Volume 17 Number 4
Do Or Die in Wythenshawe
01 August 2004
It was deemed unsustainable to renovate the building as a place of worship, but Greg Davis had a vision of creating something else that would bring the community together.
When GREG DAVIS heard that the Methodist Chapel in Manchester he had attended since childhood was facing closure he had no hesitation in taking it on. ‘It was a do or die situation,’ he says, and do he certainly did. It was deemed unsustainable to renovate the building as a place of worship, but Davis had a vision of creating something else that would bring the community together. And so the United Estates of Wythenshawe (UEW) was born, a unique social centre at the heart of Benchill, the most deprived council estate in England.
Wythenshawe, a poor area on the outskirts of Manchester, became infamous in the 1990s as the home of the UK’s first 12-year-old mother and, amongst other disturbing figures, also boasts the highest male suicide rate in the country and almost a third unemployment.
Davis grew up in Wythenshawe himself and after finishing at the local college began working as a bouncer in pubs and clubs in Greater Manchester before setting up his own security company, Diplomat, in 1989. Diplomat developed into one of the biggest and most successful providers of door staff in Manchester, before he sold it in 1996 with plans for a quiet family life in the country. So what tempted him out his early retirement? ‘There was an empty building needed filling,’ he says with characteristic straightforwardness, before admitting that he was craving a new challenge.
When the project began Davis had no idea of what it was going to become. He began by talking to the local leaders and getting them involved, aiming to use their influence over the rest of the area. Davis is keen to stress when he talks about local leaders that he is referring not to the Council-paid community leaders but to the ‘people who live in the only house on the street that has not been vandalized or broken into. The people with real influence on the estate, who are usually neglected by Council-run regeneration projects.’
Davis feels passionately that change and regeneration should come from within the area and involve the local people. The UEW building was renovated entirely by the local community without the help of contractors or consultants, and in 1998 they managed to replace the dilapidated roof for less than a quarter of the £80,000 professional quote they received. The hard work and community spirit demonstrated by all those involved makes this one of Davis’ proudest achievements—that and the fact that the roof is still holding up!
Today the United Estates of Wythenshawe houses a gymnasium, a crèche, a community shop, a hairdressing salon, a complementary therapy centre, a local newspaper and a small café, to name but a few of the initiatives up and running. A dance studio and theatre workshop are in the pipeline and they are currently looking for funding to start a boxing club. Any profits are put back into the community and, most significantly, all the business ventures are managed by local people.
UEW is also home to FareShare; a business that collects unsold food from supermarkets then redistributes it amongst local charities. The business provides much-needed employment for ten local young people and they have used the scheme to encourage the development of a work ethic. ‘You have to understand,’ Greg explains, ‘that if your parents have never worked you don’t expect to have to get up at half past seven every morning, five days a week, and go to work. It’s not your culture.’
Davis is committed to providing opportunities that would not normally be open to the people of the area, in terms of employment and skills, and most importantly to fostering selfbelief. ‘I feel we’ve created a place where people can bring their dreams,’ says Davis, ‘I think we’ve pulled off something big... but I see it as unfinished business, there’s still so much to do.’