Suburbia: often mischaracterised in the popular imagination as a place of net curtains, in out-of-the way districts, where people live humdrum lives. A land of people washing their cars on Sundays. Placid places at the end of the line, celebrated in song by everyone from the Beatles to Blur.
Yet the suburbs, an optimistic creation which soared as Victorian values gave way to the Edwardian housebuilding boom, are now facing pressures from all directions.
I first started writing about suburbia when Labour was last in power, arguing that the suburbs were suffering new pressures because of a changing demographic and infrastructure fraying at the edges. Where there was once said to be ‘white flight’ to the suburbs from the inner cities, some of these areas on the outskirts were facing different kinds of change – both gentrification and an increasingly ethnically diverse population.
After I was elected to parliament in 2015, I had an unparalleled opportunity and unique licence to fight for the suburbs. I wanted to draw attention to the generation of 30-somethings unable to get on the property ladder, faced with housesharing well into their adult life. The suburban semis of Ealing and Acton, conceived as family dwellings, were now populated by urban housesharing types in professional jobs, so overheated had the London property market become.
Suburbs have historically had a bad deal. Inner cities traditionally attracted investment from Labour, for instance through the City Challenge programme, and rural areas had the support of groups like the Countryside Alliance, but suburbs had few friends. The Tory victory in 2019 has left suburbs even further behind, as another type of place has started to have money splashed at it: the ’Red Wall’ towns. The recent £3.6bn fund investing in towns has not spread its largesse to suburbs like the one I represent. Levelling up has been for the benefit of retaining Conservative electoral gains.
Our unloved suburbs need championing. Step forward the suburbs taskforce, an offshoot of the all-party parliamentary group for London housing and planning.
The suburban taskforce’s remit is to make recommendations to futureproof our suburbs. Our gaggle of cross-party parliamentarians initially met to get the ball rolling when news of a mystery disease was starting to filter through from China and then Italy. As the housing minister Christopher Pincher MP astutely pointed out at the time, coronavirus saw us heading towards a period of isolation but paradoxically it was an isolation in which communities might be strengthened. Three lockdowns later, suburban society has changed in ways previously unimaginable, with working from home for white collar staff, flourishing mutual aid groups, and a new appreciation of space all affecting the way our suburban communities live.
Small businesses in our suburbs – although suffering from the impact of lockdown – have stepped in to fill in the gaps where state provision has sometimes failed. In my borough, there have been restaurants providing school meals when our cash-strapped council was struggling.
Also notable in the suburbs in the time of coronavirus, and indeed elsewhere, has been the groundswell of popular opinion over the future of our communities. A prime example is low traffic neighbourhoods, which have fiercely divided opinion. Wherever you stand on that issue, there is little doubt that the debate has reinvigorated local democracy and showed how people are keen to have a stake in decisions about where they live.
Our suburbs taskforce received some 50 submissions from the public, local government, academia and other organisations, demonstrating that there is significant interest in promoting a suburban renaissance.
The responses showed that, with affordable homes increasingly out of reach, housing is one of the key issues in our suburbs. But although there is support for increasing housing density, people want it to be done carefully. They want to preserve the character of their area and to ensure that good infrastructure, including sustainable transport options and vibrant community facilities, is in place to support new development. As we move onto the next phase of the taskforce’s work, we aim to ensure that suburbs can thrive.
All too often, the voice of the suburbs has been ignored. It is time for the suburbanists, not just the urbanists, to play their part in shaping the future of our country.