The heartlands of Middle England are under threat, a new report warns

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The Independent Online

Suburbia has become synonymous with all that's naff about British life; a 1950s time warp inhabited by garden gnomes and Nimbyists who spy on the neighbours through net curtains.

So says the think-tank Demos, now warning that Middle England, once celebrated by poets such as Sir John Betjeman, are in desperate decline, after decades of neglect from policymakers who have, instead, championed the countryside and inner cities.

Demos will this week present policymakers with its radical "save suburbia" blueprint. This includes plans to reinvent one of the great British pastimes: Tupperware parties.

The organisation is also calling for Sunday car-washing to be updated, so that it is no longer a solitary activity but one where groups of men join together in car-washing circles.

According to the Demos report, garden sheds and garages are the new "innovation labs" for middle-aged suburbanites, and professional "hobbyists" should be recognised as the catalyst for new ideas.

Britain's suburbs, such as Surbiton and Croydon near London, were designed to be peaceful havens away from the crime and overcrowding of cities.

However, they have since become associated with negative cultural stereotypes, reinforced by comedies such as Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life, which portrayed suburbanites as uncool.

Although official figures show that as many as four out of five people live in suburbia, many are ashamed to admit to the fact. While Prince Charles has championed the rural elite, and politicians on the left have focused on the problems of the inner cities, there has been no one to celebrate the quiet charms of pleasantville.

The impact of this has been a rise in crime and a decline in transport links. These problems were highlighted in a report in 2002 by the Civic Trust, which revealed that suburban areas were blighted by run-down shopping centres, loss of employment and some poorly performing schools.

Demos argues that it is unfair to stereotype the suburbs as the home of narrow-minded attitudes. Instead, they should be celebrated as places with a strong community spirit.

The report says people should harness their suburban pride in a spirit of Yimbyism ("Yes! In My Back Yard") instead of Nimbyism. They are urging councils to help foster a sense of neighbourhood, for example by turning roundabouts and verges into communal gardens.

The suburbs of the 1950s were traditionally associated with housewives doing women's work such as cooking and cleaning. The think-tank argues that they have been replaced by working mothers in their thirties, the majority of whom are homeworkers, the fastest- growing group for new enterprises. A Demos recommendation is for the Women's Institute to relaunch itself as a young mum's enterprise club to encourage creativity.

Another suggestion is that councils should create suburban spaces where communal barbecues can take place, echoing schemes in countries such as Denmark, where suburban areas have communal benches and barbecues in cul-de-sacs.

Melissa Mean, from Demos, said that sneering about suburbia is a peculiarly British pastime. "You have got your urban champions and those of the countryside, but who is standing up for suburbia?" asked Ms Mean, head of the Demos urban programme.

"Neglect has led to their decline despite their potential," she said. "Garages and spare bedrooms, which are hard to find in cities, should not be dead space but recognised as centres of creativity. Just remember that Hewlett-Packard was conceived in a garage."

The Demos report is backed by the Centre for Suburban Studies at Kingston University, London, the first academic research institute in the UK dedicated to the study of all things suburban.

"We have gone beyond the garden gnome stage, said Nick Hubble, research fellow at the centre.

"The idea that the suburbs are boring is just not true. Milton Keynes is a good example of how modern suburban places can be a success."

'NO HAWKERS, CIRCULARS':

Used to be sure sign at the garden gate of prissiness within. Now fading. Hawkers know they won't find anyone in during the day.

NET CURTAINS:

Once almost obligatory. Women with time on their hands would peep through them at local comings and goings. Now too much trouble to wash.

ROCKERY:

A little bit of Alpine scenery in your garden. Near universal in Fifties, but now too much trouble, replaced by decking or patio.

COFFEE MORNINGS:

Fancy name for elevenses with more than one cup, these largely mythical gatherings were often mentioned, but rarely witnessed. Now exist only in sit-coms.

POTTING SHED:

Once an essential hidey-hole for the man of the house and his hobbies. Now rotting away and replaced by a gazebo or loose chippings.

HOUSE NAMES:

'Mon Repos'. 'Dunpenpushin' etc. Attempt to fool people who only wrote to you that you lived in a sizable property. Decades of satire has seen them largely disappear.

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