeping disillusionment. I’ve never lived in a proper co-operative as such (to qualify, properties should meet two conditions, argues one report by a housing non-profit: “firstly, that residents are, at least nominally, collective ‘owners’ of their homes and, secondly, that such homes cannot be purchased or sold on the free market”), but I’ve lived in a couple of housing schemes which had elements of cooperativism woven into them — where permanent residents voted on some changes, carried out simple repairs themselves and paid rent that was much lower than the average for the area. In my first years of being a journalist, it had been difficult to earn enough money to make a living. I would have had to have quit and turned my hand to a more profitable occupation if it hadn’t been for such schemes.
These housing schemes were in Germany, but such housing seemed far rarer here. So back in 2020, I’d been comforted to read about Burnage Garden Village. To quote my original piece, Ebenezer Howard, who came up with the idea of garden cities, wanted people to be able to live in a place where “Town and Country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.” As I found out from X, the rent in Burnage Garden Village was extraordinarily low — a little over £200 a month for an entire house for those who have been there a while (however, there is a two-tier system with newcomers paying approximately £360 a month, which X acknowledges is still “nothing like the world outside”). The average house has three bedrooms (two-bedroom houses are the second most common, then houses with four bedrooms).
But this was only one piece of the puzzle. The village seemed designed with an eye to community: every six weeks or so, money was set aside for the villagers to go on day trips together to places like Southport and Castleton, and there was money for a Christmas party and plants for the village hall. In my original article, an interviewee had told me about a red card being delivered during Covid-19, which residents were encouraged to place on their windowsill if they were struggling, so their neighbours could see it and check in. The same person described residents phoning up vulnerable members of the community, asking them what food they needed and dropping it off at their doorsteps.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Burnage Garden Village had been designed around a principle I fundamentally agree with: that we need other people. Instead of residing in isolated luxury shoeboxes, the villagers were encouraged to be part of each other’s lives. It suggested that bricks and mortar was only one small part of housing — that a real community would be exactly that. But it was hard to believe that the reality had lived up to the blueprint, reading so many acrid little emails. To a person, everyone involved sounded strained, enraged and at each other’s throats.
It would be easy to make fun of a lot of this. There’s a contrast between the telenovela emotions expressed by the villagers and the annoyances that provoke them: somebody investigating a bullying allegation but not following protocol; the proposal of a postal vote rather than the in-person variety; someone shouting something mildly insulting over a fence. But the reality of this is that the wider context has created a torturous situation.
Why don’t they leave? If these villagers lived in a different European country, there might have been fights and bickering, but they wouldn’t have resigned themselves to this situation for the rest of their lives. A report from 2010 claimed that approximately 10% of Europeans live in housing cooperatives, meaning that it’s easier to leave and find a different one if things don't work out. Here, I get the sense that the low rent has become a poisoned chalice. For a lot of villagers, they don’t have the money to move to non-cooperative accommodation. They’re trapped.
Imagine the last person you had any sort of low-level tension with. Now imagine living on the same street as them for 20, 30 years, going to the same meetings, gossiping about them, being gossiped about by them, rumours spread about you and someone is cold to you in the street for reasons you can’t put your finger on, and you suspect this enemy of yours is the source of this pervasive chill directed at you by those around you.
If you didn’t live in a cooperative, this scenario wouldn’t happen — they would probably disappear out of your lives after a few years to move up the property ladder. But within the confines of a tiny village, I imagine you’d eventually grow to detest each other. This is the problem the villagers face — and I can understand why they sound so desperate.
X, I tried my best. I reached out to the secretaries and to John and I asked them for interviews. My emails were discussed at a management meeting and I received an email from Lee-Anne, the Assistant Secretary, on behalf of the Committee, asking “if correspondence can please be sent through the Manchester Tenant Limited office only and not to private individuals.” They asked me to detail the allegations, and I did. I asked them about the fact that the current chairperson has been declared bankrupt (something I checked is correct via the insolvency register), and yet according to the village rule book you cannot stand on the committee if you have ever been bankrupt.
I asked about the allegation that the current committee uses the pettiest mistakes to reject housing applications of those they dislike — for example, demanding that applications be entirely completely in caps locks and then rejecting an application because an email address was listed in lower case (as email addresses are generally formatted!). That the second elections were strategically rushed through so the Undersigned could get elected. That the same accountant who explored the allegation of financial foul play resigned from the Burnage Garden Village account (the same account he’d worked on for more than 20 years) a few months after exonerating the Undersigned. That a solicitor had expressed anxiety that someone was trying to tamper with the election in the first election.
After seeking legal counsel to respond to my questions, I received either “Untrue” or “Factually incorrect” as a response to all of my allegations, with the exception of the caps lock controversy, which their solicitor clearly believed — unlike allegations of financial foul play or election tampering — merited a fuller response: “Factually incorrect. We always have an overwhelming response when the housing list opens. The Housing Committee have a strict regime to adhere to. The application process is carried out in a fair and professional manner.”
On replying, I wanted to unpick the logic behind their choice of wording: did they mean something different when they responded with “factually incorrect” to an allegation than when they wrote “untrue”? I also put it to the committee that they might want to explain why a point was untrue and to provide some evidence. From the perspective of the average reader, just answering “untrue” might not be terribly persuasive, I argued. At this point, the committee had clearly had enough of swapping emails, stating: “The Committee do not wish to make any further comment as we will not be discussing private matters with anyone other than our Shareholders.”
On reading the rulebook one last time, I’m struck by how granular many of the details are. There is no territory which remains uncharted by regulations; the authors have thought of everything: “There will be a £10 charge for a first letter sent regarding rent arrears and any further letters will incur a charge of £15.” As if the secretaries were governing a sprawling metropolis, rather than being able to walk a few minutes down the road, knock on the guilty party’s door and ask them about it face to face.
In her 1960 essay, 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness', writer Jo Freeman critiques the power inequalities in rule-free feminist groups: "Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion."
She argues that striving for a structureless group, as such, becomes as "useful, and as deceptive" as aiming for an "'objective' news story, 'value-free' social science, or a 'free' economy." The essay goes on to argue that structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and that for everyone to be able to participate equally, you need rules to be open and available to everyone, something which can only happen if they are formalised.
While this makes a good deal of sense, I wonder if there is such a thing as over-democratisation — where there is so much focus on fairness, that the original goal of the community is left by the wayside. When I lived in Berlin, I was a member of a feminist performance art group for a total of six weeks.
The group was extremely preoccupied with functioning democratically. As such, not only could each person propose a name for the group, but they were also entitled to give a speech explaining their thinking behind the name and why it was such a good idea, and each speech might last 10 or 15 minutes. When a few people in the group made slight amendments to their name suggestions, they also demanded opportunities to give new speeches, explaining their thinking.
This meant that those who had proposed names already also demanded new opportunities to give speeches, afraid that their rationale would be half-forgotten by the time it came to voting for the name. Multiple votes were held and everything got so technical that I stopped understanding what we were even doing. Eventually, I stopped showing up. There was no indication that we would ever reach the reason I'd come along — the performance art part.
There feels like a similar pattern at play here. While there are logical reasons why you might want to have a structure for an organisation (especially one where newcomers might feel at a disadvantage), Burnage Garden Village's fixation on rules seems to have led the community to stray away from its purpose. Namely, the fun and warmth of other people.
Sophie Atkinson is The Mill’s senior editor and culture critic. Her email is email@example.com.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments — what’s the best way to organise a residential community? Can we live more cooperatively without the kinds of issues suggested by Burnage Garden Village?