Jonathan Schofield on businesses creating a project to provide fresh starts for homeless people

My grandmother used to sing words that had no meaning to me as a small child. The words came from a pair of music hall performers called Flanagan and Allen and a song called ‘Underneath the arches’ written in 1932. Later I realised it referred to homeless men sleeping under railway arches during the Great Depression.

The Village will provide residents with their own front door, and teach them the life skills they need to become independent

It's been the fate of railway arches since they were first built to provide shelter to people who find themselves lost in life. Manchester is now set to formalise viaduct occupation through a scheme from developers Peel L&P and Capital & Centric.

A public consultation is underway for Embassy Village which will provide up to ‘forty new permanent modular homes, made from re-purposed shipping containers. It will be located on a self-contained, currently derelict site owned by Peel L&P, below the railway arches between the Bridgewater Canal and River Irwell in the city centre.’ 

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The present site, viewed from the south east across the Bridgewater Canal

As the press release says, the idea is to ‘provide safe, secure homes for people who are homeless or at the risk of being homeless with in-house, start to end support and routes into work. Vulnerable people will be housed and then surrounded by the support and training they need to leave the cycle of homelessness.'

The container ‘homes’ will also share space with a ‘Village Hall’ intended to be a community hub where that training may take place. There’ll be a garden, sports facilities and an area for residents to grow their own vegetables plus external areas in which to mingle. 

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The proposed 'Village Hall'

Embassy is a charity set up in 2019 by husband and wife team, Sid and Tess Williams. Sid Williams says: “We aim to get people into full time work and private rental sector housing, rather than council housing and benefits. We interview everyone we assist and what we look for is a willingness to make progress, learn and, where possible, to work. The Village will provide residents with their own front door, and teach them the life skills they need to become independent and start contributing to society again.”

Williams’ adds: “We’re so grateful for the generous support Peel L&P and Capital & Centric have shown us, as well as all the other companies who’ve made this project possible.”

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Embassy Village how it may look

The designs for the scheme come from Jon Matthews Architects (JMA). John Crellin, Director of JMA, describes in more detail the design ideas behind Embassy Village.

“The development could have been off-the-shelf modular units. But to deliver best value we set ourselves the challenge to use low-cost materials in a creative and playful way. It also allowed for a solution that builds upon the sustainable principles of modular design. 

“Every home will have a bedroom, sitting space, kitchen and bathroom and a view over the water and be arranged in two storey clusters of eight around a central courtyard below the listed railway arches.

“Each cluster is set up with an address unique to, and named after, the railway arch numbering identity. The clusters are linked via a ‘street’ sheltered by the arches that links directly to the Village Hall – a community hub space where residents will have access to skills training and generally be a place to bring everyone together."

Crellin continues with: "On the south facing bank will be a series of sheltered garden and allotment spaces arranged below the outermost arches. These community spaces will give residents a sense of ownership with responsibility for the maintenance of the gardens and harvesting of the produce and other amenity courts and pitches positively utilise otherwise forgotten spaces below the arches."

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One of the suggested container homes

It all sounds very good on paper. A notable feature of the scheme is the way it brings the business community together with a forward-thinking charity. 

The site being utilised is an interesting one too, in effect a protected island between the Bridgewater Canal and the River Medlock bordered on the north by the busy inner ring road between the Mancunian Way and Regent Road. The arches under which Embassy Village will sit have their own interesting history. They were hit by a bomb in World War II and collapsed like a set of tumbling dominoes. 

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The collapsed viaduct after wartime bombing

The proof of the pudding for Embassy Village will be in the eating. The CGIs and renders of the scheme are striking and attractive. This is important because otherwise a combination of words such as 'shipping containers', 'homeless' and 'island site' might not seem a comfortable fit. 

The consultation should prove interesting too. What will the reaction be of nearby residents to the prospect of the homeless 'village'? No matter how well-managed and well-intentioned, it might rattle some owners worried about selling their flats.  

However, if this project is taken forward and the ambition and optimism behind Embassy Village is matched in the delivery then this could be a valuable addition in the battle against Manchester's disastrous homeless problem. Could be. Time will tell with this pretty but strange initiative. 

The last lines of that Flanagan and Allen song my grandmother used to sing are poignant given the aim of Embassy Village. ‘No matter where I roam/Underneath the arches/ We dream our dreams of home’. 

Let's hope for some men at least they find that home. Maybe this might be it. 

To take part in the consultation visit the Embassy Village website and complete the online questionnaire. The consultation closes on 18th February 2021.

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Companies involved in the Embassy Village project

The Peel L&P, Capital & Centric and Embassy charity project has also received support from a range of city based consultants, who all donated their professional services free of charge.

Architect – Jon Matthews Architects, Civil and Structural Engineer – Curtins, Quantity Surveyors – Arcadis, Transport Engineer – Curtins, Mechanical and Electrical Engineer – Crookes Walker, Fire Engineer – OFR, Acoustic Engineer – Fisher Acoustics, Landscape Architect – Planit-i.e, CDMC / PD – CDMC Services, Building Control – Ball and Berry, Sustainability – Element Sustainability, Graphics – Our Studio, Construction Logistics Support – Balfour Beatty, PR – Font Communications, Website development – Blaze Marketing.

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