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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Amber Rudd's report on the benefits of EU immigration is better late than never

The study will strengthen the case for a liberal post-Brexit immigration system. 

More than a year after vowing to restrict EU immigration, the government has belatedly decided to investigate whether that's a good idea. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the costs and benefits of free movement to the British economy.

The study won't conclude until September 2018 - just six months before the current Brexit deadline and after the publication of the government's immigration white paper. But in this instance, late is better than never. If the report reflects previous studies it will show that EU migration has been an unambiguous economic benefit. Immigrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits and sectors such as agriculture, retail and social care depend on a steady flow of newcomers. 

Amber Rudd has today promised businesses and EU nationals that there will be no "cliff edge" when the UK leaves the EU, while immigration minister Brandon Lewis has seemingly contradicted her by baldly stating: "freedom of movement ends in the spring of 2019". The difference, it appears, is explained by whether one is referring to "Free Movement" (the official right Britain enjoys as an EU member) or merely "free movement" (allowing EU migrants to enter the newly sovereign UK). 

More important than such semantics is whether Britain's future immigration system is liberal or protectionist. In recent months, cabinet ministers have been forced to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: Britain needs immigrants. Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. Brexit Secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants." 

In this regard, it's striking that Brandon Lewis could not promise that the "tens of thousands" net migration target would be met by the end of this parliament (2022) and that Rudd's FT article didn't even reference it. As George Osborne helpfully observed earlier this year, no senior cabinet minister (including Rudd) supports the policy. When May departs, whether this year or in 2019, she will likely take the net migration target with her. 

In the meantime, even before the end of free movement, net migration has already fallen to its lowest level since 2014 (248,000), while EU citizens are emigrating at the fastest rate for six years (117,000 left in 2016). The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are among the main deterrents. If the report does its job, it will show why the UK can't afford for that trend to continue. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.