Are we on the cusp of a suburban renaissance?
To keep the shires blue, the Government has a delicate balancing act to pull off
Every day, I walk my dog on a route that takes me past Augustus W. Pugin’s Grange, the fantasy medieval house the great Victorian Gothic architect built in Ramsgate for himself and his family. Perched on a clifftop on what was then the edge of town, the Grange would have seemed a bizarre break from the symmetrical ranks of neoclassical townhouses that epitomised the middle-class dream in the 1840s. Asymmetric with pointed gables, a crenellated watchtower, and mullioned windows, the Grange would then have represented a quixotic leap back into the Middle Ages.
Yet to us, its vernacular form seems immediately familiar: the half-timbered 1930s detached and semi-detached houses that now surround it (like their simplified, tile-hung 1960s descendants) are recognisably the aesthetic children and grandchildren of Pugin’s folly. Indeed, one could argue that the characteristic form of British suburban architecture, the bucolic Merrie England fantasy that sprawls across the edges of every town and city in the country, was born on this Kentish clifftop 180 years ago.
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Growing up in the 1990s, watching repeats of Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, the cosy, insular world represented by English suburbia seemed both risible and oppressive. After all, this was the world of Hyacinth Bucket, of twitching curtains and petit bourgeois conformity.
But now, firmly entering middle age as a married father of two, these solid, roomy houses on spacious plots seem strangely desirable. The north London suburban world of Friday Night Dinner seems yearningly familiar; the haunted suburban council estates of the painter George Shaw, which combine the haunted, half-remembered vistas of childhood with the eerie emptiness of a crime scene, speak of some resonant emotional truth: this too, is Deep England.
As Covid accelerates the flight of middle-class young families from big cities in search of cheap, spacious houses and quiet domesticity, it appears we’re on the cusp of a suburban renaissance. As the Economist noted last week, a similar process is under way in America. It notes that “a clear preference for large but affordable suburban homes over pricey city-centre flats seems to be emerging” among ageing millennials like me, whose “latest pursuit of leafiness and expansive floor plans contains hints of a potentially transformative shift in how Americans choose where they live.”
We can see this process at work at home in the sudden drop of house prices in inner London, and the parallel price boom for family homes in market and seaside towns across southern England. Indeed, just as the Red Wall turned solidly blue, we can see true blue towns like Tunbridge Wells and Canterbury, Hastings and Frome turn red and green as middle-class London millennials colonise the shires in search of the good life.
The vibrancy of the online planning conversation, as commentators push the government into a Macmillanite housebuilding boom to shore up Tory ascendancy for another generation, doesn’t yet seem to have caught up with this shift. Focused on densification and inner-city flats, the YIMBY urbanists may yet achieve their aim of turning embittered millennial renters into property-owning conservatives.
But as the millennial cohort ages and starts daydreaming of veg plots, good schools and front gardens, a second house building boom will need to provide them with the suburban homes necessary to fully complete the process. Like the rise of Metroland in the 1920s and 30s, fast rail links across southern England, like HS2 to the Midlands, will surely drive the suburbanification of the Green Belt and beyond.
To keep the shires blue, the government will need to balance the NIMBYism of older homeowners with the newfound suburban aspirations of a potentially new millennial voter base. Nearly two centuries after Pugin first peered over the battlements of his beloved Grange, a solid suburban redoubt is waiting for the government, as long as it’s willing to build it.
‘And each man kills the thing he loves….’
My small Cotswold village has literally doubled in size in the last six years. The school, the GP surgery, the four parking spaces in front of the village shop,,are just the same size as before, but trying to serve twice as many people. The petrol and repairs garage (which would also mend your lawnmower and sold coal, and newspapers and calor gas) has shut. There are 23 executive homes on the site ; the nearest petrol station is five miles away.
The little narrow roads which one used to be able to walk happily along (there are few pavements, just earth banks) hardly encountering a car are now quite literally clogged with traffic, people backing up to the nearest (!) passing space. The pedestrians can scramble up the banks if they are fit enough. The cars themselves have doubled in size and fumes: we had a mini, then a fiesta for local trips; the new people have 4x4s (sometimes two per household). Neither they nor their children ( sorry, kids) seem to walk anywhere. I suppose sometimes they just have to turn round and go home again, because there is nowhere to park. Of course, there is no public transport except for a twice weekly bus to the market.
The new estates are not much like the villages they encircle. They are built of reconstituted stone which has no variation, and does not weather. In the villages, no two houses are exactly the same (except for the almshouses). That is why they are pleasing to the eye. The estate houses are just slabs of dwelling spaces, very close together. They may have two bathrooms, but the gardens are tiny, so the children whoops kids have to play in the street. Mind the cars! Better stay in and play games on your phone, instead.
Of course, some things change for the better. You can get a drinkable cappuccino in the pub, and the seats are comfortable and plentiful. Sainsbury, Tesco and occasionally Waitrose deliver so you don’t have to trek off to the nearest town to buy food (the butchers is now a house with 14 hatches for ‘retired people’, the non co op shop is a terrace of five houses.) I gather the local WI has declared that trans women are welcome to join, though I don’t think they have had any applicants yet. The Lib Dem’s have ousted the Tories from the local council, and are trying to find some houses for ‘refugees’ in the village (the low cost housing is already full up with unmarried mothers).
After forty years , we’ve moved to the outskirts of Oxford. It’s more spacious, more peaceful and if we are ever allowed out again, there is a bus to the city from the end of the road. Unfortunately we have had to suffer the embarrassment of Layla the non binary it girl as our MP instead of the excellent successor to Dirty David, Robert Courts, but that’s a small price to pay.
The opening of the M4 in late 1972 sounded the death knell for the Cotswolds, as it become the preferred choice of the ‘money-lender elite’ for a weekend retreat. The allure of those once squalid oolitic limestone cottages, huddled around a stagnant village pond, was just too strong, & too accessible.
Despite the total destruction of its two greatest Monastic churches, the fine collection of mainly 15th century Wool Churches was also a bonus for the flash ‘invaders’, who scrambled for their slice of the rural English idyll.
However you do have the JR close by for any emergency, assuming you don’t get the Plague on admittance, and, as you say, now the coffee is drinkable.
23 miles to the nearest A&E.
When they build the next 1400 houses on the Witney stretch of the A40, I guess that would take about another 20 minutes on top of the hour you have to allow now. Really, it would be easier to die.
Certainly quicker and ultimately less frustrating
Doesn’t the JR offer A & E anymore?
Yes all the children used to walk to school-between 8-9 am was like an army on manoevres The new lot take & fetch in cars ( with no regard for pedestrians)* so they are actually making it unsafe for everyone.* A woman with children in the car actually stopped in the centre of the crossroads-holding up 4 lots of traffic, to take a phone call
As the old song goes ‘Its a sign of the times’ ……I fear.
Don’t read too much into the recent local council results in Hastings, Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury and Frome.
There are local issues, that caused a horribly complacent and none too liked council in TW to get a good kicking. Canterbury (University town) and Hastings have levels of poverty that would surprise an unsuspecting visitor. Affluence is situated in the picturesque satellite villages and the more desirable town houses. DFL (Down from London) have been trickling into the south east of England for 30+years. The change has come with more younger singletons, rather than older, substantial home owners, seeking a do-up project.The singleton graduates are often flat or house sharing in attractive properties, close to mainline Stations. The attraction of the countryside for cycling, canoeing, walking is a big factor.
New builds are still expensive and once here the infastructure is pretty shameful. Some of the worst maintained roads in the UK.
The tories don’t need to be worried yet, with a social democrat outlook they should survive, but complacency is also a strong tory impulse, especially in the South East of England.
This will all depend on enough families having that kind of income as the precariat continues to grow. A great deal of work will also need to be done to ensure that this housing is solidly built and energy efficient. And then there is the cost and reliability of rail travel.
Often the railway station is a few miles away and if you are going to drive there-bus service is not usually very good-you might as well drive all the way to work. Some firms are now working from home, but if not I would have though hour & half commute will persuade them to move back-hopefully? You only see the new lot occasionally , like at christmas when they walk the new dog en famille-where does fido go the rest of the year?
They also do not shop locally-lots of Ocado and other delivery vans, so do not add financially to the area ,& as someone else said the GPs , dentist and schools etc were only created to deal with a smaller amount of people.
COVID has really accelerated this. The inner-city urbanista dream of vibrant street life , walkable destinations, cycle paths and abundant public transport suddenly lost its sheen when everything’s closed and public transport is a petri dish.
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