London Mayor Boris Johnson came to power last May pledging a better deal for the “neglected suburbs”, a clear departure from Ken Livingstone’s obsession with inner-city regeneration.
This week, the newly appointed Outer London Commission began work with a remit to produce housing and employment stretching across all 19 outer London boroughs - from Sutton in the south to Enfield in the north, from Havering in the east to Hillingdon in the west.
Outer London has 160,000 businesses employing
1.6 million people. Part of the commission’s brief is to identify new “hubs of investment” to support growth industries, such as green technology, and suggest areas where London-based public sector organisations might relocate.
The aim is for these hubs to become major areas of employment and new housing, served by integrated transport. Croydon is viewed as a “prime example” of a suitable hub location, being accessible and already established but in need of regeneration. Architect Terry Farrell, one of the commission members, will advise on design quality.
‘Suburbia was always more exciting than its architecture. Now more adventurous buildings are on their way’
So, the future looks brighter for suburbia, which, though stereotyped family friendly, if a little dull, is enormously varied in terms of wealth, housing stock, jobs, ethnic mix, education and culture. This diversity has not always been matched by the output of new homes developers.
During the property boom, “lifestyle housing” and a “cappuccino culture” broke out in some commuter towns - and there are still some ongoing projects of architectural merit.
But, with luck, future building in the suburbs will be more adventurous than in the past, reflecting the mix of people in the revitalised outer boroughs - singles, couples and families; young, middle-aged and old; commuters, home-workers and local employees.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show there is a yearly exodus of about 250,000 people from London. Many of these are young families who move to the M25 commuter belt for lifestyle reasons - value-for-money property, good local schools, and a safe and leafy environment.
Business executives are relocating there, too, for much the same reasons, according to estate agent Savills. It reports that a group of “super suburbs” has emerged within the M25, where the main buyers are (still) employed in investment, finance and business services.
These suburbs split roughly into five categories: a south-west block around Esher, Weybridge, St George’s Hill and Cobham; the more affluent areas of south London, including South Cheam and Kingswood; a cluster in the north-east comprising Chigwell, High Beach, Loughton and Woodford Green; the suburban heartland either side of Bromley (Eden Park, Bickley, Chislehurst and Pratts Bottom); and a northern group that includes Loudwater, Northwood, Radlett, Totteridge and Winchmore Hill.
In these places, £1 million-plus homes are not uncommon, yet in many other well-connected suburban areas, new family houses cost in the £300,000 to £500,000 bracket, while flats start at less than £200,000.
Suburbia has plenty of development land that avoids the need for Green Belt encroachment. In the outer borough of Barnet, 10,000 new homes are planned over the next 10 years - and none of them in the Green Belt.
Neither should a suburban renaissance mean knocking down archetypal semis and terraces with their front and back gardens. Arguably, the poorly designed estates of the Sixties and Seventies and industrial land on the edge of commuter towns offer the greatest redevelopment opportunities.
Water Colour, a former quarry site in Redhill, Surrey, is being trumpeted as the “new suburbia” by developer Linden Homes. This is an eco-friendly settlement of 498 homes built around a lagoon and nature reserve, with a GP surgery, crèche and car-free zones, and less than 30 minutes by train to central London. A new phase of apartments and chalet-style houses has been launched. Prices start at £179,000. For more information, call 0845 260 6606.
What makes a suburb?
London has 19 outer boroughs but the suburbs extend into the Home Counties, mainly because railway expansion in the early 20th century led to “commuter towns”.
During the interwar years, the pioneering Metropolitan Railway built its own housing estates to the north-west of London in Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Hertfordshire and marketed the area as Metro-land, which was later famously celebrated by the poet John Betjeman.
Consisting mainly of detached houses on large plots, Metro-land was described as “a country with elastic borders that each visitor can draw for himself”. Homebuyers could choose an “off-the-peg” home or commission an architect and builder to create one.
Other areas ringing London were similarly developed by private property companies, leading to “garden cities” such as Letchworth. Then, in the Fifties, came “new towns” such as Hemel Hempstead and Harlow, built by the public sector to alleviate the housing shortage after the Second World War.
Today, outer London boroughs alone have more than 160,000 businesses employing 1.6 million people. The Home Counties have no official definition but the area is usually understood to coincide with the M25 commuter belt - that is, where people can work in London without living in the city.
Crazy about Croydon
Croydon grew up in the interwar railway era and its excellent train links provide a bedrock for the regeneration taking place today. It has 20-minute journeys to Victoria and London Bridge and by 2010 it will be plugged into the Tube network via the extended East London line.
One of the UK’s largest commercial centres, with 20,000 businesses, Croydon attracts 50,000 office workers a day. The council recently announced a multi-billion-pound regeneration deal with developer John Laing.
It will aim to avoid the mistakes of the Sixties, when ugly office towers ripped the heart out of the old town centre, bombed during the Blitz. A new “green” master plan by architect Will Alsop draws on ideas from cities such as Barcelona.
Developments under way include Altitude 25, a tower with 196 apartments in Fairfield Road. Prices are from £165,000. Call DTZ on 020 7408 7509.
The Exchange (66 loft-style flats) is part of a new council-designated “cultural quarter” centred on the Surrey Street market area, where there is a listed Victorian pumphouse, art gallery and jazz café. Two-bedroom apartments are priced from £300,000. Call Townends on 020 8680 8585.
Away from the town centre is New South Quarter, being built on the site of a former gasworks next to the Ikea store in Purley Way. This will have 796 flats, bars and cafés, a nursery, medical centre, convenience stores, offices and workspace for small start-up businesses.
The River Wandle, which crosses the site underground, is being opened up and a riverside promenade created. Prices start at £169,950. Call 020 8688 0688 for more information.