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Local Services: London Suburbs

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2020

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered London suburbs and local service provision.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. This debate on services in our suburbs is in many ways an SOS, because the voice of the suburbs—the bits at the edges of our cities, rather than those at the centre, or the periphery before the shire counties kick in—has been silenced in current debates about under-investment and fair funding. Instead, considerations of heartlands and the red wall have predominated. I will pose the Minister some questions, and will chiefly address London. However, arguments about suburban neglect by successive Governments apply everywhere outside of the Westminster bubble, in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick, as well as Solihull in Birmingham or Didsbury in Manchester. Those places are all dealing with demographic and economic change, the climate emergency and the housing crisis, among many other issues.

The idea of suburbia under siege might sound contradictory, because unlike “those inner cities”, as Thatcher called them in 1987 when she won for a third time, suburbs are not seen as a problem, so they are not approached in problem-solving terms. Instead, they are left to get on with it, which for the past 10 years has meant dealing with the effects of austerity across the board and across the age scale, with pressures on both youth services and elderly adult social care. Ealing borough has had its budget slashed by 64% since 2010, meaning that it has 36p for every £1 it used to have. Given that its population is approaching 350,000, it is trying to do more and more with less and less, as can be seen from the fact that, for example, five libraries are now going to be community-run. That decision has been forced by dwindling budgets; it is not a choice. Whenever I have asked parliamentary questions about this issue, Ministers always recommend dipping into reserves, which is not a sustainable solution. Once those reserves are gone, then what?

My hon. Friend is already making a strong case, and I know that she will continue to do so. Can I raise with her, and through her with the Minister, the problem of schools in the suburbs? Many of those in my constituency face a challenge in recruiting teachers, particularly maths and science teachers, because inner-London teachers get an additional payment. It is therefore more attractive for new teachers to work in an inner-London school than one in outer London, such as in the great suburb of Harrow.

As always, my hon. Friend is totally right. We were never part of the Inner London Education Authority, as Harrow was not, and the cost of housing in north-west London boroughs is exorbitant. We need rebalancing between the London boroughs, rather than seeing this as just an issue of London versus the rest.

Suburbs were traditionally seen as havens of peaceful prosperity—safe and reassuring, away from the big, bad city—but are now riven by pockets of poverty. Organisations such as the Smith Institute have shown that, partly due to benefit changes, deprivation previously associated with inner-city poverty is reaching the outer suburbs. Two chunks of South Acton ward are among the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s most deprived 10%, a statistic arrived at by examining measures such as homelessness, overcrowding and morbidity. Does the Minister accept not only that deprivation exists in suburban London, but that the fair funding review needs to recognise that fact and be future-proofed, so that as suburban areas face new challenges, the funding formula keeps up with them, rather than being based on a crude population calculation?

Employment patterns and demographic trends are recasting suburbs from the parochial dormitory towns they were once seen as into symbols of globalisation. For the 20,608 EU nationals in my seat—that statistic is from an old census, so the figure is probably higher now—Friday’s departure from the European Union will be a moment of profound sadness. The most recent census data shows that Ealing is Britain’s most Polish borough and its fourth most Arab borough, and ending freedom of movement is going to be disastrous for our local businesses. In the Park Royal industrial estate, we have a conglomerate of purveyors of middle eastern food who supply olives and baklava far afield, and they have told me that it is going to be really bad for them.

The stereotypical attraction of suburbia was as an escape from the grime of satanic mills for an easy life: predictable, safe, sometimes even boring. However, a whole set of 21st-century pressures have left suburbs beset by difficulties and insecurity. Crime—itself ever-diversifying, with drug and gang networks and county lines—and fear of crime are top issues on the doorstep, as anyone who knocked on a door during last year’s election will have heard. In 2011, riots hit Ealing, and we have not been immune to stabbings and all of those things, shattering notions of suburban tranquillity.

We used to think of suburbia as a green and pleasant land, but it is also changing in its physical form. Relaxed planning restrictions threaten trees and greenery, with the developer-led “presumption to build” thrust of policy ushering in bulldozers, incentivising high-rise projects and challenging notions of suburbs as low density, which is the kind of thing people used to like about them. I was encouraged to hear in the Queen’s Speech that planning applications will eventually have to prove biodiversity net gain before approval is given—that is, they will need to demonstrate that they are leaving nature in a better state than before. Can the Minister issue guidance to ensure that, as a matter of best practice from here on in, planning committees should be considering that factor?

Plans for the last green field in Ealing Broadway to be concreted and astroturfed over have received a green light, putting protected species of bats at risk and destroying 45 mature trees. This has been hugely controversial locally, across the political divide; they were even labelled “environmental vandalism” by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), the new Conservative MP for that seat. To date, he is still an Ealing councillor, as is the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), another Conservative who opposes these plans. The Mayor of London’s new London plan makes the right noises about protecting green spaces, but it will be put to the test when this matter and others come to his desk. I could pass details of those plans to the Minister. What particularly bothers me is that astroturf in planning terms is considered equivalent to grasslands, although studies show that it is potentially carcinogenic. It is plastic, basically; if it is ingested by species, it is very harmful. It interferes with natural drainage, soil systems and ecology, so those plans need to be looked at.

When a “no to overdevelopment” candidate stood against me two elections ago, declaring “We want to live in Acton, not Manhattan”, I agreed. In fact, he folded his candidacy for me in the end, but still got 150 votes because he was on the ballot paper. I won by 274 votes, so who knows where those 150 votes would have gone? He had a point: a whole list of future horrors is coming the way of Ealing’s planning committee, including a bunch of tall towers at West Ealing that are completely antithetical to the low-rise Edwardian skyline that people love that area for.

Connectivity is a key suburban characteristic. Not only do all roads lead to Ealing, Acton and Chiswick, through the arterial network, but we seem to have every major infrastructure project there, bringing boon as well as bane. The Old Oak super-development opportunity area will, in time, provide 24,000 dwellings and an interchange that will be second only to King’s Cross. HS2 has already compulsorily purchased the neighbouring back gardens of people who live there, who feel that that company acts with no humanity at all. They will basically be living in a building site 24/7 for at least the next decade, and with the ever-increasing price tag of that project, many people are wondering whether it is worth it and whether they will live to see its benefits. The same is true for Crossrail, as well as Heathrow expansion—which, if we are sticking to our climate change targets and accepting that we are in a climate emergency, seems completely nuts, given that Heathrow is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe.

Another thing that I have been told when I have asked is that, “You will get a new upgraded Piccadilly line,” which does not seem to be a good deal. I take that line every morning and it cannot cope. It is already an airport transfer route as well as a commuter line. The trains date from the 1970s. It is a far cry from those old adverts about metroland, which told people to leave the drudgery behind and move to Hounslow or wherever, and showed utopian neighbourhoods a comfortable commute from the city.

Shrivelling school and hospital budgets, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) mentioned, hollowed-out high streets and unaffordable housing with unlet retail units below have turned suburbs into ghost towns. Will the Government’s plans for business rate retention allow councils to intervene to assist suburban high streets?

We may be moving towards the French model of the banlieue, with diverse communities on the outskirts and the rich in the inner cities, as seen in the film “La Haine”. Prohibitive pricing puts any kind of London property out of reach of ordinary pockets to rent, let alone get a toehold on the property ladder. Urgent house building for all tenures and more council housing are needed to reverse the damaging effects of right to buy, which never replenished the secure tenancy stock that was lost. Does the Minister agree that it is scandalous that the national housing benefit bill is £22 billion, dwarfing the £6 billion spent on building homes?

In place of urban stability, transitory communities and churn are features of the suburban landscape, as seen in phenomena such as beds in sheds. Ealing is a borough where families are both dumped by councils from further in London and exported to further out, sometimes within the same borough because it is geographically so big.

My hon. Friend speaks powerfully about the transitory nature of the communities and the urbanisation of some of our suburbs, on which she worked as an academic before becoming an MP. A good case in point is the London borough of Havering, which has seen extraordinary transformations in the last few years, often unbeknown to the council, which has been slow to adapt.

Those transformations have huge implications for the opportunities of young people in Havering. The rate of referrals to children’s services has increased by 115% since 2014, which is eight times the outer London average. Since 2013, there has been a 170% increase in serious youth violence incidents, which is the highest rate of increase in London. Those are examples of the dilemmas that outer London boroughs are facing.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many outer Londons, with different types of housing, and different 21st-century pressures that affect all London suburbs, east and west. Dagenham and Ealing are probably mirror images of each other, although we in Ealing like to think that we are further in.

Ealing was once known for being leafy—and for its comedy—but it now ranks as the 10th-worst borough in the country on the barriers to housing index of multiple deprivation. It ranks particularly badly on housing affordability as a quality of life indicator. That has an impact on educational attainment, employment and public health. Some 18 of the top 20 worst boroughs are in London, with 12 of those in outer London.

We must recognise that the binary divide between inner and outer London is inadequate for boroughs such as Ealing and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West and for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who have mentioned that their boroughs have characteristics of both. If the current boundary had not been not arbitrarily drawn by political bureaucrats, somewhere such as Acton could, socially and geographically, easily fall into most definitions of inner London—it has two tube stations in zone 2. Meanwhile, Southall, which is some miles west, is indisputably and cartographically in outer London. They have similar deprivation problems, however, which lead to higher costs for the local authority.

Some 65% of adults speak English at home in Ealing borough compared with the London average of 77%. Diversity is a strength, but it comes at a cost that is not recognised in the formula. There are disparities not only between boroughs but within them. Child deprivation in the Chiswick part of my seat is at 13%, but in the East Acton ward, which borders it, it is above average, at 23%.

The Outer London Commission, which was established by the previous mayoralty, made a start on some of those issues. It has since folded—a symptom of political cycles and the need to do away with the old when the new lot come in—but it could surely be revived in some form. Voter volatility is alive and well in the suburbs. My constituency, and those of Putney, Enfield, Southgate, Manchester, Withington and Sheffield, Hallam, have all gone Labour-wards since 2015, so the old pattern of white flight and suburban nuclear families between twitching net curtains is being turned on its head by the new patterns that I have referred to.

There are people of all faiths and none. Census data shows that adherence to the Christian faith is declining, but it often feels as though Christian charities are filling the gaps where the state has failed, with food banks, Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter and the Ealing Soup Kitchen to name but three. None of those were ever in “The Good Life” or “Terry and June”—the stereotypical suburban popular cultural images from which we get our idea of what a suburb is—but perhaps we should update our examples. The Who came from Ealing and Acton, as did Naughty Boy and Jamal Edwards.

Suburbs were established in optimism as the ideal between city and country, a slice of rural idyll in easy reach of the city centre, but they appear a bit worse for wear. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has a set of recommendations, and I believe that the late Roger Scruton’s report on beauty and planning is also about to be published. New challenges include encouraging car-free sustainable lifestyles despite a double garage often being a status symbol of suburbia.

Suburbia is not what is used to be. Nostalgia Avenue is all well and good, but to right those wrongs, I call on the Government to create a cross-departmental suburban taskforce, as Heseltine did in an earlier age with those inner cities, but in a non-pejorative way—the word “suburban” often has narrow-minded undertones. The taskforce, housed in the Minister’s Department, should symbolise joined-up thinking between transport, planning, welfare, public services, the public purse and developers, because it is only when they work together that we can begin to answer the question: what do we do with a problem like suburbia?

I will be brief. I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing the debate. I will highlight a couple of areas that have already been mentioned. I support the need for a taskforce to join up some of the areas that are looked at differently by different Departments but which, when joined together in someone’s life, make a big difference or are detrimental.

I will focus on a particular area in my constituency, Roehampton, which sums up many of the problems experienced by suburbia in other cities. It used to be a place with lots of villas, but it now has the second-biggest council housing estate in the country. The main issue, which comes up all the time, is transport links. There is one station, Barnes, but the buses are so infrequent that many residents have written to me, even since my election in December, about the one-mile walk that they have to do in the rain because there is no bus. We do not have tubes; we would love to have a tram.

The lack of transport links affects employment opportunities and reduces the chance of social mobility for those residents. People say that they feel like a forgotten village—not at the edge of suburbia, but a village beyond London—when it comes to transport links.

The lack of transport also affects health services. There is no A&E in our Queen Mary’s Hospital, so people have to travel. The substance misuse service in Roehampton was withdrawn in September 2018 and has not been replaced. There is a knock-on effect for mental health services. People have to travel quite a long way—it is a two and a half hour round trip to Springfield Hospital. Mental health services, and access to them, are limited. Youth services have also been cut. The Roehampton youth club was closed last summer. Regeneration in Roehampton is not going to replace the youth services and will not address those needs. Crime is increasing as well. Drug dealing is regularly seen in local areas and is not being addressed.

The final area I want to touch on is pre-school services. We have Eastwood Nursery, but state nurseries are also under threat of cuts. The wonderful Newpin service works with local pre-school children, but the whole area has experienced cuts. There are no more Sure Start centres in the area. There is a playground in the middle of the estate. Everyone can look at it, but it is closed and locked all the time, which is very hard for local families. It should be an area of greenery and, as my hon. Friend has said, an area where people go out of London to get to, but it faces all the same problems as inner London. I would like the Minister to address how we can have a joined-up response to the need for public services in suburbia. I like the idea of a taskforce.

I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship in this Parliament, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing an important and very enjoyable debate. I welcome her comments about her constituency, which painted a picture of the suburban lifestyle in its most modern of settings. It is quite right that we take this opportunity to discuss some of the challenges that people living in suburbia face in London and elsewhere.

To pick up on the hon. Lady’s comments about voter volatility, she pointed to some high-profile wins for her party at the general election. If she and her colleagues ventured north and joined me in the northern powerhouse, she would note that Heywood and Middleton, Bolton, Bury North and Bury South are similar in many ways to the areas that she highlighted, but their voter volatility was in the opposite direction. I think what that shows is that there is dissatisfaction with the status quo in many areas, and sometimes people who have concerns about their area are rebelling against the status quo, not in one particular direction or the other.

I will start by addressing the questions the hon. Lady asked, as I would like to cover those before I come on to set out the departmental agenda. I am sure no one will weep if I do not get the opportunity to read the voluminous notes handed to me by my civil servants—I can show them to hon. Members at the end if they want.

The first question raised by the hon. Lady was in relation to deprivation, its spread across cities and the challenge of deprivation in inner and outer areas of cities. I have been concerned about this issue for some time, and it is absolutely right that we give it an airing in this House. I do not think that any Government over the past three decades have properly grasped the challenges. There are often significant pockets of deprivation in suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas, which are not as easily mappable, or for which the Government have failed to have a real plan. It has therefore fallen to local authorities—which have in-depth knowledge of the communities that they have the privilege of representing, as do hon. Members in this House—to tackle those challenges. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that funding for local authorities has to be done in a dynamic way that can recognise pockets of deprivation, no matter how small or large, whether in major city centres, suburban areas or areas further outside the city.

The fairer funding formula that we are currently looking at includes deprivation as one factor, but I agree with the hon. Lady—we are certainly listening—about the challenge in addressing how funding can be dynamic and change rapidly as circumstances change. It is unacceptable that those pockets of deprivation have for decades been allowed to grow without being properly challenged or without any Government of any political hue suggesting a proper solution. We should certainly seek to tackle that in the fairer funding formula.

I recognise the Minister’s approach in saying that for many years pockets of deprivation have established themselves in places such as my constituency and others, and they must be addressed. Will he also acknowledge, however, that changes in recent years to the benefits system, particularly to caps on local housing allowance and other benefits that people on low incomes receive to rent privately in London, have caused a rapid shift of population from inner to outer London, and that that needs to be given particular attention?

We absolutely do continue to give that attention. It is a real London issue but certainly not a London-only issue—it is a metropolitan issue—but I am afraid to say that when I entered Parliament in 2010, the benefits system had lost public trust. The benefits system has to be fair for those people who, quite rightly, rely on it—any of us at any point in our lives could fall through the gaps and need a safety net to catch us, and I am proud to live in a country where that safety net exists—but it also has to be fair for taxpayers, who get up in the morning, go to work and pay their taxes to fund the benefits system. My personal opinion is that, in 2010, what brought forward the benefits cap was the lack of fairness in the system. We could probably have a separate debate about that. We would certainly need more than a brief half-hour debate to get to the bottom of it.

The link between planning permissions and biodiversity is a hugely important issue. I commend the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton for picking up on that issue from the Queen’s Speech. Tackling the climate emergency is probably the greatest challenge that any of us will face in our time in Parliament. The hon. Lady will of course be aware that the national planning policy framework currently has biodiversity net gain as one of its planning principles. Should the Government go further? Yes, and we will, and that is why we brought forward the additional protections that we talked about, including protecting nature by mandating biodiversity net gain into the planning system; ensuring that houses are not built at the expense of nature; and delivering viable natural spaces for communities. We will make sure that we improve and protect habitats and that areas have a local nature recovery strategy. We want to give local communities a greater say through the planning system and our planning White Paper, not least so they can have a greater say on protecting local trees, which, as hon. Members know, is often an issue that exercises our constituents, and quite rightly so.

The hon. Lady also raised concerns about density and high-rise development. Of course, all local planning decisions are a matter for the local council, in many ways in concert with the Mayor of London. If we look across the country, however, we see that such communities are a great way of tackling the housing shortage across the UK, and that they often lead to better communities with a greater concentration of services in one place. Often, people prefer to live in a more dense, as opposed to sparse, community, although many people may decide to move to the suburbs for the exact opposite reason. That is why planning is driven locally.

In terms of business rates and protection for suburban high streets, business rate localisation is again about giving those who are on local councils power to drive the ambition that they will know better than any Government Minister—maybe not better than the local Member of Parliament, but certainly better than any Government Minister. However, there is a wider agenda about protecting high streets and ensuring that they thrive, which we are addressing through the future high streets fund. In the prospectus, we acknowledged that suburban high streets could bid for that fund. They are a very important community asset and the Government should rightly ensure that they are protected.

The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke about youth funding and youth clubs. If she has read our manifesto, she will have seen that it made a significant financial commitment to a youth fund, which will come forward with many millions of pounds to ensure that we can increase youth provision in our communities. The Blackburn Youth Zone is on the border of my constituency and I know the huge contribution it makes to people’s lives. We must build on that.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of crime. It is correct that we seek to protect all communities, and we will do that by increasing the number of police officers on the street.

On the cross-London suburban taskforce—

May I just correct the Minister? My proposal was for a cross-departmental taskforce that would cover all suburbs, not just London ones.

Right. On the cross-departmental suburban taskforce, I think the idea has merit. The hon. Lady said that one of her famous constituents is called Naughty Boy—I don’t think she was referring to me. On the basis that the Government are not currently proposing such a taskforce, why does the hon. Lady not be a bit naughty and set it up herself? Once it is up and running with some recommendations, I will happily meet her and other members of the taskforce to discuss how we can drive that agenda across Government.

Question put and agreed to.