Outer London

This is an article I wrote for City Mayors.

“Nice to visit London, but I could never live here” I once overheard a tourist exclaim in Trafalgar Square. In fact very few Londoners live anywhere near there. Most of the 7.5 million live between five and fifteen miles away in a place known as Outer London. Normally it doesn’t get much attention, despite the majority of the London population being resident there. But things have changed since 2008 when Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, thanks in part to electoral support secured there. This has been followed by a policy agenda of consultation through the Outer London Commission and a £50m pot of money called the Outer London Fund.

Although Outer London as a concept is somewhat nebulous and contested, it does have a legal definition of the 20 boroughs that became part of Greater London in 1965 and were not part of the old County of London. However, to make the notion that resides in our mind a little more complex there is an unrelated telephone and postal geography that divides London into inner and outer sections, but these have no relationship to each other or the official definition. For planning purposes the legal definition is unsatisfactory in dividing the city into the ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ parts as it originated from a boundary established in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The legislative significance of the inner/outer split has diminished over time, for example the inner area no longer has its own central education authority. However, the complex formula used to calculate the local government finance settlement counts inner and outer boroughs differently. For statistics reporting another definition is used that categorises three of the thirty-two boroughs differently. Until recently the London Plan spatial strategy has more or less ignored the split in favour of dividing the capital up into ‘pie slices’ along transport lines. Under Johnson this policy has been reversed and there is now a separate fund for improvements to outer London centres.

One critique of Outer London as a concept is that it is essentially an extension of the home counties outside Greater London, both physically and politically. This is a dangerous simplification, because it masks the distinctive character of Outer London, and implies it is exclusively white, middle class and semi-detached. In some areas there is suburban affluence, but there is also a multi-ethnic working class. The built environment and social deprivation of some housing estates throughout the area are similar in character to those in Inner London with many of the same issues. There is relatively high population density, compared to outside London; and many boroughs are capable of significant political swings. Furthermore every outer borough has at some stage been outside of Conservative control, the political party most commonly associated with the suburbs.

However, Outer London does have certain distinctive features that differentiate it from the Inner London area. The most significant of these is the polycentric urban arrangement around a limited number of very large metropolitan centres, such as Croydon, Romford, Kingston and Uxbridge. These centres, which have survived the economic recession relatively unscathed, are characterised by pedestrianised areas, multiple shopping malls with mid-range brands, and a night time economy. They represent a significant counterweight to central London in terms of retail, leisure and employment. In the case of the Victorian suburb of Croydon, it is felt by the local authority to be so significant that it should bear the title of City, an honour currently reserved for two ancient central London districts.

The large outer centres often have a good supply of recently built flats in high density blocks, the result of a planning policy of intensification. A common feature is that they are the location of a cluster of municipal buildings, such as town halls and central libraries, strengthening their local importance. Although I am sure locals might disagree, there is little to tell these centres apart from each other. Somewhat ironically, the result of an Outer London Commission was the desire expressed by councils to avoid a “super hub” policy of expanding or creating new metropolitan centres. But given the history of the development of these centres, it would really have been a continuation of the status quo. Surrounding these metropolitan centres is a complex network of smaller centres –the London ‘villages’ we often speak about– within large swathes of suburban housing and higher density social housing. It might be overlooked, but Outer London was home to the new industries of the interwar years and has several sites of former and current industrial use, such as the Ford plant at Dagenham and Heathrow Airport.

The London Underground and suburban rail networks radiate deep into Outer London, but some areas are also served by trains on lines from outside London creating strange transport paradoxes and inequalities. For example outlying Surbiton, Upminster and Orpington have rail connections to central London in 20 minutes; quicker than a bus journey to the nearest metropolitan centre. Elsewhere that journey time might not be matched, but there is usually a high frequency of service. However, some areas form black holes of poor access. In the last 20 years tentative attempts have been made to correct the balance between radial and orbital services with the tram network centred on Croydon the most significant to be realised. Other outer centres rely predominantly on bus services along roads with severe congestion and pollution problems. Outer London therefore has varying levels of connectivity to the centre and to its own network of significant centres.

As alluded to by the Outer London Commission, the success of these major centres comes at the expense of some of the smaller district centres. Some high streets have resiliently changed from moribund retail that can be found cheaper online to other uses, such as casual dining. This has occurred in the older established suburbs that have been rediscovered by affluent gentrifiers. However many outer London high streets in poorer neighbourhoods offer little other than budget chains and takeaway food shops. This is where the £50m Outer London Fund will step in. However, many areas require huge changes to encourage local spending and to prevent the draw from the centre, such as improved orbital transport infrastructure and urban reconfiguring. For the time being there is neither sufficient money nor political will to make that happen, despite this attempt to ameliorate for the worst effects of economic decline.

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