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21 February 2020

How British politics forgot the suburbs – and why they should come first for reinvestment

With county lines, hollowed-out high streets and overpriced housing, it’s net curtains for ministers who ignore the plight of suburbia.

By Rupa Huq

How do you solve a problem like suburbia? Those much-maligned neighbourhoods on the periphery – removed from city centres, situated before shire counties start – tend to be absent from most people’s political priorities. This situation has been compounded by the government’s new-found friends-in-the-north and “red wall” obsession. Along with a bunch of fellow MPs, I’m aiming to change this.

Unlike “those inner cities” that Margaret Thatcher tasked Michael Heseltine to sort out, suburbs are never considered in problem-solving terms as they’re not seen as problematic and are instead left to get on with it, which for the last ten years has meant facing up to austerity.

Although traditionally associated with peaceable prosperity, and havens from the big bad city, suburbs are now riven with pockets of poverty as the Universal Credit welfare system bites.

Successive censuses had shown declining churchgoing but Christian charity has filled the gaps where the state has failed – witnessed in skyrocketing food bank use. This never happened in the stereotypically suburban sitcoms The Good Life or Terry and June.

Employment patterns and demographic trends are recasting modern suburbs away from the old notions of “white flight”. Freedom of movement and globalisation have enriched suburbs with Somalis and Poles as well as other varieties of migratory flows in recent years, adding to aspirational Commonwealth fluidity within cities – for example, movement from Brixton to Croydon in south London.

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The stereotypical suburban lure was as an escape from grime and satanic mills for an easier life – predictable, safe, even boring. But a range of 21st-century pressures has left them beset by difficulties and insecurity. Suburban crime includes the drug and gang networks of county lines. Indeed, 2011 saw riots hit Ealing in west London.

The image of suburbia as a green and pleasant land is also changing in physical form with the developer’s bulldozer and planning laws relaxed, incentivising high rise and challenging notions of suburbs as low density.

Tall buildings are not in keeping with the suburban dream but are springing up everywhere. Established residents feel threatened. They don’t want to live in Manhattan, which is what Wembley – formerly a genteel part of the area once known as Metroland – felt like last time I was there (incidentally to see Canadian band Arcade Fire, whose 2010 album chronicling modern alienation was called The Suburbs).

Suburbs were established in optimism – the ideal between city and country, the rural idyll handily situated within reach of the city centre via transport links. But shrivelling council budgets, with schools and hospital funding down, hollowed-out high streets and the new construction of high-density, unaffordable housing remaining unsold (with the retail units below unlet) are making them into ghost towns. In place of suburban stability come transitory communities and beds in sheds.

Suburbia, then, isn’t what it used to be, with its infrastructure and very fabric frayed and fracturing. In some senses, under attack from numerous fronts, the suburbs – be it Solihull in Birmingham or Didsbury in Manchester – feel under siege.

Yet it’s no good wallowing in nostalgia. To right these wrongs, I’m advocating a suburban task force. It could be based in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government but tie together issues around transport, culture, crime and housing to make sure a suitable slice of the pie is always accorded to suburban areas.

The former minister Jake Berry – who originally threw down the gauntlet to me to do the work, saying he’d consider the conclusions – has since been reshuffled, but I’m determined to make this happen nonetheless.

Even London suburbia feels far outside the Westminster bubble. So for starters, the Labour MPs from Streatham, Dagenham, Ealing North and I (with my constituency being Ealing Central and Acton) sat down to thrash things out this recess week, with the aim of rebalancing funding beyond the red wall.

Our seats almost make up a “red ring” in the capital, along with Harrow, Hounslow and Putney, whose MPs are also feeding in. These once Tory, now Labour-held areas could all too easily be forgotten in the rush to find favour with the Midlands and northern seats.

In time, we could broaden out to Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, but all suggestions and party perspectives are welcome. Voices from the suburbs, so long stifled by the more vocal Countryside Alliance and inner-city advocates between then, are must make their mark. The streets are not paved with gold in outer London and the Tories with their hefty majority ignore this at their peril.

Rupa Huq is Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton. She is the author of 2013 books “Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture” and “On the Edge: The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia”. To contribute to the suburban taskforce email

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