X Close

The battle for Zone 6’s soul A New Britain is being forged on London's fringes

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

(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 

Skulthorp

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

30 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kasandra H
Kasandra H
2 months ago

People who live in flats are shaped to have a totally different outlook than those who live in houses. Living in flats is essentially a substandard level of living because of the lack of privacy and space. Am currently living in a flat. Haha. This’s a really good article. Didn’t really analyse the reasons behind it. Is it overpopulation, lack of land planning, lack of opportunities outside London? It is definitely not ideal for people to live in flats rather than houses. Thanks.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 months ago
Reply to  Kasandra H

It really depends on the flat though. The uk already has by far the highest house occupancy in Europe. A good apartment built with solid soundproofed walls and floors can offer superior privacy to a house, as you’re too high for anyone to look in, there’s no reason for them to be less spacious and the increased density makes everything from public transport to shopping provision much more simple and viable. Victorian houses converted to flats are very difficult to sound proof, and I agree with you that living somewhere you can hear your neighbours talking – and you know they can hear you – is very uncomfortable, but I would say the problems alluded to in the article can be blamed precisely on a British fetishisation of houses over apartments that inevitably lead to inefficient land use and urban sprawl.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
2 months ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

Lived in a flat once (in London). Never again. Flats are only as good as the neighbours. The endless stomping from upstairs, the late night washing machines using cheap overnight electricity tariffs, the almost always inadequate parking. It was awful. It was a new build too, so maybe UK building standards are to blame. I now live in a detached house in Manchester and it is wonderful. Close the doors and windows, the outside world disappears.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 months ago

Part of our fetishisation of houses no doubt lies in the terrible standards of a lot of apartment buildings and house conversions. Grenfell sure did nothing for the appeal of apartment living either. I love the views you can get with a well placed apartment though.

J. Hale
J. Hale
2 months ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

“A good apartment built with solid soundproofed walls and floors can offer superior privacy to a house.” Except they aren’t built with solid soundproofed walls and floors. It’s like if pigs had wings they could fly.

Chris Amies
Chris Amies
1 month ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

with you on the public transport / density thing. People in the UK preferring to live in sprawling suburbs makes metros and trams less of an obvious solution than they are in other places. It doesn’t excuse not investing in buses though. Buses are good.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 months ago
Reply to  Kasandra H

It’s the effect of continuous mass immigration.

Stewart Cazier
Stewart Cazier
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Immigration certainly doesn’t help, but even without it we would be struggling with the current housing stock. The population has broken into smaller and smaller households which require a much greater number of smaller dwellings for a given population.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  Kasandra H

I lived in flats most of my life, only lately moving into a townhouse, and flats are in many ways better than houses, eg lower maintenance, better security and almost certainly a better location than the house you’d get for the same money. This of course all depends on the build quality: a 1960s tower block will be grim and soul destroying, whereas a 1930s mansion flat will be delightful. As ever, you get what you pay for.

Steve Farrell
Steve Farrell
2 months ago

Is this really what we want for ourselves & future generations?

Connecticut Yankee
Connecticut Yankee
2 months ago

I think it’s great. Why should Essex and Sutton stay the same forever when they could be thriving metropolises?

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
2 months ago

I’d prefer outer London to remain the Oliver Bonas & Proseco Belt.

Just personally.

Mark Pester
Mark Pester
2 months ago

Sutton has long been a commuter town largely populated by professionals heading into London. The new flats aren’t really changing that- they’re quite expensive!

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

Personally, I hope London does turn into a 20m megacity. The only reason it mightn’t is if the UK entirely loses global relevance in the 21st century – a distinct possibility given the pace of geopolitical change we’re seeing at this point.

However, I simply don’t accept that we need to lose the Green Belt to achieve it. Some parts of the Green Belt aren’t green at all of course, they’re just chunks of useless, low value land that happen to sit inside the boundaries of the Green Belt, and they can be built upon very easily without sacrificing the principle.

But that’s not the main point anyway: most of the necessary doubling of residential sq ft. needed in London can come from building up on the really quite enormous tracts of underused land inside the Green Belt. There will be some problems with this such as whether every new flat/house can come with an automatic right to a resident’s car parking permit, for instance, but those problems are not collectively as large as the looming crisis in the fact of having confiscated the ability to own property from an increasingly-large proportion of the voters in a property-owning democracy.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The usual snobbery and self interest that says your bits of “nice, picturesque” green space must be sacrosanct – while the other bits in more urban areas – which actually are probably more biodiverse – should be sacrificed.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

You think it’s snobbery on my part do you, when the entire point of my argument is to restore the ability of people on modest incomes to afford a decent place to live? And where on earth would you get the idea that self-interest is relevant?

Your comment is daft.

Cam Marsh
Cam Marsh
2 months ago

Try New Denham just past Uxbridge. 20 years ago a sleepy backwater nestled next to some farms. Typical middle class spread. Now….packed to the gills with multigenerational families and 4 cars to every property. London is popping at the seams.

Jason Sanders
Jason Sanders
2 months ago
Reply to  Cam Marsh

Not sure what’s wrong with multigenerational houses, would you rather grandparents are knocking about in their own in houses or living in a nursing home?

Simon Boudewijn
Simon Boudewijn
2 months ago
Reply to  Cam Marsh

Try Uxbridge – a creepy place after dusk falls, or the Harows, foreign ghettos, Hayes, Hillingdon, South Ruislip, rough, seedy, squalid, not British anymore – but then Ickenham is good – Ruislip pretty good – Northwood and Pinner Ok.

West London – I watched it from the 60s to now – The Government must Really, Really hate the Native people to have done what they did to the nation – Dirty, scary, grimey, rude, and full of antisocial weirdos from the less plesant corners of the world. litter ankle deep and graffiti everywhere.

Old Deneham used to be so charming – the old flint church, the village green – I think the pub was the Green Man – Rodger Morre’s house was across from it.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
2 months ago

Has Sadiq Khan named himself Mayor-for-Life? He never seems to have to run for office.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
2 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

A good description of SK by Dan.

George Venning
George Venning
2 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

He’s not exactly having to exert himself against the candidates the Tories are putting up against him. Susan Hall? Shaun Bailey? Zac Goldsmith? Only the latter looked even remotely like someone who could win and yet, for no obvious reason, he decided to run an ugly dog-whistle campaign which alienated central Londoners and advertised his own desperation.
Its not impossible, you don’t even have to be all that good (as Johnson’s victories amply demonstrate) but it really helps to have some sort of positive vision for what you want to do rather than what you want to oppose.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 months ago

I’d like to read an investigation into why more people are not moving well out of London. Why can’t little start ups set up in Newport or Chesterfield? Why don’t remote workers move to Huddersfield?

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

“Why don’t remote workers move to Huddersfield?”

Because they can quite literally live anywhere else.

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
2 months ago

I have to declare an interest as I live zone 5. I hate the way every property move to article is “move to zone 2” or “move to a town in the commuter belt”, but never move to somewhere in zone 5 even if has a tube every 3 minutes and regular buses all around.

Chris Amies
Chris Amies
2 months ago

I miss the regular buses. Kingston has no tube anywhere in its borders, but there are buses everywhere. The main thing (apart from my neighbours and my garden) that I miss from living there.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

I used to live in Zone 3 in Ealing, on Haven Green right next to Ealing Broadway station, with Central Line tubes every 10mins plus it was on the GWR line, so 12mins both to Paddington and Heathrow Airport, and still I had friends in Shepherds Bush who kept asking why I wanted to live so far out of town. They, in turn, probably knew people in Notting Hill who thought Shepherds Bush might as well be Swindon.

It’s a London thing.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
2 months ago

Excellent. Ballardian indeed. We are like trapped mice on a motorized treadmill. Our statist society is running faster and faster. But we and the whirling wheel are broken. Too few people can earn now the money necessary to support themselves and put a roof over their head. A majority already depend on state bailouts. Energy and food and housing costs are likely soon to bury millions. The essay was a neat sharp snapshot of the upcoming dystopia. Choose magic money and a two year China atyle lock, choose anti meritocracy and DE1 hysteria, open borders & mass immigration of poor, embrace Net Zero degrowth and punitive unsustainable levels of tax? Fine. Now reap the harvest.

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
7 days ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Walter you okay fella? Looks like you dumped all of your disconnected anxieties into one post.

Chris Amies
Chris Amies
2 months ago

It’s a good question because at least south of the river London ends while suburbia is still going on. I grew up in Worcester Park – the bit that was, and still is, in the Surrey borough of Epsom and Ewell. But London’s boundaries were very close by. I moved to Kingston (not immediately) but left that town three years ago when it had got as crowded as the West Kensington I had quit in 2005 – and which is quite likely less crowded these days, I don’t know. But Kingston had become an overbuilt place of demolition and concrete and no longer felt safe. I was out of there.