An aerial view of the suburbs outside Bristol. Photo: Getty Images
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Poverty in suburbia: is it time for a suburban renaissance?

Research shows that 57 per cent of all those who live in poverty live in the suburbs of England and Wales. There are significant socio-economic features in the suburbs which have been largely ignored.

There has been a long and distinguished history of mapping poverty by place – it is well over a century, for example, since Charles Booth's Life and Labour of People in London. But much of this work has concentrated on poverty as a blight on our inner cities.  In a modern context the focus has been on revitalising our city centres. However whilst we have seen an urban renaissance in most of our major cities many of the poorer suburbs have been left behind. As our new report, Poverty in Suburbia, demonstrates most of those in poverty live in suburbs.

Many thinkers on the left have ignored or at worst been hostile to suburbia. As unpublished version Nye Bevan's In place of fear contained a passage describing suburbs as “an aesthetic monstrosity, an ethical crime, an economic nightmare and a physical treadmill”. George Orwell was equally dismissive, as the narrator in Coming Up For Air muses, suburbia “is just a prison with the cells all in a row, a line of semi-detached torture chambers”. Today suburbs are more likely to be presented as places of relative prosperity and comfort – and often ridiculed for it. Yet, the latest evidence belies this image with many suburban neighbourhoods showing high concentrations of poverty.

Regardless of how suburbs have been viewed they are here to stay – with such shortages in housing it would be a brave politician to suggest that they there should be less of them! Suburbs also remain attractive places to live, not least because of the mix of convenient access to jobs and services and the housing and green spaces they offer. Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are reasons why people chose and still choose to live in suburbs. But the stereotypical view of suburbs as places as the sole preserve of the upwardly mobile middle classes needs to be re-imagined.

Of course, concentrations of poverty remain highest in inner cities. However strategies to combat poverty that focus solely on such places miss the majority below the breadline. This focus on inner cities is perhaps a result of there being no regular official statistics on suburbs. In the USA, where there is more data, the Brookings Institution has undertaken numerous studies on America's poorest suburbs. The conclusion they reach is that many of the US city suburbs are in serious decline, and need urgent attention.

The level of analysis and debate on poverty in suburbia in the UK is no-where near our American cousins. The furore over welfare reforms did highlight that people were fearful that poorer people would no longer be able to live in city centres, and that there may be a flight to the leafy suburbs. But the focus was on the impact on the inner city and its residents, not what it might mean for suburbia.

The government seem to have a blind spot on suburbia, which is surprising given the number of marginal seats in the suburbs. Our study aims to fill that information gap by using a range of indicators to map poverty and evaluate which ‘at risk’ groups are most common in suburbs.

The findings suggest that approximately 7 million people in poverty (57 per cent of all those in poverty) live in the suburbs of England and Wales. There are significant socio-economic features in the suburbs which have been largely ignored. For example, of those at risk of poverty there were higher concentrations of lone parents, part-time workers, people with a disability, and pension credit recipients in suburbs than the rest of the country. And other poverty indicators, such as unemployment and renting in the private sector, have grown fastest in suburban areas. Moreover the number of suburban neighbourhoods with above-average levels of poverty has risen by 33 per cent over the last decade. Since the recession there are now more people per head on certain means-tested benefits (pension credit, job seeker’s allowance, income support and disability living allowance) in the suburbs than the rest of the country.

The change can be seen in major cities too where there has been a narrowing gap in concentrations of poverty between urban centres and their suburbs. For example incidences of poverty in the suburbs compared to the rest of city narrowed in London by 4 percentage points, Manchester by 3 percentage points and Newcastle by 3 percentage points.

Such observations demand a greater focus on the suburbs by government (both local and central), policy makers and anti-poverty campaigners. Moreover, things could become a lot worse. Welfare reforms, the high cost of private rents and the lack of affordable housing in inner cities may be forcing poorer people out to the suburbs. This alongside predicted rises in child poverty rates could mean that without action poverty becomes even more prevalent in suburbia.

The evidence warrants a much greater attention from Westminster and Whitehall – as well as the town hall. And there needs to be a much greater understanding of the issues suburbs are facing. Not all suburbs are the same and any strategy to regenerate our suburbs and combat poverty requires place-based approaches. But we need to start by changing how we view suburbs, not in a monolithic way as just places of prosperity but also as places that are not doing well. Over the last decade we have experienced a renewal of our inner cities, perhaps the time is now right for a suburban renaissance?

Paul Hunter is head of research at the Smith Institute

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.