Where next for the suburbs?

Tory politician Brian Coleman mourns what he sees as the deterioration of London's suburbs

So what future is there for the suburbs? Those vast areas of outer London that prior to 1965 used to be in Surrey, Essex, Hertfordshire and most of all Middlesex, which until 1997 was staunchly Conservative.

The suburbs were what the working classes aspired to by. They were the place the middle classes lived and died. Of course there are suburbs in all our major Cities although the middle classes have fled vast areas of formerly suburban Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester for the safety of the neighbouring counties leaving London as the hub of suburban living.

Certainly many London suburbs have the stench of decay emanating from them. The pre-1965 Borough of Hornsey, once a centre of suburban middle class respectability which was subsumed into ghastly Haringey is an area where decent folk lock their car doors as they drive through and has returned no Conservative Councillors whatsoever since 1998.

The combination of allowing huge Edwardian family houses to be converted into bed sits and the 'white flight' in the face of rising crime has meant that areas such as Streatham, Wembley and Willesden have changed beyond all recognition. Conversely some former working class areas in inner London such as Battersea and Fulham have become gentrified but do not have the social structure to allow them to be classed suburban.

When Sir John Betjeman made his famous documentary on 'Metro-land' no self-respecting Suburb was without a flourishing Rotary Club, Townswomen’s Guild, Cricket, Bowls and sundry other Sports Club.

They boasted a selection of Churches, a Tory MP and an active Local Amenity Society. Now with most women working, intense career pressures on the whole workforce, vast mortgages to pay and the changes in family life, most of the voluntary sector in Suburban London is in meltdown with endless organisations unable to get anyone to serve on their Committees.

Many schools struggle to find individuals to serve as governors and all three political parties have to scrape the bottom of the barrel in order to field a complete slate in London Borough Council elections. The hidden wiring that kept suburban community life alive has rusted beyond repair. The past 15 years explosion in house prices has resulted in speculators buying to let and living off the fat of the land. But the result has been a transitory population with few links and little interest in the local community.

Those suburbs that have survived have lacked for decades for any major investment in infrastructure. The disgrace that is the South Circular Road and the unfinished sections of the North Circular are evidence of the transport meltdown that affects much of outer London.

The failure to expand the tube into many South London Boroughs and to allow the overground Network to become rundown, overcrowded and unusable after dark has meant many suburbanites have retreated to their cars with the effect town centres are more congested than inner London.

The desperation many parents face in finding a decent secondary school even in well performing local education authorities and the fact that many post-WW2 Nissan huts still serve as primary classrooms typify the lack of investment in education.

Ken Livingstone has earned the nickname of 'Zone One Mayor' and has notoriously rarely visited some outer London boroughs. The politician who can reverse Suburban decline will reap the electoral rewards.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.