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Economic Justice

All change in suburbia? What’s behind the decline in suburban well-being?

 Paul Hunter, Head of Research at the Smith Institute, blogs about the Institute’s research on economic and social downturn in the suburbs. 


The 20th Century can lay claim to being the suburban century. The growth of suburban housing development in the 1930s, the mass production of the car and slum clearance after the war all meant that suburbs became places where young families (both blue and white collar) flocked in their thousands. The opposite was true in city centres characterised by falling populations and growing concentrations of poverty.


However, since the turn of the 21st Century the trend has been in reverse with many of our city suburbs suffering from relative economic decline and social deprivation. The socio-economic geography of suburbia is changing, and on current trends suburbs are losing out to now thriving inner cities.


Population growth in urban areas


Our work at the Smith Institute for Barrow Cadbury is showing that population growth in our major urban areas was significantly faster than outer areas. Greater Manchester’s urban population, for example, grew by 17% and the West Midlands by 16%, whilst their suburban populations have both grown by just 5%. What seems to be driving this change is a mix of policy interventions (including urban regeneration), businesses (re)locating to urban areas, and changes in perceptions of our cities.


In public policy terms, ‘placemaking’ (a people-centred approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces) has for the last decade been dominated by urban renewal and regeneration. As part of this agenda the focus has been on redeveloping city centres to make them attractive places for businesses, consumers and residents. The agglomeration of businesses (especially in service industries) has also led to economic activity becoming more concentrated in the heart of our cities. One of the more startling findings of our research to date has been jobs growth. For example, in outer London 11,000 additional jobs were created over the last ten years whilst in inner London the figure was a staggering 505,000. It is not just the number of jobs that have grown rapidly in city centres and stagnated in suburban areas, but also the quality of jobs, with more skilled work located away from suburbs.


The suburban job market


This could of course mean that those performing those jobs are suburban residents travelling into the centre, with suburbs remaining places of affluence. However, evidence shows that this is not the case. In Greater Manchester the number of jobs performed by suburban residents has increased by 6% versus a 47% rise for those living in urban areas.


This change in the economic fortunes of city centres is mirrored in other social indicators. Whilst it is still the case that urban areas have higher concentrations of deprivation, poverty rates seem to be narrowing. Other social indicators also seem to be following a similar trend, such as crime and education. In London, for example, educational achievement (5* A-Cs) is now the same in inner and outer London. In addition, the dynamics of the housing market and the way social housing is funded also means that more affordable housing is to be found in suburban areas.


Serious economic decline


All suburbs are different, and many remain places of relative affluence and wealth. However, a growing number have and are experiencing higher rates of poverty and are arguably in serious economic decline. This has significant implications for public policy and for those in the third sector providing support for people on low incomes. Challenges such as access to work may be more problematic in suburbs than urban areas, not least because public transport is not as regular or affordable. This is also true for other services which are more costly to provide over a larger distance. Over the coming months the Smith Institute will be examining some of these concerns and discussing what can be done to achieve a lasting suburban renaissance.


Creating places with access to jobs, high-quality public services, decent homes, and a safe environment are critical for growth in both urban and suburban neighbourhoods. However, the evidence suggests that many of the city suburbs are struggling with rising rates of poverty and relatively lower earnings. Knowing more about what is happening is critical to setting out a range  of policy responses that can prevent many of our suburbs slipping into a spiral of decline.


Find out more about the work of the Smith Institute.  Read Poverty in suburbia: a Smith Institute study into the growth of poverty in the suburbs of England and Wales published in April 2014.