In 1992, while the Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets were topping the pops, a band of pioneering regeneration professionals formed a tight clique, took on the seemingly impossible task of transforming the notorious Hulme Estate – and haven't looked back since. We chart their successes
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Today, the Hulme–Moss Side Partnership shuts down.

In the past few months, this body – charged 11 years ago with the regeneration of one of the UK's most notorious estates – has been running on a skeleton staff of just three people. A partnership between Manchester council and construction giant Amec, the body's closure actually represents its success, drawing a thick black line under a job well done.

No less a figure than deputy prime minister John Prescott has frequently lavished praise on the work of the professionals at the partnership. And well he might: in stark contrast with a decade ago, walking around the Hulme Estate and the surrounding Moss Side area of Manchester does not send shivers down the spine. With all but 1500 units of the original housing demolished, this once rundown, drug-fuelled estate is now a red-brick suburbia, complete with rows of satellite dishes and matching patios – as a self-sustaining community it no longer needs the partnership to hold its hand. Islam Noor, a local taxi driver, sums up the transformation: "I've lived in Manchester 21 years, but it feels totally different now. It is a new Hulme."

The revamp of the estate, as well as the largely impoverished areas that surround it, was the work of a raw group of planners, politicians and consultants who have gone on to dominate regeneration policy and practice for the best part of a decade. Several of the Hulme set proudly refer to themselves as "the class of '92" – each member graduating with honours. Others in the field who attend major regeneration conferences, sick of hearing how Hulme is the template for all urban renaissance schemes since, only half-jokingly refer to them as the "Manchester mafia", suggesting an impenetrable clique rather than a group of learned professionals.

One of the original gang is Barbara McLoughlin. In 1992 she was seconded from the council's planning department to work in the partnership, becoming its director four years later. She says: "We all were quite raw. I've worked in Manchester planning all my life, but what Hulme did was make all of us learn some realities. I now have to talk about unemployment, the transport network and healthcare, not just town planning. It was very much a case of sink or swim – and most of us swam."

McLoughlin, like the rest, has used Hulme as a springboard to further her career: with the closure of the partnership she will move from flattening dilapidated council housing to demolishing an antiquated football stadium. She will be heading up the team that is to replace Maine Road, the former home of Manchester City Football Club, with largely private housing. Destroying Maine Road is a dream job for McLoughlin – her office walls are adorned with posters of City's bitterest rivals, Manchester United.

McLoughlin's predecessor as partnership director, Lesley Chalmers, certainly seems to have heard the Manchester mafia jibe before: she giggles like a schoolgirl at her supposed mob-like connections. Chalmers, née Whitehouse, joined the partnership in 1992 following a six-year stint as director of housing at the Thamesmead Town, a regeneration zone that straddled Greenwich and Bexley in south-east London. She admits that there is a bond among those who worked in Hulme created by what she describes as "a Dunkirk spirit". "People kept saying that Hulme was not do-able. There was a buzz involved; it was inelegant, nobody wanted to do it – so of course you feel something special for the people who worked with you."

Chalmers reported directly to two chairs at the partnership, one representing Amec, the other the council. In her first year, Amec's representative was the company's own chairman, Sir Alan Cockshaw, a local man who walked his dog around Hulme and who, in 1998, would become joint chairman of regeneration quangos English Partnerships and the Commission for the New Towns. Another major Amec player in Hulme, David Taylor, became EP's first chief executive in 1994, and is now a special adviser to Prescott and head of the Hull Urban Regeneration Company, Citybuild.

But it was Cockshaw's successor as Amec representative – John Early – who would provide the vital connection for Chalmers' subsequent career. She left the partnership in 1996, first leading a similar body in King's Cross, north London, before going freelance for five years as a regeneration adviser. Then last year, Early invited her to apply for the chief executive post at the English Cities Fund, a £250m joint venture between Amec, EP and Legal & General, designed to channel private investment into neglected areas. Chalmers herself believes that she got the ECF job at least in part because of her Hulme connections: "John Early rang me last year, partly because he knew me at Hulme." During her freelance days in the late 1990s, Chalmers also advised the Prince's Foundation on projects such as the £250m revamp of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and spoke regularly at seminars hosted by the body.

At this time the chief executive of the Prince's Foundation was David Lunts, another member of the Hulme crowd. Lunts was plucked from relative obscurity by Prince Charles, who had been impressed by Lunts' role at Hulme – he was the councillor heading the housing committee and for a time was the council's leading representative on the partnership board.

Lunts, who is believed to have coined "the class of '92" moniker, suggests that those involved in Hulme are rightly considered the leading lights of the profession. "Hulme taught a lot of people a lot of things about urban planning and high density housing. Hulme created a new language about regeneration, challenging existing standards – such as bringing in the idea of high-density terraced street housing; housebuilders were only looking at constructing semi-detached houses."

Lunts learned the lessons so well that he became a key figure on the Urban Task Force, the Richard Rogers-led body charged by the government to generate ideas for the revamp of the UK's rundown inner cities. Last year he became even more central to the government's regeneration plans, as he joined the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as an adviser to Prescott. He is now in charge of Prescott's plans to build 200,000 homes on the Thames Gateway, Europe's largest brownfield site.

In this capacity, Lunts' first task was to set up and run the Urban Summit, held in Birmingham last year, a two-day conference designed to assess the successes and failures of the government's regeneration programme. At the press conference two months ahead of the summit, detailing and trumpeting its programme, Lunts was flanked by two leading regenerators, one of whom was Chris Brown.

Brown is yet another from the heady days of Manchester '92.

He is the first to admit that his role in Hulme was minor, largely helping with the design guide that set up the principles dictating the Hulme development. But it was in 1992 that he co-founded Manchester-based regeneration consultant Kenrick Brown, which was among those that successfully lobbied the government for additional money for the city the following year. Brown's reputation blossomed and, in 1995, he was asked by Amec Developments to set up an urban regeneration subsidiary, specifically geared to building on Amec's partnership with the council. Brown reported directly to John Early. Then in 2001, Brown left to head up Igloo, the regeneration arm of Morley Fund Management. But Brown and Early's paths were set to cross once more – Igloo has become a joint-venture partner with Amec and British Waterways on Isis, a limited partnership looking to promote development around the country's canals.

Brown admits that the Manchester connections have fed much of his career. "When you've known people for 10 to 15 years, it's not surprising that there is a fair degree of trust and respect," he says. "Manchester was the heart of the industrial revolution, so it's not surprising that it is the heart of the regeneration revolution."

In 1992, Brown's consultancy Kenrick Brown was based in the same building as a small architecture practice led by Ian Simpson (who, incidentally, is an old flame of Lesley Chalmers). Simpson's firm had only six or seven employees and survived on the money the boss brought in from teaching at the University of Manchester. Today, Simpson is in charge of nearly 50 people and has created some of the country's most significant projects, such as Manchester's cultural centre, Urbis.

Simpson himself worked on areas close to Hulme, including Knott Mill where his own studio was developed as a centrepiece for regeneration. His interest in revitalising Manchester led to work at Hulme. This included a role as a judge on the competition to build a bridge linking the area to the city centre, won by architect Chris Wilkinson, whose practice Wilkinson Eyre has gone on to be a two-time winner of the prestigious Stirling Prize.

Simpson argues that the Hulme development itself did little to directly benefit his practice, but says that Manchester does lend itself to mafioso-like connections. "In a city the scale of Manchester, the same faces pop up – Manchester can fit seven times within London's congestion zone. One of the benefits of a place the size of Manchester is that people have to take responsibility for what they do, as they are known in the city."

A particularly well-known figure to Simpson and others is Tom Russell, chief executive of the New East Manchester urban regeneration company. This URC was only the second of its kind, after Liverpool Vision, and was given a 10- to 15-year timescale and £2bn budget to rid the area of the characteristics of "neglect, decline and exodus", according to then-regeneration minister Hilary Armstrong. Its private sector partner was, naturally, Amec.

At the time, Russell was the council's deputy chief executive and previously had been the main contact for the Hulme-Moss Side Partnership within the council. He had particularly been involved in the development of the Hulme masterplan – something similar to which was needed for the east Manchester scheme. Russell has plucked several members of the Hulme–Moss Side team to work at the URC and is involved in talks with his old chum Lunts on work commissioned by the ODPM: "We occasionally pick up the phone to each other," says Russell. "There have been conversations about the implementation of the market renewal fund and the future development of URCs."

Most of the graduates of the class of '92 mention how they can simply call each other up when they need advice, indicating that they remain on friendly terms. It seems clear that these former colleagues have formed a clique that entrenches their hegemony in the regeneration sector. But this does not mean that they are not deserving of that success. These shared experiences are now being utilised to develop policy and help those living in similar conditions to the old Hulme Estate, and this can only be a positive thing. As Russell himself concedes, there is a clique, but that in itself brings tangible benefits. "The network is still very strong, even among those who have moved on. Hulme was a real learning experience."

Regeneration X: The Hulme Estate

Hulme’s regeneration overturned the existing orthodoxy of urban design, writes Martin Spring.

Britain’s most notorious 1960s system-built council estate was redeveloped during the 1990s in a manner more in common with the area’s original 19th-century urban layout of terraced streets than with the suburban cul-de-sacs of detached houses that were current at the time. The redevelopment was high-density, mixed-use and medium-rise on a rectilinear grid of urban blocks and streets.

To David Rudlin, director of urban regeneration consultant Urbed, the significance of Hulme regeneration was that it was developed at all. “The sustainable urban neighbourhoods concept was not particularly innovative in its own right, as this was available in any urban design textbook at the time,” he argues. “The innovation was that the people involved managed to get the whole urban renewal system to develop it. They had to take on the police, the housing associations and the highway engineers, who opposed the concepts. They were the first to succeed because they had support from the top members of Manchester council, from David Lunts, who was housing chairman, and from Graham Stringer and Richard Lees, who were successive council leaders.” A 30-page urban design code, drawn up by Urbed and local resident Charlie Baker, was eventually adopted in 1993, after two previous masterplans had been turned down. A year later, the same principles were applied to a code covering all of Manchester. Then in 2000, similar concepts were spread throughout England by CABE and the DETR in their joint urban design guide By Design, devised by architect Llewelyn-Davies.

“Hulme paved the way for CABE’s design guide,” says Rudlin. “Without the successful implementation in Manchester, there would have been stronger opposition to it.”