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.
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.