Building on the suburban dream

Metroland poster

John Betjeman may well be turning in his grave: there are plans afoot for the "urban intensification" of London's suburbs.

The "Supurbia" proposal, supported by the capital's Deputy Mayor and housing chief, envisages tens of thousands of new homes a year in "thriving, vibrant and sustainable" communities where residents share everything from cars and bicycles to mowing machines and rowing machines.

The very phrase "urban intensification" will raise hackles, of course. But the acute shortage of affordable homes in the South East has forced planners and developers to consider how to get more from what are described as "London's very low density and often under-occupied suburban districts".

The people behind Supurbia are quick to point out they have no intention of "garden-grabbing" or concreting over green spaces. In a slightly unfortunate choice of phrase, they promise the objective is "to build on (sic) the inherent quality of the suburbs - individual homes on their own plots with easy access to public and private open space set in a verdant environment."

It is, however, a far cry from the original promise of Metro-land in the brochures of the 1920s. Living in suburbia was then portrayed as the seductive dream of a spacious and modern Tudor-style home and garden set in beautiful countryside.

Start Quote

The new vision of London's suburbs imagines a very different life-style choice for the residents of Metro-land”

End Quote

It was all about independent living away from the 'turmoil and bustle of Town'. "Out and on, through rural Rayner's Lane / To autumn-scented Middlesex again," as Betjeman famously described the journey along the Metropolitan line.

The new vision of London's suburbs imagines a very different life-style choice for the residents of Metro-land.

"The project will explore how a programme of urban intensification might trigger changes resulting over time in a much improved fit of population in accommodation; more sustainable, efficient and affordable," the brochure from HTA Design explains.

The company calculates that doubling the density of just 10% of the existing stock of "poor quality semis" in the outer London Boroughs would create the capacity for 20,000 new homes a year.

And using census data, they have also worked out that if 10% of those semis "was fully rather than under occupied it would accommodate 100,000 more people".

They know it is going to be a hard sell. "Whilst it's clear that Nimby attitudes thrive in outer London, we seek to explore the extent to which self-interest may overcome resistance to change," HTA Design says.

Design showing suburban housing by HTA design

So what will the incentive be? I put the question to HTA Design managing partner Ben Derbyshire. "The ageing population who under-occupy homes they have inhabited over many years are sitting on an equity gold mine," he explained.

"They have poor (or no) choice when it comes to down-sizing to release their equity and so to offer 'HAPPI' style, third age accommodation in their neighbourhoods is to liberate a real estate resource with huge potential."

Start Quote

All these extra people will put huge pressure on local services and resources. For a start, where will they park their cars?”

End Quote

'HAPPI' refers to a Homes and Community Agency panel set up to consider new ways to meet the housing needs and aspirations of older people. "In suburbia, we need to provide homeowners with the means to profit from the development potential of their asset," Derbyshire argues.

He answers fears that increasing density will see house values decline by pointing out that "the highest plot ratio of any housing in London is to be found at Albert Hall Mansions in Kensington Gore", one of the capital's priciest neighbourhoods.

Even if they can overcome the Nimbyism for which the suburbs are notorious, there is another major challenge for the Supurbia project. All these extra people will put huge pressure on local services and resources. For a start, where will they park their cars?

The answer to this question, apparently, is communities where people share. "Instead of cars sitting on roads or car parks for large parts of the day, they will be in use, shared," the Supurbia brochure proclaims.

Ben Derbyshire is confident that future suburbanites won't mind giving up their parking spot. "Car ownership and aspiration is rapidly changing with young Londoners showing an increasing disinterest," he claims. "Public transport in London has benefitted from huge investment and the costs of car ownership are a significant disincentive."

What about pressure on energy supplies? "No new grid infrastructure should be needed," it is claimed. To avoid the problem of huge extra demand at peak times, there will be battery storage of energy from the grid when it is cheap, and from solar panels. Residents will be encouraged to use timers to control when washing gets done.

Suburban housing

It is not just cars and energy the planners think 21st-Century Metro-landers might share. The project envisages community hire schemes for "equipment that many people own but never actually use, drills, hedge trimmers, car washers, exercise equipment, projection facilities, construction tools, mowing machines."

The Supurbia project is work in progress. London's deputy mayor for housing, Richard Blakeway, tells me there are challenges it will "need to explore and test in a specific area". A pilot project is on the cards.

And for lovers of Betjeman, it is worth stressing that the Metro-land dream was never reality. Many of the capital's suburbs are made up of dreary, cheaply-built semis that offer little or nothing in terms of a solution to the desperate demand for affordable homes within commuting distance of the capital.

"Urban intensification" may raise hackles, but there is an urgent need for creative answers to the housing crisis in London and the South East. Supurbia offers ideas for a possible way out of the mess.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

'Don't give up on us,' police tell ministers

A typical day in a typical force has been calculated - and an increasing amount of time is being spent on public safety and welfare work.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    BBC shifting the goal post in a predictable direction.

    Apparently the requirement for unlimited new homes is nothing whatever to do with the unsustainable increase in population - increasing at a rate of 1 million every 2 years

    According to the BBC it's all about the wicked (conveniently white, middle class, ageing) suburbanites

    Come on BBC - start being honest about what's causing this problem

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    In some U.S. freeways, the outside lanes are labelled "No single occupancy" to restrict their use to people sharing cars. However, in a few instances, keen eyed policemen discovered that a few drivers had bought blow up sex dolls, dressed them in coats and hats, then put them in the passenger seat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Basically, it is about better planning for an increasingly overcrowded island, which means smaller homes & smaller or no gardens.

    It is also about pushing out poorer housing, in effect council estates & social housing.

    The planned utopia "sustainable" LOL, image is just a scam to maximise profits for developers.

    Such policy may get the nod due to unsustainableimmigration policys

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @9 Global yawning
    "I've heard those as far north as Edgware talk funny, and smell of cabbage"

    Having ventured to Edgware, the funny talk is called Yiddish, and the cabbage smell comes from a dish called holishkes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    10 Minutes ago
    Oh yes please, let's have more places like Harlow, Milton Keynes, Croydon, Boreham Wood, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth!

    . . . and Telford!

    Oh, hang on, on second thoughts . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    3.0 magnitude earth quake in Ohio as a result of fracking, fails to be reported by BBC who are obviously ignoring it.


    In reference to this article, the modern 'suburban dream' should probably have nothing to do with this technology as it could bring the Shanley Homes 'great' houses tumbling down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    This report will be useful - if you run out of Andrex

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    "They always look to pander to 'demand', not get rid of the demand"

    It's called living in a free society. People want to live in the South East, they want a better standard of living.

    Apparently everyone on HYS is a countryside-lover who lives in the middle of nowhere and rakes muck on fields for a living.

    Pardon some of us who want to get a good job and an affordable flat whilst we're young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I used to laugh when I saw airport names like "London Luton" and "London Stansted". It won't be so funny when Megalopolis London stretches that far.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Makes me laugh when I come by train into Waterloo looking at all the new residential tower blocks going up around Vauxhall. A couple of years ago they were a blight in inner cities and knocking them down.

    I'm lucky to live in a quiet village where everything seems to be more on a human level, where people talk to each other and there is community spirit.

    I don't want to live in a concrete jungle

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The only thing that matters is reducing our population.
    Anything else is suicide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I seem to recall from way back (a 'Horizon' programme, or 'Tomorrows World'? Can't remember), 2 ways of dealing with housing the expected population. (1) Every scrap of land south of a line joining The Wash and the Severn to be urbanised, the rest to be given over to agriculture. (2) Everyone living in one of 7 tower blocks, each 4 miles high. We have the technology. It could come true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Oh yes please, let's have more places like Harlow, Milton Keynes, Croydon, Boreham Wood, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth!

    Who needs character, individuality, history, style and a place to call home when you can live in a soulless hell hole where a car is an absolute necessity to commute to your job in a soulless business centre off the M4.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What a load of Tess Tickles!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    15. newsman face
    "The idea of car sharing fills me with horror even if they are put through a hire car style valetting and maintenance between each user."

    Car sharing is a small scale reality in my suburb. Subscription pays for the cost of service, car must be returned clean with a full tank. Works well for those with occasional need to drive but they are very few. Most are high mileage drivers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    These plans are nothing new. Car-sharing is often offered as a solution to parking, but the schemes get little or no take-up. Planning permission is sought for developments with car sharing schemes, then they are built, but private cars are still parked. Older people don't want to leave their homes, those that do want to downsize to a bungalow in the countryside. Won't happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    In an intelligent society
    we would control population,not be a slave to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    London is the only part of the UK that is properly governed; hence the thriving economy of the South East. The way to solve the "London" problem is to create similar problems in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff i.e. regional governments with similar powers to Boris.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Immigration is entirely responsible for the problem.However government never ever deals with problems at root cause.Just like they want more runways rather than kill off flight 'wanters'.They always look to pander to 'demand', not get rid of the demand.

    So given they will never do the right things this proposal is best option. Zero green field build, all brownfield. Suburb density is far too low.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The idea of car sharing fills me with horror even if they are put through a hire car style valetting and maintenance between each user. I certainly don't want to downsize either-why should I leave a nice house for a rabbit hutch?


Page 4 of 5



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.