(Andy Spain/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

March 1, 2024   6 mins

Where do the green suburbs of the Home Counties begin and where does the sprawl of London end? It was the question demanded by a throng of anxious young men gathered outside the Georgian facade of a reconverted 12-bedroom house in one of the city’s suburbs. A Nigerian Uber driver had vacated a mould-ridden single room, and a frantic dash down on the train from Waterloo for a last-minute flat viewing had followed. “This area was not my first choice,” muttered one international student. Another recent graduate looked slightly bemused as he surveyed the silent houses. We were no longer in Dalston, Streatham or Morden. This was Worcester Park, in north Surrey.

Travelling around the borders of London’s outer periphery, there are many scenes like this. Here is English Suburbia with its mock Tudor housing, cosy box gardens and high streets embellished with the faint traces of Victoriana. Once it dreamt of eternally sleeping between the city and the country. Now it finds itself in the throes of a quiet upheaval.

Over the past decade it has become an unlikely receptacle for one of the country’s more decisive demographic and socioeconomic changes. Record immigration into London and its surrounding areas, as well as a millennial generation unable to become home-owners, have defined an exodus that has brought London with it. Driven by the long-term trend of gentrification in the capital and the post-pandemic rental crisis, they are arriving in places such as Worcester Park, pitching up with their flat-pack furniture, overdrafts and low expectations.

And so a wave of building, hoping to mop up these emigres from the capital, has also begun to redefine these areas. Clustering around the train stations, high streets, converted libraries, churches and even hospitals are the sites of many of the country’s newest housing developments. “Have you ever been to Japan?” says one elderly resident of Harold Hill in London’s Zone 5, standing next to a dribbling fountain outside the newest set of flats. “It’s like bloody Tokyo over there in the morning,” he says, pointing to the station that marks the end of the Elizabeth Line.

“I wish we could just stay as Essex,” says Dan, a sales manager, outside the Tesco next to Harold Hill’s newest development, a stone’s throw from Amersham Road where Thatcher once did PR for her right-to-buy policy. “You have a situation now where those born here can’t afford to buy houses. They’re being pushed out of the area entirely by people wanting to live in London. It’s not right. There’s just no sense of community here anymore.” And what of the mayor, who with the recent Ulez expansion seems to be extending the capital’s political control into these areas too? “Sadiq Khan is a fucking wanker. He shouldn’t be telling us what to do out here.”

This is a growing sentiment on London’s outer periphery. In a pub down the road from the line of would-be renters in Worcester Park, those who missed out on a room come face to face with a mood that is distinctly Ballardian. Khan’s Ulez policy, perhaps symbolically, has split the area in two, half in the domain of London, half in Surrey. “Some of the best news I’ve heard all year,” says one man, when there is mention of the improvised explosive device that gutted a Ulez camera in Sidcup.

Travelling east, towards London’s Kent border, I go in search of the Sidcup vigilantes, who’ve also been caught on camera chopping down Ulez cameras with angle grinders. This used to be the land of Mondeo Man, the Thatcherite archetype that had escaped the confines of the traditional working class into a realm of propertied affluence. On the train down from London Bridge, the capital’s sprawl slowly transitions into the markers of that semi-rural home owning dream: allotments marked with Union Jacks; gardens strewn with abandoned paddling pools; the debris of family life laid out on synthetic lawns.

“We had to sell two cars, and we’ve been left out of pocket,” says Steve in a cafe on the high street when I ask about Ulez. But the policy teases out deeper emotions: this is also no longer “a place that felt leafy and green, like in the countryside”, says his wife Linda. They first moved here in 1994, and when asked about the changes, they insist it’s still a nice place to live — it’s just become a lot more “busy”. The couple now find themselves holding the line against these trends, resisting the developers who are carving “beautiful old Victorian houses” into flats to fit the cosmopolitan wave of single-owner occupancies, a trend that has seen the ONS predicting one in seven people could be living alone by 2039. They have already turned down numerous offers on their house. “It’s sad,” says Linda. “It seems like soon there won’t be any houses for families to move into left.”

Outside the café, I find some of the arrivals now living in the rented properties that are starting to redefine Sidcup. A trio of international students from Nepal studying at Ravensbourne College near Greenwich look slightly confused when I ask them whether Sidcup has met their expectations of studying in one of London’s universities. “We have just arrived and we are exploring the area,” they say. “We cannot believe how expensive it is, even to live outside of London.” Nearby I find Chloe, a self-employed painter-decorator who is also renting. My questions about the local community receive a decisive answer. “I’ve been to places where everyone’s friendly, but walking down the high street everyone has a face like a slapped arse.”

The same mood permeates the Surrey town of Sutton, where recently built apartment high-rises tower over a high street still marked with the quaint signage of an English market town. This is another area stuck between two competing visions of life on the edge of the London metropolis. Articles in local newspapers have even appeared interrogating the question: “Is Sutton in London or Surrey?” Down the road in Epsom, speculation on Reddit about plans to turn London into a mega-city of 20 million people has touched a nerve, prompting a flurry of articles expressing horror at the idea of the Surrey town losing its identity.

“It’s a bit like Blade Runner but without the science fiction,” says Richard on the high street when I ask him about life here. A reference to a hyper-technological dystopia might seem a bit far-fetched for a town whose main attraction is the National Trust property Morden Park Hall. But he is really talking about his living situation: a small room alongside two dozen strangers in a converted care home. Politicians are already trying to court this discontent, hoping to disrupt the Conservative rule in these areas. “The Surrey Shifter” has appeared on the lips of Liberal Democrat and Labour activists seeking to attract millennials who now find themselves in these Tory suburbs but are locked out of a stable home-owning contract. But even among the new arrivals who have tried to inherit London’s suburban dream, there are difficulties. “The mortgage has gone through the roof,” says Daniel in his late 30s, who recently purchased a semi-detached property near Epsom. “Moving out at this rate is not exactly off the cards.”

“It’s a bit like Blade Runner but without the science fiction”

These changes on London’s periphery touch on a more existential question about England itself. Will its future generations be able to replicate the stability of the traditional suburb, or will they inherit something entirely different, a place increasingly dictated by upheaval from the global-facing metropolis? England’s futurists, stretching as far back as H.G. Wells, have always toyed with this question. In his short story, “The Argonauts of the Air”, Wells foresaw Worcester Park as an Edwardian village which had nonetheless become the rural setting for one of the capital’s spaceports. “The London Citizen by the year 2000 a.d.”, he went on to predict in a 1902 essay on the growth of cities, “may have a choice of nearly all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as his suburb”.

Today, his vision resembles something of an Anglo-Futurist fantasy. Journeying towards the end of London’s various commuting routes, it is instead the writing of the Georgian reactionary William Cobbett that touches on the local discontent. A great defender of English arcadia, in 1830 he foresaw the expansion of London as the “great wen” — nothing more than a sebaceous cyst, poised to gradually leak its urban discontents into the shires of England. And, looking at areas already conquered by London sprawl ends, this rings true. “Epsom is becoming the new Croydon,” says Matthew, one commuter in his 50s when I ask him where London ends and the Home Counties begin.

Faced with the end of the metroland dream, Labour have explicitly stated a desire to build on the green belt surrounding the city, a prospect which delights many faced with an endemic housing crisis. But further expansion into this area will inevitably rub up against an already existing sense of de-gentrification on London’s suburban periphery. In recent years it is the geographer Phil A. Neel who captures the changes to these areas best, struggling homeowners and gig-economy workers who find themselves lost in the “foothills descending from the summit of the megacity”. In Neel’s understanding, those on the edge of these urban centres are defined not by the cultural and economic stability that once came with suburbia, but instead find themselves increasingly at the whim of the global city and its “obscure machinations”. And nowhere is this more transparent than in this zone of disquiet that now orbits the capital. For here, New Britain has gone in search of a new home, bringing with them a question that seems to increasingly define these parts: where exactly does London end?

Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse