I live in suburban London, but it’s not something you ever hear anybody boast about. We know that we are looked down on by our neighbours in Inner London on the one hand, and by country-dwellers on the other. Celebrated in verse by John Betjeman, vilified in three verses and a chorus by the Petshop Boys, does suburbia have anything at all going for it?
The rich were the first to establish weekend villas out of town, which they eventually moved in to full time. Next came the middle classes. When the lower orders first aspired to improve their lot and follow them out of Inner London, there was resentment in some quarters that they had ideas above their station. We now call this ‘social mobility’, which is supposedly a goal of all parties across the political spectrum, though I wonder how many of us are sincere in this objective. If truth be told, I suspect that most of us would rather see our neighbours fall flat on their faces than make good.
Much of suburban London bloomed as the railways spread their tendrils before and between the wars. It offered city workers a comfortable, safe and clean environment, with green spaces, parks, trees and gardens. The housing stock was better than the terraces they left behind them, with better accommodation and space enough to grow some vegetables. In short, it offered the proletariat the opportunity to move out so far and the bourgeoisie further still. Their white-collar jobs afforded them the luxury of larger properties and justified longer journeys. They were surrounded in turn by the home counties’ stockbroker belt.
The appeal of the countryside is obvious to anyone who has no need to access the city. It must be better to live surrounded by trees rather than on barren streets simply named after them. On the other hand, city living has its own cachet. We are encouraged to think of the city-dweller as cultured and sophisticated, socialised and liberal enough to rub along with the wide range of densely-packed neighbours they come into contact with each day. This includes a richer cultural diversity than perhaps anywhere else in the world, which you might expect of a city with a population of 7,172,000 (2001 government census) that was once the centre of a global trading empire.
Inner London has parliament, high art, cathedrals, finance and world-class venues for sport and entertainment. The suburbs have town halls, local art centres, retail parks, industrial estates and corporation playing fields. Urban living gives young adults the best range of opportunities for work and, once they have secured their well-paid job in town, they can afford to live more centrally and enjoy the full benefit of the urban playground that awaits them. Census figures show there are more single (non-pensioner) adults in Inner London than elsewhere in the country and more still in the City (28% and 46% of the population, respectively).
So what is the appeal of suburbia? Is it simply a doughnut-shaped dormitory for dullards? Does it serve no other purpose than as a place for workers to recuperate between shifts? The suburbanites will point out that, in addition to its many amenities, Inner London also has more traffic, more assaults, muggings, stabbings, burglary, gun crime and drug-dealing. Suburbia is therefore a better place to raise a family. Whereas country-dwellers often need a car to reach their nearest amenities such as healthcare, education and shops, these are all in easy reach of the suburban household.
The census also reveals a greater proportion of people are aged between 20 and 44 in both Inner London (48 per cent) and Outer London (39 per cent) than for England as a whole (35 per cent). If they decide to start a family of their own, they may well make the move back out to the suburbs to find a property with adequate accommodation in their price range. When they eventually retire from work and their children have fledged they may feel themselves no longer tied to the city. Now they are free to sell up and move out to the open countryside. However, the CIA’s World Factbook shows that only 10% of the UK’s population lived in the countryside in 2008, suggesting that rural living remains a romantic dream for most of us, all poetry and no prose, the exact opposite of suburbia.
Perhaps the best of both worlds is suburban living in a village setting that pre-dates the modern conurbation: ideally with the classic combination of a Norman church, a few Tudor shops, some historic pubs and a medieval duck-pond. These at least give some character and focus to a community.
The Metropolitan Green Belt prevents suburbia from sprawling like a nasty rash, as happens in north America, and keeps the open countryside in easy reach of its residents. This is threatened by the Institute of Directors’ current lobbying for a relaxation of regulations to stimulate the construction industry.
Accepting the amenities of Inner London and the beauty of the open countryside, suburbia has neither, but what would you rather? A city wall surrounding a dense collection of high-rise apartments, with farmland immediately outside it? There has to be some transition between high-density Inner London and low-density countryside and, even with the benefit of hindsight, how else could town planners have done better?
Outer London is far from perfect. The parades of butchers, bakers and greengrocers have been replaced with pizza parlours, cheap off-licences and charity shops. It has its share of dirt, decay, litter and anti-social behaviour. What could be done to make suburbia better? The same measures that would work anywhere: more investment, character and culture, better public transport, lower crime rates, less traffic, etc., etc.
Perhaps it is time to accept that suburbia serves a useful purpose and does it quite well. Our neighbours might not look down their noses quite so much if we referred to it instead as Greater London.