Saints, Pompey and the city that never was…

18 Feb

Recently I’ve been looking beyond blogging to a few different projects. One of these is looking at the history of Southampton FC from a ‘what if’ perspective. It’s a long way from completion (if it does ever see the light of day!), but I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the output and see what people think. The what if here relates to a plan, which seems almost unthinkable, but was seriously considered in the 1960s…

We have glimpsed at the possibilities of a new kind of metropolitan area for people who may or may not be more affluent and more leisured than we are today, but who are certain to be better educated. For them we have seen clustered housing in rich variety with rivers and woodlands in interlacing patterns, countryside and marine recreations ready to hand, easy for movement , convenient for shopping, strongly based on educational establishments, a powerful commercial centre, and (as important as anything) a venue for “21st century” industry. Seen in this light we realised that expansion could bring incalculable profit to the whole nation

Buchanan & Partners South Hampshire Study: Report on the feasibility of major urban growth Ministry of Housing and Local Government HMSO 1966

Lying in the depths of Southampton’s civic archive is a document with a plan so radical, of such magnitude, that had it been implemented the whole region – maybe even the whole country – would today look vastly different: Officially named The South Hampshire Study the 1966 publication by Colin Buchanan and Partners sets out the blue-print for what is more commonly known as Solent City – a name which was not used in the South Hampshire Study itself, but came from an earlier publication, A Town called Alcan, which had tabled proposals for a similar ‘linear-city’ development.

The intent of the plan outlined in the SHS was to create a city able to accommodate a growing population, promote new types of industry such as electronics and act as a ‘counterweight’ to London. The city would be joined up by a grid system of road and rail with several major routes connecting the city from East to West, bookended by the ancient cities of Southampton and Portsmouth.

It is these two cities which have had a longstanding rivalry. There is much myth and confusion about the historic origins of this rivalry with various explanations offered from strike-breaking to medieval administrative antagonisms.

What is more abundantly clear is that today it is the two cities respective football clubs which are beacons of this rivalry. It is also one which has hardened in the past few years. Whilst football has generally shaken off the tarnish of the era of hooliganism to become safer and more family friendly games between the two have been at best ill-tempered. Infamously in one 2004 meeting which resulted in 94 arrests a 14 year old girl became the youngest female to receive a ban from football matches. Non-competitive games between the two which were once an regular feature would today be almost unthinkable, the last being veteran Pompey ‘keeper Alan Knight’s testimonial in 1994

So what would have happened had the Solent City plan been realised, would the rivalry be as deep as it has become today, or would it have taken a different course?

The authors of the Urban South Hampshire Study were clear in that their vision was not simply to expand, or merge the cities, but to create a whole new entity and the development was meant to re-enforce this

In general terms we think both cities would need to find their futures in identifying themselves as important parts of a new metropolitan area on the south coast. This is especially applicable to Portsmouth. This city, with the greatest respect, is a city with a question mark over it

Had this occurred then the logical step would be for the rivalry between the cities and football fans to evaporate with the softening of the lines on the map. Boundaries can change and it is worth remembering that the Hampshire Senior Cup final of 1893 was added extra poignancy by the fact that Freemantle was due to be swallowed up by its burgeoning neighbour and the Magpies victory that day could be seen as a reassertion of Freemantle’s identity as something distinct. In the present day however, the idea that today a resident of Freemantle – or indeed a resident of Bitterne, Portswood, or St. Deny’s – would draw a distinction between being a resident of their area and a resident of Southampton is extremely unlikely.

The planners proposals sought to remodel the existing cities, including a shift the new mega-cities centre of gravity to the points where the major routes intersected at Eastleigh or Cosham. Such re-modelling would lead to some displacement of the population from what are core areas of the clubs supporter base, weakening these. Furthermore Solent City would also have had many cases of shared symbols, perhaps even a landmark piece of architecture or two. In time structures such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, or London Eye become focal points of a shared sense of identity.

All of this in time this would erode the identity of Southampton and Portsmouth without which the rivalry would be almost meaningless.

Finally there is the question of novelty factor. It has been suggested that one reason for the derby having added significance is that the two clubs fortunes have rarely aligned. This makes games between the two rare events, more so since the virtual cessation of non-competitive fixtures between the two. Solent City development would have been good for both clubs in terms of the population boost in their catchment as well as the economic power of the region as a whole. This would have made it easier to sustain two top flight clubs. Games between the two would have become routine events and therefore less likely to cause much excitement, much like as if Christmas was every day.

On the other hand some of the fiercest and most keenly contested rivalries take place within a single city. In fact the battle to acquire bragging rights as Solent City’s premier team may even lend the rivalry an extra edge. The examples of Arsenal and Tottenham, Rangers and Celtic, Liverpool and Everton, Bristol City and Bristol Rovers all demonstrate that sharing a city doesn’t act in any way to diminish a rivalry between football clubs.

Similarly history and identity cannot be so easily erased, even by the bulldozer. It is possible that the rivalry would become even more potent as the population reacted against official efforts to mould a new pan-Solent identity. Even with better transport links and greater fluidity of movement, people still do not tend to move far from their support networks. This impulse would ensure that despite remodelling and displacement old networks and allegiances would find a way to endure.  The two clubs would come to represent a form of resistance to the new vision and the new landscape – a way of kicking back against large-scale change. In this case a rivalry would be at the very least as fierce and intense as today, but may well have been even more so.

All this remains conjecture. Buchanan and Partner’s plans were met with a less than favourable response and instead of becoming reality were banished to a dusty shelf in the bowels of Southampton civic centre. There is however, an irony, pointed out by Nicholas Phelps in his book An Anatomy of Sprawl: Planning and Politics in Britain. It is that what opponents of Solent City most feared, urban sprawl, has come to pass. The hinterland between the two cities, of villages and strawberry fields has been largely developed, into a continuous edgeland of suburban cul-de-sacs, industrial estates and retail parks; Piecemeal and lacking a unifying one-city vision. At some point in this a no-man’s land red becomes blue, but for the most part those residents watching football on their televisions are as likely to be wearing Liverpool, Chelsea, or Manchester United shirts while at the far ends the poles of Southampton and Portsmouth seem further apart than ever.

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