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
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.