Why I should be stopped from fleeing to suburbia

Nicholas Schoon on a pernicious middle-class exodus
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The Independent Online
I want to live in the countryside one day. But now I live in the suburbs, with my wife and three children who will probably leave home within the next 15 years and set up households of their own. I imagine that they, like their parents, won't marry and have children until their late twenties or early thirties (if at all). And I want to live to a ripe old age.

I and my family are squarely part of a huge environmental problem: the disappearance of an area of English countryside the size of Greater London, buried under new housing within the next 20 years. That is what is implied by the Government's forecast for an extra 4.4 million households to be formed between 1991 and 2016, even if half of the new homes required are built within existing towns, cities and villages.

The population is growing slowly, but the number of households is expected to shoot up by nearly a quarter by 2016. This is because we are living longer, marrying later, splitting up more frequently and are much more likely to live alone. Yesterday the Department of the Environment published a consultation paper about where, in this crowded country, all those homes should go. It agonised over these issues, asked lots of pertinent questions, and in the end committed itself to discussing targets, but not to policies to achieve them.

At the moment, I can't afford my dream country home anywhere near my work in London, nor face the prospect of the extra commuting. So I live in the most suburban of outer London suburbs, a few hundred yards from where the ranks of interwar semis (just like mine) abruptly give way to Green Belt.

I'd like to live nearer the heart of the capital. We did, for seven years, and we enjoyed it - a small Edwardian terrace, the big and little parks nearby, the bustle and variety and the short journey to work. But when the time came for our eldest child to go to secondary school, we checked the Government's league tables and moved from Greenwich to Bromley, where children get a lot more qualifications. We had no confidence in our nearest inner-city comprehensive and no chance of getting him in the better one a little further away. So like millions of middle-class parents who can't afford or don't want their children to go to private schools, we fled to the anodyne suburbs.

We felt bad, knowing this kind of behaviour makes for inner-city decline. But, as Tony Blair and Harriet Harman tell us, your children come first, and unlike those MPs we could find no way of getting our son into a good inner-city school.

If the Government is serious about stopping both urban decline and ever- growing suburban sprawl across the diminishing countryside, it should have no higher priority than improving schools near the centres of big towns and cities. But this gets only the briefest mention in the housing paper from the Environment Secretary, John Gummer.

Raising inner-city school standards is difficult and expensive. Both central and local government seem resigned to the fact that few people with money, jobs and children will want to live in inner cities. Yet politicians of all parties wish for the centres to be inhabited by people other than the left-behind poor, in order to keep the urban heart beating.

So they warm to the idea of students, young singles, childless marrieds and old people living in smaller homes in the core of cities. The children of the self-sufficient are to be raised in John Major's ``invincible green suburbs''. Once they grow up, they will move into the city centres to work and study, and it is being suggested that it would be a good idea if their newly alone parents did so, too.

But the parents will probably still want to retire to a cottage in the countryside. And their children, too, will wish to move out of the centre when they have children, unless the schools do get better - and the city streets safer. By the time they do move, there will numerous big new suburbs for them to live in, in places that are now fields and woods.

This unceasing sprawl does not only erase the countryside, a national asset which most people treasure. Dispersed, low-density "burbs" are hard to service by public transport and they encourage the car culture, with its attendant pollution and congestion.

If we are to slow the outward march of suburbia, people such as myself must be stopped from achieving our dream of country living. The supply of new housing in greenfield sites must be so limited that out-of-town house prices become prohibitive. Meanwhile, homes should be built on derelict and vacant land in the cities, created in the empty space above shops and in out-of-date offices. For once we - the comfortable, middle-class English - know we are fated to raise our families and end our days in town, we will make it a fit place to live in. The politicians have to summon the courage to make us give up our dreams and start us planning our un-English urban future.