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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.

An aerial view of the suburbs outside Bristol. Photo: Getty Images
An aerial view of the suburbs outside Bristol. Photo: Getty Images

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 As unpublished version Nye Bevan's In place of fear contained a passage describing suburbs as “an aesthetic monstrosity, an ethical crime, an economic nightmare and a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