Dying quietly: English suburbs and the stiff upper lip
The English suburbs are dying. Years of austerity have slowly changed the landscape. Poverty is now common in the suburbs. Since 2014 life expectancy has been falling across most of England, especially in the suburbs. Now infant mortality rates are also rising year on year (unlike anywhere else in Europe). In hindsight it is not surprising that the majority of suburban English people voted Brexit, most noticeably in the Home Counties. Middle England is understandably angry. No more fortitude in the face of adversity and the hiding of emotions. The stiff up lip has slipped. Change is in the air.
The New Suburbs
Mustn’t grumble. Mustn’t make a fuss. England’s suburbs are slowly dying and changing. The elderly are now dying faster than before (Figure 1). Cuts to meals-on-wheels, social worker visits, day centres, bus routes, post-offices and many other suburban staples have hastened their exit. The few elderly in densely packed terraces living nearer the centre of cities can more easily look out for each other. In old age it is in the suburbs, far away from your children (if you had children), that you now much more often live and die alone in England.
The mantra that there is no such thing as society, just families and their children, rings both true and hollow in the suburbs. The suburbs are becoming places in which the elderly who have not quite made it into the best-off echelons reside. Not rich enough to decamp to idyllic villages, to private health care and eventually an exclusive retirement complex, those who did well, but not exceptionally well, face an isolated suburban old age. Their grown-up children live in another suburb far away, or have not yet escaped the central city and renting – still waiting for the inheritance that is their ticket to suburbia.
The suburbs are changing more quickly today than they have changed in decades. The centres of cities are increasingly reserved for the young, the successful and those who can afford to avoid long commutes. Out of town villages are where the very affluent go when they age – the idyllic cottage in the country, ideally with one of the few remaining village schools nearby, geographically reserved for the children that England’s upper middle class now have so very late in their lives. The most successful hop over the suburbs when making their jump from Notting Hill mews to North Oxfordshire cottage; from dinner parties to country suppers.
England accommodated its loss of empire by accepting rising economic inequality. After the 1970s the country as a whole became relatively poorer in comparison to the rest of the world and with most of Europe, but in the 1980s, 1990s and noughties those at the top took a greater and greater share of the pie each year. As they did so they took more and more from the poor and from suburban middle England, from the places where the majority lived, the places that saw progress stall.
Loft conversions in the city and barn conversions for a few in the countryside contrast with a spreading mediocrity for the majority in what had been the great suburban new hope of the 1930 to 1970 era. The suburbs were supposed to be safe. The suburbs had been where life’s winners went. Suburban schools were ‘good’, suburban jobs were plentiful and well paid. Suburban doctors were not over-worked; hospitals were accessible – always there for when you needed them; until the money began to run out and the waiting lists began to grow.
The money began to run out in the 1970s. After that decade there was less and less building of new suburbs. Home building had fallen from a UK peak of around 400,000 new units a year in the 1960s to around 200,000 a year by the 1980s after which it never recovered and slumped further after the 2008 crash. As of August 2018, levels of building are still below 200,000 a year despite the now huge pent-up need for more housing in the most overcrowded places.
At first there was little complaint from the suburbs where house prices rose and rose and homeowners began to think they were becoming richer and richer; but the real riches were being made by those who could lend huge sums to aspiring home-owners, or who could buy and then rent out property. And older homeowners were not “doing well”. In early 2018 the worse rise in mortality in England and Wales was seen since that of the Second World War….
Or listen to a lecture given on this subject on the day this paper was published to the Staffordshire Geographical Association in Stoke on Trent on September 26th, 2018: