Suburbs `may be slums of tomorrow'

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The Independent Online
"Gaily into Ruislip Gardens,

Runs the red electric train,

With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's

Daintily alights Elaine."

BRITAIN'S SUBURBS, as immortalised by Sir John Betjeman, are in danger of a rapid downhill slide which could even turn them into tomorrow's slums, warns a report published today.

Dominated by owner-occupiers and home to most Britons, the nation's suburbs are largely taken for granted. John Major once described them as "invincible".

But some, especially those ringing the largest cities, are being battered by stresses which are making their better-off occupants flee in droves. And that could concentrate poverty within them, giving them the same social problems as the inner city.

Michael Gwilliam, director of the Civic Trust, the charity which campaigns to make cities more attractive, and one of the report's authors, said: "It's understandable that most attention in the debate about urban renewal has been focussed on inner cities. But the lack of analysis and debate about suburban areas is disturbing. Some parts of them need early attention if they are to avoid becoming tomorrow's problems."

Les Sparks, Birmingham's chief planning officer, agreed. "We mustn't neglect the typical, sprawling 20th-century suburbs," he said. "In Birmingham we're concerned about the problems of outward migration from them." He said the people moving out, "leapfrogging the green belt" into shire towns, were largely "white, middle-class, employed home owners" and they left poorer people behind.

The report, Sustainable Renewal of Suburban Areas, was written by the Civic Trust and planning consultants Ove Arup & Partners, and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It includes case studies in North Bristol, London's Redbridge, North Tyneside and Northfield, Birmingham.

One of the suburbs biggest problems is the decline in their local shopping centres, caused by the growth of superstores and the high car ownership which allows residents to shop further from home. They begin to become shabby and shops are left vacant, destroying the neighbourhood's sense of identity and self-respect.

The loss of health, leisure and other community facilities due to centralisation on large sites and the growth of out-of-town style developments is also damaging suburbs and taking away local shops. Often bus routes which serve them are out of date, feeding into the city centre instead of catering for outwards and sideways journeys.

The report suggests local councils should spearhead early, careful, interventions to improve declining suburbs before a gentle descent turns into a rapid slide. But the last thing they need is the kind of massive redevelopment now seen as having destroyed many inner city residential areas.

The key is to secure the backing of suburbanites, in recognising their neighbourhoods have problems and in suggesting improvements. But this may not be easy, because suburbs often lack a strong sense of community and residents may be suspicious about change.

The authors also suggest that suburbs should be given the same local government powers as village parishes, enabling them to raise modest sums through council tax for local improvements and community development. They also advocate making National Lottery money available for community- led initiatives to halt suburban decay.

Controversially, the authors advocate converting some suburban houses into flats and some demolition and redevelopment to build denser housing near public transport links and alongside open spaces. And it says greater variety of house types is needed to cater for the growing number of single people and couples without children.

Areas of Decline

NORTH BRISTOL

The Victorian and early 20th century suburbs of north Bristol are being challenged by massive shopping, leisure and housing developments north of the city, near the M4 and M5 motorways. These growth areas rely heavily on car use. The report says that the equivalent of a new city centre is forming, without Bristol council thinking through the impact on existing suburbs.

REDBRIDGE, NORTH-EAST LONDON

Parts appear to be entering a spiral of decline. As local shops and services close, residents become increasingly dependent on private cars. This worsens congestion and pollution, while isolating poorer people without cars. The suburb is challenged by a big shopping centre in Thurrock, while another that is soon to open in Dartford will add to the pressure on local shops.The report suggests a major facelift for Gants Hill, to capitalise on its Underground station.

WEST NORTHFIELD, BIRMINGHAM

The study singles out this unfashionable outer suburb near Rover's Longbridge works because of the way in which the council has tried to involve local people in improving the area. It was selected for a pilot project in 1993 which has now been extended to the rest of the city. In each Birmingham ward an advisory board is set up, with representatives from the community and local authorities. Each board is given pounds 80,000 to spend on improvements, which could include such things as traffic-calming measures and better lighting.

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