2017 Housing Perspectives #12: ‘We must not leave our suburbs behind’
by Paul Hunter
A suburban renaissance will be key to solving our housing crisis, says Paul Hunter from the Smith Institute, in the latest of our exclusive articles compiled as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report.
If you were to imagine a place of comfortable affluence which was relatively safe, if a tad boring, the chances are what would spring to mind would look a little suburban. It should perhaps come as no surprise that our minds make the mental leap to conjure up images of semi-detached houses, tree-lined streets and ample front gardens. It is certainly the picture of suburbia that has been pushed in culture and by each generation’s Mad Men.
Such suburban prospects and aspirations, whether blue collar or middle class, have however been looked down upon and sneered at: Metroland scorned for its mock-Tudor homes and suburbanites satirised for social climbing. Yet, this has always belied the attractiveness of suburbs to large numbers of the population.
But our cities are changing, and their suburbs today face a different type of challenge. Masked by the stereotype and counterintuitive to the idea of suburbs as places of wealth, the evidence paints a picture of decline. This comes at a time when a suburban renaissance is critical to meeting people’s housing aspirations and needs by delivering the new homes so acutely needed.
Urban renaissance and suburban decline?
The turn of this century marked a new dawn for urban areas. Out of the ashes of the 1980s inner-city riots and economic decline has risen reimagined and thriving city centres. An urban renaissance, which has changed the way we think about our modern cities.
Little time, however, has been expended on examining the flipside: What this might mean for our city suburbs? An oversight rendered more puzzling by the location of the political conflagrations and revolts of the last few years. The image of the 2012 London riots was the family-run carpet shop in flames not in Brixton, Tottenham or Hackney, but Croydon. And then last year suburbs delivered a more peaceful form of insurgency through the Brexit ballot box. Whilst few (22%) in hipster Hackney voted to leave, travel to Barking and Dagenham and three times as many did. The picture was replicated in many of our major conurbations. In Oldham 60% voted to leave while only 40% did in metropolitan Manchester.
Looking at the data it is unsurprising that many were dissatisfied with the status quo. Research by the Smith Institute has shown that the number of jobs in suburbs has stagnated over the last decade. Inner London, for example, created 500,000 jobs between 2003 and 2013. In outer London it was just 8,000. Jobs performed by suburban residents increased at a slower rate than in urban areas. In Manchester, suburban resident job numbers increased by 6%, compared with a 47% rise in urban areas.
Poverty has become more concentrated in some suburban areas. In London, official data shows that there are now more people in poverty in outer London than inner London (over the last decade, poverty has risen from 20% to 24% of the suburban population). Working-age means-tested benefits have on the whole increased at a faster rate in suburbs. Suburbs have also seen a rise in the proportion of the most deprived areas within their cities.
House prices over the last 20 years have also increased more rapidly in urban areas. On average, housing in outer London is more affordable than in inner areas. In the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, the most affordable places to live have increasingly become suburban areas (e.g. in 1995, 70% of the cheapest 10% of areas in the West Midlands were suburban; by 2014 that figure had risen to almost 90%). In the three cities, social housing has declined over recent years, but most rapidly in urban areas. The private rented sector (PRS), meanwhile, has grown in both suburban and urban areas. The combination of prices rising faster in inner areas and social housing declining more slowly in outer areas means lower-cost housing is increasingly located in suburbs.
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The situation could become much worse. Changes in local housing allowance appear to be changing where people in London can live. For example, the number of people claiming local housing allowance has fallen in inner areas and risen in outer London. This suggests that more low-income people are locating, and will have to locate, to the suburbs. The sharp decline in new social housing in inner city areas and the increasing purchasing power of the urban homeowners will merely exacerbate this trend. Lower-income households will have to turn to private rented housing, which is increasingly more affordable in suburbs.
Suburbs will increasingly be home to larger proportion of our cities’ poorer population. The ramifications for policy makers, anti-poverty campaigners and most of all those on low incomes are multifarious. For many bus travel is the only affordable means of travel. However, with more lower income people living in suburbs and more jobs located centrally, how attractive is it for someone to travel two hours to do a part-time shift on the minimum wage (let alone for someone with caring duties)? With cities desperately needing to build more houses how do we ensure those on low incomes are not isolated from jobs and services? And how do we provide services for those on low incomes in lower density suburbs?
Towards a suburban renaissance
These challenges demand urgent intervention. Decline may not be uniform and some suburbs remain overwhelmingly the preserve of the wealthy. Nevertheless, evidence on housing, the economy, labour markets and poverty indicators suggest many suburbs and suburban residents are feeling the strain of a changing spatial distribution of wealth and opportunities in our cities.
A critical component to addressing the problems suburbs face and supporting low income households living in city suburbs will be getting the housing offer right. Higher densities can support more sustainable suburbs (including better transport links) and help meet the challenges of household growth that all cities face. With many of the new homes being built designed for young professionals in inner cities, focus on suburban housing could help those, on low incomes or more comfortably off, embarking on life as a family (most people’s vision of the good society would aim to support families not aiming to make life more difficult). And with land scarce and often expensive in inner cities, suburbs can also deliver new homes which are affordable for more people and help limited subsidy go further.
Such interventions support our suburbs but would also deliver the new homes cities so desperately need. More generally the success of the city is as much about its suburbs as it is about the urban core. If suburbs are not attractive places to live, then will people remain in the city? Is the city a successful place if poorer people in suburbs cannot access work, or if the traffic is so bad that it detrimentally affects people’s quality of life? But within the discussions about what kind of cities we want, there are normative choices, not least around mixed communities and social justice. At one extreme, city growth could be based on letting the market rip. Housing would be allocated by market power rather than need, and inequality would go unchecked. Concentrations of deprivation would not be seen as a social ill but an inevitable consequence of growth. The alternative is a better balance between places and improved affordability and quality of life. The economic imperative to ensure that all people can access work, are healthy and well housed, have access to a decent school and education, and can afford to live decently in our cities should be apparent.
This means suburban areas cannot be left to deteriorate, but neither should renewal be achieved by displacing growth or people. Instead, it means extending opportunity to poorer suburban residents, for them to fulfil their potential. But if there is to be any type of suburban renaissance, the suburbs first need to be seen as an important policy issue. But suburbia rarely features in the political discourse or public debate. This has to change. Indeed, the case for setting out a popular and inspiring agenda for the places where most of us live, at a time when their fortunes seem to be flagging, seems self-evident. The government could take the initiative and establish a suburban taskforce to form consensus, test new ideas and lay the foundations of a suburban renaissance so that all suburbs can be places of delightful prospects. After all the good society, surely means providing the opportunity for everyone, in all places to be able to lead the Good Life.
Paul Hunter is head of research at the Smith Institute